After decades of false starts and experimentation, augmented reality finally hit the mainstream last year thanks to Niantic’s summer smash, Pokémon Go. It was a potent mix of gripping gameplay on accessible hardware, and its mobile DNA meant it could be played anywhere, anytime.
The AR market is only going to get bigger, too, as this year has seen both Apple and Google release their very own augmented reality dev kits, ARKit for iOS and ARCore for Android. But while Google’s ARCore is certainly exciting, the number of supported devices in consumer hands – Google’s own Pixel phones and Samsung’s Galaxy S8 – pales in comparison to the numbers of iPhones, with all models launched in the last two years supporting ARKit, and that gives Apple a crucial headstart.
“ARKit is a huge deal,” Kuju’s head of studios Brynley Gibson tells MCV. “Although not as all-encompassing as people had hoped for, Apple has clarified its commitment to AR with its new handsets and the ARKit middleware. Their earlier roll out of ARKit has already seen some wonderful looking tech demos and it was not surprising to see Google follow quickstep with their announcement of ARCore. Both platforms will help build AR as a serious public-facing business.”
Simon Gardner, CEO of Climax Studios, agrees, saying ARKit “should be pretty big” due to having such a large user base. “The potential Day One installed base of Apple devices able to run ARKit is north of 380m units. That’s a game changer for a new platform, and with ARCore coming in March 2018, the mobile AR market has real potential.”
Indeed, founder and CEO of Dream Reality Interactive (DRI) Dave Ranyard says having this many devices in your addressable market “gives a lot of confidence to developers like DRI because we can be more confident about breaking even on a new title or IP.”
That’s not to say ARCore will be dead on arrival come March, however, as Gardner is confident Google’s tech will be “equally important” as long as it works across a similar range of devices. “It will allow hundreds of millions of people to experience true AR for the first time,” he adds. “None of the usual iOS vs Android commercial issues will go away, though, I expect.”
Studios are certainly confident about the potential of AR, then, but they’re split over whether it’s currently a better investment than its closely-related cousin, VR.
“Ask me next quarter,” says Gardner. “Everything in the creative industries is a risk. Like VR before it, the success of AR will be about getting across the message of its existence, but the real advantage is the more social and inclusive nature of smartphone AR. You can easily show friends your latest AR game and hand them the device with minimal instruction.”
Ranyard shares a similar opinion: “The markets are clearly of different sizes, and the audiences are very different. Think of PC vs mobile gaming as a similar question. There are some commonalities to the tech and the creative, but there are differences as well. The risk and reward need to be balanced with the type of game or experience being created – it’ll be different for each studio. For us, we have a lot of experience in both AR and VR, so ARKit is a great fit for our skillset.”
For Gibson, there’s a fear the best AR experiences will fall into the same problem as current VR headsets, in that they’ll only be available on the most expensive handsets, thereby limiting the user base even further.
“This will only be for a fraction of the time compared to VR, though,” he adds. “More importantly, developers need to work out what makes AR unique, which clearly takes time and experimentation. Meanwhile, users need to discover what their occasions of play are for AR – where does it fit into their life?
"VR is still going to be huge in entertainment, but AR and mixed reality could well become mass-market more quickly."Brynley Gibson, Kuju
“Ultimately, I believe AR will become a go-to experience in mobile gaming for several reasons. Consumers don’t need to buy a dedicated headset, they don’t need space and they’re not closed off from the real world like they are with VR. AR will also benefit from all the learning so far in mobile gaming, including retention and analytics. And while we’re confident that VR is still going to be huge in entertainment, offering something truly unique, AR and mixed reality could well become mass-market more quickly.”
One thing they’re not worried about, however, is storefront visibility. “Apple seem to have made a good start on dividing out the AR store space and seem to be making a concerted effort to get the AR message out into both the specialist and mainstream media,” says Gardner, and Ranyard agrees:
“My understanding is that AR is of strategic importance to all the platforms, so I do not see this as a concern,” he says. “We need to learn what consumers like and how they want to engage with AR. Remember when mobile games all had virtual joysticks? Then developers tried different touch mechanics and consumers voted for their favourites with downloads.”
Gibson, meanwhile, feels like it’s a bit too early to tell whether more needs to be done to help AR games stand out on mobile storefronts, but says the current situation is certainly encouraging: “VR hasn’t had a major problem with this, so I don’t think AR will.”
Having the technology to make mobile AR games is one thing, but as with any new platform, creating a compelling experience that keep players coming back for more is quite a different proposition. In Climax’s case, it chose to focus on the physicality of moving a device around a central play space.
“With ARise, we use ARKit functionality to actually control the game,” Gardner explains. “You only have to tap the screen once at the start to select the level and then it is all about moving the device to solve the puzzles. It uses the system to know where the player is actually looking to a fine degree, and we use perspective and overlapping objects to unlock puzzles.”
The response has been “very positive,” too, he adds. “One surprise issue was that some people didn’t realise the camera has to be uncovered and in some cases, they inadvertently cover the lens. Once that was understood, the majority of customers seem happy and the reviews have been good. And the initial sales, over the short time we have been out, are high.”
It’s still early days for Apple’s ARKit, of course, but Gardner says to never underestimate the benefits of getting onto a platform quickly.
“It’s massively important,” he says. “By seizing the ARKit opportunity early, we made some space and created awareness that in the past we might have found difficult. We have been very active in getting the game in front of media at press events and have had great coverage across games, technology and general press. We were even lucky enough to meet Tim Cook during his recent visit to London.”
Pictured above: Climax Studios’ ARise make use of ARKit functionality to control the game
It wasn’t hard to demonstrate the game, Gardner adds, as the very nature of augmented reality makes it much easier to demo than one of the studio’s typical VR titles.
“We have found that ARise has been simpler to both demo and make marketing materials for, such as videos,” says Gardner. “By being able to show people actually playing the game and moving the device around, they can get a sense of the game style and the way you play it. The smiles in our promo videos of people playing the game are genuine – they were playing the game and enjoying it.”
Dream Reality Interactive, on the other hand, has taken a slightly different approach to AR with its yet-unreleased title, Orbu.
“Remember the beer drinking apps of the early App Store? That’s where we are with AR,” says Ranyard. “I have made AR games for well over ten years; there is a mind-set shift in making them and creating interactions. The touch interface to AR with iPhone is actually very useable and simple; I think we will quickly see deeper, repeatable mechanics. This is something we have focused on with Orbu.”
In the latter, players must navigate a Japanese-themed garden by interacting with the real world environment, using a simple slingshot mechanic to direct the game’s titular creature around the world. Feeding fish and other animals by knocking food toward them as they travel will also earn them rewards as they solve puzzles and discover hidden items.
“The ease of use of ARKit for development and for consumers is so much better than anything I have worked on in the past, I just see possibilities,” Ranyard continues. “I think we will see some AR games that match Minecraft, Candy Crush and Clash of Clans, but it may take time for them to surface. When working on new tech or platforms I always say: do one simple mechanic really well. This is our approach to ARKit. With this we can learn and then build on it to develop more complex and layered mechanics over time.”
Pictured above: Dream Reality Interactive's yet-unreleased AR title Orbu
Indeed, as long as AR is an integral part of the game and avoids simple gimmickry, then AR titles should have a bright future, regardless of whether they have a household brand attached to them, says Gibson:
“It’s an exciting time for any studio with expertise in this sector,” he says. “AR is being billed as revolutionary for mobile gaming – and other applications – and it feels like now that the technology is part of core device functionality we are about to take a big step towards the mainstream. Yes, Pokémon Go did that to some extent, but it was primarily a geo game with an immensely popular brand attached. Regardless, it teased to consumers the possibility of how magical and exciting AR can be.
“As with any emerging format, there are challenges ahead for developers planning to dip their toes in the sector. We need to learn what works and find the best types of games that work for AR where it is part of the gameplay. Having worked on camera games going right back to EyeToy, and combined with our experience over the past couple of years in VR, we’re now working on new AR projects – including the recently announced AR game for Conspexit. We can’t really talk about the game at this stage, but I think we can say immersive technologies used in all walks of life shows how there’s nothing it can’t be used for.
“We’re also working with Ralph Creative to bring AR and VR experiences to brands outside of gaming. There is a huge interest as marketing departments and more can see the potential of using AR and VR in all sorts of applications. Brand work is always important to help build a new medium as marketers have the money to try new ways to engage people. Users get content and developers get to eat plus grow their skills. This all leads to great original content being created down the line.”
Whether AR will ever return to consoles, however, is debatable. “There are quite a lot of cameras out there,” says Ranyard. “The instruction of AR to a mainstream audience could increase awareness for console owners. Let’s see what happens. Maybe in the early stages of AR, we’ll see console titles connect with mobile AR apps for certain features.”
Indeed, Ranyard posits that had his Wonderbook project for the PS3 been made for mobile back when he worked at SCE London Studio, it might have found a much more natural audience.
“The reception to Wonderbook was awesome,” he says. “Ultimately, I think it was on a gamer platform, whereas the younger audience it was designed for had graduated to phones and tablets. Had the camera been included, I suspect Wonderbook would have continued and still be around.
“I see slices of these older console games becoming very successful on mobile, though. Look at Musical.ly. It’s the user-generated content video upload feature of SingStar from the PS3 days, but streamlined and designed for mobile. I see similar things happening with Wonderbook features and mobile AR.”
"AR will become integral to our modern lives, just like photos and videos have become on smartphones."Dave Ranyard, DRI
Gardner goes as far as saying that AR might even replace consoles at some point: “I truly believe that AR hardware will become so ubiquitous that it will replace all of the screens in your life, and so by definition, the technology will become a replacement for consoles,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean everybody will be running around the world killing zombies. There will still be a place for games limited to a static, framed screen.”
He adds it will eventually become “a ubiquitous technology” used for everything from business and news to social and entertainment: “The ability to reduce friction in the delivery of information and entertainment will be irresistible to most people. It has started in business – HoloLens – and will continue as the technology gets smaller, lighter and cooler. As a disruptor technology, it will unify our use of current screen devices into one handy portable package – AR glasses. There are many technological issues to overcome, but they will happen. It’s just a question of when. I’d probably say more than two years.”
Gibson and Ranyard are both in agreement: “AR will be always on, all the time,” says Gibson. “Your life will be augmented, from the simplicity of glancing at clock and calendar appointments to deeper training and work. Some form of wearable such as specs makes sense. I can see everyone playing AR all the time on their own and with others. It is hard to overstate how big AR is going to be.”
Ranyard adds: “AR will become integral to our modern lives, just like photos and videos have become on smartphones. Just like we’ve all become used to using maps on our phones, in a few years’ time we’ll all wonder how we managed without AR.”