Nick Griffiths is disappointed with Pokemon GO. Niantic’s followup to Ingress took advantage of Nintendo’s hugely popular franchise, marrying its characters and concepts with the company’s experience with location-based software. But for Nick, GO didn’t quite hit the mark.
“The depth in GO is obviously a problem. I’m a massive Nintendo fan and therefore a massive Pokemon fan as well, and I was inherently disappointed with a lot of things it provided. It’s selling this big dream of real-world Pokemon catching, and in the beginning everyone is enamored with the AR, and then you end up turning it off and figuring out the grind is horrible. It didn’t feel at all like a Nintendo game, which is always inherently fun to play!”
Coincidentally, for the past three years, Griffiths has also been working on a real-world game which utilises location data. The game is a giant, real-world version of Monopoly called Buy Somewhere. In Buy Somewhere, players acquire collectibles on their travels and compete for ownership of real-world buildings: homes, bars, offices, iconic landmarks, and more. Griffiths and his team officially revealed the game at PAX Australia 2016.
“Five years ago I was working on a maps-based project with Google called Build with Chrome. It was a partnership with LEGO where you could choose a plot of land and build structures on it, and immediately I was like, “ping”! I never really thought of what you could do with the Google Maps API to that kind of capacity, so my gears started spinning.”
Griffiths and his initial partners met on the location-based project, and now he and a team of 16 artists, programmers, and producers are working on Buy Somewhere in Sydney. “Even though this is a game created with data, we wanted it to feel like a level designer had gone through and placed everything individually. With Google’s API you get things all over the shop, and for it to feel like a game world you actually have to do all this kind of stuff on the back end. So, we had to build our own layout engine that has all these different rules that basically creates these beautifully curated environments. It’s taken us 3 years to just build the engine, but now 99.9 percent of everything in-game is curated automatically”.
“We wanted the feeling of different kinds of areas to come along in the actual scale of what you saw. So if you’re in a residential zone, it’d be clear and easy to digest everything around you, little green houses laid out across grid roads and stuff. When you’re in the city you really feel like you’re in this concrete jungle, as opposed to a world that feels the same wherever you are. And we’ve taken that logic to places like beaches as well. There’s topography we’ve built into the game, so paths are actually raised off the ground whereas waterbeds and beaches slant into the water, so the environment is quite diverse, and it’s all automatically generated.”
At a glance, the game’s early screenshots show a map populated with swaths of physical, three-dimensional models of residential and commercial buildings, visually reminiscent of both a city-building game as well as pieces from Monopoly, the game Buy Somewhere takes heavy cues from. The map also features uniquely-modeled landmarks to represent a scale version of their real-world counterparts, like the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House.
“I think that when you get in there and you see locations that you recognize, the environment becomes quite fun in itself”, Griffiths explains. “You can’t see the Harbour Bridge in Pokemon GO, and everything is the same color. If you took the map away in GO it would be the same game. You could still see the direction your trainer is facing and walk towards a Pokestop. The map itself is really useless.”
Griffiths believes this is Buy Somewhere’s key difference and fundamental hook. “When we show people the game the first thing they do is look for locations they know. There’s my house! Who owns it? The concept of owning representations of real world property resonated with everybody we talked to. There’s an element of exploration to the map itself, this recreation of the real world that I don’t think anybody has ever really seen before. Something that Ingress doesn’t have, that Pokemon GO doesn’t have.”
Griffiths also seems to feel grateful to have witnessed Ingress and Pokemon GO pave the way for real-world games, as it enabled his team to immediately identify and address some of the major pitfalls of this young genre. “One of my biggest qualms when I first started playing Ingress was that portals were few and far between. So, one of the things we considered a lot very early on was the venues that people would play.” Griffiths spoke at length about the experience of playing real-world games in rural areas and on transport: “When you’re building a game that truly represents where things are in real life, you have to consider what it’s going to be like when the player is in one location for a really long period of time, or when they’re going on a road trip and if they’re sitting in the passenger seat–that they can be doing something that is entertaining and also contributes to the game’s overall goal.”
Because of the game’s representations of real-world buildings, a number of in-game property assets already exist in small towns, cities, and suburbs, of which people are encouraged to acquire as much as they feasibly can, thanks to Buy Somewhere’s Monopoly-style game loop. Griffith believes this will assist in giving people something to do when they’re not travelling: “When you have a base property collection in Buy Somewhere there’s a game to be had in the managing of those properties. So you can sit at home at the end of the day after having gone out and bought and traded properties, come back, and manage your portfolio–buff your properties, collect rent. It’s basically a resource management game at that point.”
Following on from his remark regarding Pokemon GO not feeling like a Nintendo game. Griffiths cited strong Nintendo influences with Buy Somewhere in both its character design, attention to detail, and philosophy in creating something fun.
“A lot of it is about how we approached game balancing, from a luck, skill, persistence perspective. There’s a lot of satisfying collection that goes on in the game to collect resources that are then used on your properties, and not everything 100% depends on the skill or strategy that the player applies. So if you’re not a min-maxer, there are opportunities to roll good numbers and have great results as well. Think about how the guy coming 8th in Mario Kart gets better items, so that it’s fun for everybody. We’re looking to apply that thinking to the style of play that we end up settling on.”
Buy Somewhere is still in development, but the team reported to have a large amount of interest at PAX Australia 2016, where they ran a real-life version of the game on the show floor. Buy Somewhere is currently accepting sign-ups for their upcoming beta.