There’s news out of the world of AR gaming today. Niantic, makers of the wildly popular Pokémon GO and the upcoming Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, announced a complete revamp of its first game, Ingress. Ingress is a sci-fi title with a lot of the same location-based gameplay as Pokémon GO but without the blockbuster IP, and it was one of the most interesting games on the market long before Pokémon GO hit the scene. Niantic is trying to bring some of the lessons learned with its newer game to Ingress, and in the process entice some newer players who might have been intimidated by the less-approachable title. The new effort will be called Ingress Prime.
I’ll definitely give the thing another roll: I only briefly tried the original incarnation of the game, and I’d like to see what Niantic can do with a revamp. It raises an interesting problem unique to the AR space, however. When other companies launch mobile games, they can comfortably coexist with an existing catalog. It’s why Supercell, for example, has seen great success releasing games in different genres: it’s pretty easy to play some rounds of Clash Royale while you wait to train your army in Clash of Clans. Niantic’s games, however, will inevitably have a difficult time playing together. Even if there are strong cross-title promotions (like there should be), these are games where you can really only play one at a time — Pokémon GO has a rough time running in the background. It means that time spent playing Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is time not spent playing Pokemon GO or Ingress Prime.
For right now, experimenting with Ingress Prime should work pretty well with the way I play Pokémon GO, which is to say: occasionally. That in itself makes for a nice little synergy, though it does to some degree rely on the fact that Niantic struggles to hold attention in Pokémon GO in between events. But it will be very difficult to play both of these games in any sort of committed way without two phones, and that means that some degree of cannibalization and fragmentation is inevitable. It’s a problem that’s only going to get worse when Harry Potter: Wizards Unite comes out in 2018. When that game comes out I’ll be beating the pavement collecting Boggarts or whatever, and that will mean much less time, if any, available for Pokémon GO.
The early days of Pokémon GO showed that the ceiling for just how many people want to play these games is very, very high. With that in mind, it makes sense to try to capture as many people as possible with as wide a range of games as possible, and from that perspective, Niantic is probably going about this the right way. But there is a core group of highly committed players — call them whales, if you must — that will be splitting their time between two or three of these games, but not necessarily increasing their total time spent wandering real streets in search of virtual rewards. I would be pretty surprised if Pokémon GO revenue didn’t take a hit during the release window for Harry Potter: Wizards Unite as all these players spend at least a week or so checking out the new title.
It points to a broader concept that works in Niantic’s favor: competitors outside of Niantic’s ecosystem will likely struggle even more than these three games to woo players over to new titles. The rest of the video game world strikes uneasy truces, even as publishers push a games-as-service model that makes it more difficult to play multiple games at once: people still manage it. But AR games are likely to be fiercely competitive because of the particular kind of commitment they ask from players. People will inevitably trend towards one game as a primary, with others sitting in an ancillary role at best. Of course, that might mean we’ll be even more likely to buy premium items to stay current in all of them…
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