Niantic is too focused on AR, and it is hurting Pokémon GO

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I really don’t like Augmented Reality (AR) in games. From half baked interactions, awkward gameplay loops, to the sheer weirdness of using a phone in public and trying to scoot around the real world to play. It just doesn’t feel right.

I don’t necessarily hate it, but I certainly do not love it. I don’t even like it, I begrudgingly use it if I have to, and I try to make sure it doesn’t get in my way. Apparently, I am not alone in this sentiment, as shown in a recent Twitter poll we conducted:

The results of the poll are quite intriguing, and they paint a clear picture concerning the importance of Augmented Reality (AR) in gameplay, particularly in the context of games like Pokémon GO.

Problems with AR

The overwhelming majority of voters, 88.7%, indicate that they “don’t care at all” about AR as a gameplay component. To me, this confirms the suspicion that that for most players, AR features are not a central aspect of their gaming experience.

There are a lot of reasons why:

  1. Practicality and Convenience: AR can sometimes be less convenient than traditional gameplay, especially when playing in public places or moving around. Some players might prefer a more straightforward, less immersive experience that doesn’t require them to hold up their phones in specific ways or be in certain environments.
  2. Battery and Data Usage: AR is known to consume more battery and data. This might be a significant deterrent for players who are conscious about their device’s battery life or have limited data plans.
  3. Gimmick versus Gameplay: Some players might view AR as more of a gimmick rather than a feature that genuinely enhances gameplay. They may find traditional gameplay mechanics more engaging or rewarding.
  4. Accessibility and Inclusivity: Not everyone can or wants to engage with AR features due to various reasons, including physical limitations, privacy concerns, or simply personal preference.

Even the most AR-loving among us say the same:

Of course, one can argue that the poll results are skewed, that we are introducing bias and self-bias into the data, and that 6.5k people is not a large enough sample to answer this question. Unfortunately, we do not have a good answer for this. The results are what they are, and we are presenting them as such.

Why is Niantic doing AR at all?

With all of this being said, there is a question that needs to be asked: why is Niantic focusing on AR so much? What’s the end goal here?

Before we try to answer that, we have to understand that AR for Niantic includes a lot more than the stuff we see through the in-app camera.

Niantic’s AR platform is completely free?

Niantic’s AR platform includes the following tools:

  • – a platform powering all of the Niantic AR capabilities, and it includes the AR Development Kit (covers all the AR interactions), a mapping solution (the overworld map), and their Visual Positioning System (VPS), which can position things in AR space
  • 8thwall – a product focused on WebAR which strikes us as a way Niantic is currently making money from Lightship, since it looks like most parts of the Lightship ARDK are completely free 

All of this things interplay to create a vision for Niantic as a company, and it looks like they are dead set on this road. But this is not what is confusing, the confusing part is this:

  • Niantic is not offering their POI database as a product. They are offering the overworld map, a solution to build AR experiences, and a system to build WebAR experiences
  • Everything they are offering is more or less free. Where’s the money coming in from these things?

To be frank, at this point, we don’t see a reason for their continued investment into ARDK and VPS. The products are in open beta, or in a production ready state, and they are completely free to use. How does this make any sense business wise?

Honestly, we have no idea. Here’s a pricing table from their Lightship website:

Niantic ARDK pricing in December 2023

Free. Everything is free. The heck is going on here?

A mixed bag of ambient occlusion

After going through everything Niantic offers in their AR product lineup, and after going over the features that launched in Pokémon GO over the past few months, I really think something odd is happening at the company.

It seems like the company is trying to create a product based around a technology that is in its infancy, and that requires at least 4x-5x the number of engineers Niantic currently has.

Niantic launched Lightship 18 months ago, at the Niantic Lightship Summit, and it seems we are at least another 18 months away from having a product they deem worthy of being paid for. Couple that with the recent layoff of 230 employees, and a different perspective begins to form.

We strongly believe that Niantic overextended into AR space, and underestimated the sheer amount of data and people needed to build their visionary AR map of the whole world.

This has had negative effects to other Niantic products, like Pokémon GO and Ingress, whose 2023 roadmaps were paper-thin at best. Features were launched in a buggy state, most of the features launched were not engaging to the core Pokémon audience, and there is a behind-the-scene story worth exploring here.

What happens next?

We have no idea, but we do think that Niantic will not give up on AR so easily. Although they are aware of these challenges, they still believe that AR is the way to go, at least judging by the organizational update written by John Hanke on June 29, 2023.

That entire letter reads as a very convoluted way of saying “we love AR, and we will not stop”, but there is at least one sentence that makes us a bit optimistic about the state of Pokémon GO:

The top priority is to keep Pokémon GO healthy and growing as a forever game. While we made some adjustments to the Pokémon GO team, our investment in the product and team continues to grow.

The top priority is to keep Pokémon GO healthy and growing as a forever game. While we made some adjustments to the Pokémon GO team, our investment in the product and team continues to grow.

I truly hope that someone from Niantic sees the poll we shared above and challenges their vision. Either they are genius and we are completely wrong about AR, or they are completely misguided by shiny gadgets like Meta Quest Pro and Apple Vision Pro.

It seems silly and dangerous to bet on a technology that makes almost zero revenue, whilst letting your core products deteriorate. Niantic may have started as a technology company, but they are now far outgrown their initial niche. They are a gaming company now, and they should behave as one.

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Zeroghan started the Hub in July 2016 and hasn't had much sleep since. A lover of all things Pokémon, web development, and writing.

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