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Pixona and Pokemon Go

August 16, 2016

So, in my life there are at least a few times where things didn’t reach their full potential;

Pokemon Go is pretty popular (at this moment, it is more popular than twitter, and some reports are even saying it’s getting used more than facebook). When I first heard about the game, and even its predecessor (Ingress, Niantic’s previous game), I thought “that’s cool…but hey that’s like my game”….

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I am not in anyway trying to say “I had this idea first, I am grumpy because I should be rich” or “I had this idea first therefore I am great”, not by any stretch, I am sure I wasn’t the first to have an idea like Pokemon Go, I (like many other people) just didn’t build it.

Colonies:

First let’s look at the game I wanted to make, it will be a long story, that starts way back in 2010 (it may have even been 2009) when I started designing the game. While working at Lucasarts I saw the farmville craze and couldn’t understand why our company wasn’t taking advantage of this kind of market on both facebook and mobile. So I came up with a game pitch in my own time (it was called “Star Wars: colonies”) that you could play on Facebook and on your phone, and depending on how you started your game you could either play in any of three game styles, pick a Farmer to play Farmville, bounty hunter to play something more akin to Xcom, or a Pilot to play a space RTS/Logistics/Trading game. While all three felt like different games they were actually the same game with three entry points. your character choice simply dictated the section of the game you would be exposed to first.

It was also multiplayer, so a one player could enlist the help of another and pay them for their time. For example. my farm might come under attack from another player who is fulfilling a randomly generated mission (steal 3 Banthas or whatever). not wanting to lose those Banthas I woud have a short period of time to put up a ransom for other players to help defend my farm (along with the auto turrets and things I had already built to protect myself).  If someone wanted to earn the ransom for helping protect my farm, that player would come in and play a multiplayer game of XCom in my level…so two players I have never met fighting in my farm…which is still a pretty cool idea…On top of that there was a space trading game, you could build fleets of spaceships and run deliveries for the farmers, or fly bounty hunters around the galaxy (or maybe you see a planet with an order for 3 Banthas, so you would then generate the mission above by offering a job for bounty random hunters).

If you didn’t get the bounty hunter to the right space in time, or failed to deliver the blue milk before it expired you wouldn’t get paid for the job. You could also set up pirate fleets to add to the AI pirates, and leave them stationed on popular space routes. What was also cool was that a farmer could buy a spaceship, build up a band of bounty hunter friends, in just the same way that a Pilot could save their money and buy a small farm…eventually you could in theory run all three career paths yourself…but that would probably be pretty hard core. I still think it’s a cool as shit game design…but the scope of it is kind of big! and without the Star Wars franchise it might be a hard sell.

Further Developments at the Corporation:

What made this interesting was that Paul Meegan became our new president at some point after I had pitched this design to my boss in Singapore. Paul was in the USA planning the future for the company, while we were filling our time with various things a lot of which were bundled under the title of “training”. When the plan was eventually unveiled to us, it was interestingly similar to what I had already designed, a space trading game, an FPS, a strategy game, and a Farmville game…all separate titles on different platforms that would somehow link together. In no way had my design influenced him, I am sure he had no idea who I was, and certainly didn’t appear to have much interest in the input of people like me (in his defence it was a big company, so it would probably be impossible to give everyone a voice – as it would slow down an already slow and very very expensive process).

The colonies concept was lost/ignored, and Lucasarts Singapore may or “may not” have got started on the Farmville portion of the above (See I am tryin to stick to my NDA). I was not involved in this project, (Kotaku Reveals Outpost).

There was a problem in that the details of how the games were going to link together were never really figured out, and the fact that their launch dates would be so important to each other meant that each game became a dependency to the other, as schedules went all over the place the games eventually broke off, and the idea of them being interlinked also got cut.

I was working on all kinds of other things, but did try to pitch a version of the strategy game, which was kind of a fun challenge to design…how to make an RTS based on what was happening in an FPS, I think the high level was that you were supposed to manage the battlefield from your phone and help the players in the FPS, but that made it feel like a companion app, I was more interested in making it a game…so you would have your squads, which would be small representations of parties from the FPS, you could select parties and favourite them, so this was a bit like building a deck in a card battle game – you would try to build your squads from the worlds best players….these squads would then fight other squads (really very slowly) and the kill death ratios in the FPS would determine which squads won and lost in the RTS. There were some little design things to make it so it wouldn’t stop working when players weren’t playing. Because the games had to feed into each other if you were being used in squads in the RTS, you got extra XP and stuff…but that was hard to figure out because the FPS didn’t really have it’s meta-game systems figured out at that point.

So yeah, getting back to the point!  I carried on with the space trading design, and updated it (still in 2010) to become a standalone 4X game, with a GPS feature, looking back at my design doc it says “This is the Killer Feature!” directly above the description for what is essentially Pokemon go / Ingress.

So you would earn resources to build your space fleet (either in the single player game or from holding real world Galaxies). You would then walk around and go to Dimensional portals, here you would send your spaceships through to do battle…you wouldn’t know what was on the other side, you would just know who owned that galaxy. If your fleet was stronger they would be defeated and you would take the galaxy, otherwise you might just damage them.

owning a galaxy earns resources, if you are attacked you get a push notifications and can reinforce the galaxy. Every time a galaxy changes owners its resource generation output would be increased, making huge hot spots that people want to fight over….I remember speaking to my boss and mentioning that special spots like “McDonalds” and “Starbucks” could become sponsored galaxies, and would automatically have higher values than other galaxies around them, cause people to come to their stores! (just like McDonalds an Pokemon Go) finally I had the plan for AR, but it seemed tricky, because I wanted to hold my phone up in McDonalds and see peoples fleets flying though the sky and entering the battle…getting peoples real world positions (so things spawn from their hands) would be super hard, and probably not worth the effort, so rather than do something half baked I thought we should probably leave the AR bit for later. (I think the AR in pokemon is little more than a gimmick). While my design doesn’t have collecting, it had research trees instead, and more co-operative elements which promotes deeper social play (something missing in the current version of Pokemon Go). It also had star wars as a franchise…and a few other cool innovations here and there. So I never imagined it would be super huge, but I thought it would have been a fun and innovative game. Like so many things at big companies, it was just brushed aside and left under a pile of virtual files to collect dust.

And then…

So what is my point in this post? I think ideas are not the core of everything, acting on them is a lot more important, I am sure 1000 people have had the same idea, maybe they even had a go at making it! Niantic had the funding, and the brand to make pokemon go a success. The execution of their game is actually not all that great, and they are missing a lot of core features that would make it substantially better. I don’t really understand how it cost 30 million to build their company and publish 3 products, it seems like something that could be done for a fraction of the cost…but still a high cost none the less.

So in short, I missed out on making my own Pokemon Go, because of many factors, none of which I could reasonably expected to have overcome. I could never have made that game because I never had the opportunity, people or the funding, and as I have learned from  running my own company, chasing funding takes so much time, I may as well just not do it and just get on with making things appear on screen. Does the success of Pokemon Go it piss me off? not at all,  it makes me feel more confident in my other ideas. I had long ago given up on making that game, (despite redesigning it under a new name and new theme), it was just another title in the backlog of “things I will make one day”. Much like I would happily go back and make the farmville/spacetrader/bountyhunter game one of these days!

I could get more stuck up my own ass by talking about the “Kenner Star Wars” pitch/prototype that I developed over a year before skylanders and 3 years before Disney Infinity. A project with a toys to life spin that was stopped after gaining a lot of momentum. At an important meeting on the road to greenlight any hopes of making it were crushed by a person who said something along the lines of “I don’t really get it, I never played with toys growing up, so I don’t understand why people collect toys”. I wish I could share the video of that game…it was the most killer pitch I ever  put together (I don’t have it).

So, I guess the only thing that scares me is that our game “Pixona” is probably the best idea I have had for a game…and just like Pokemon Go, or even the Toys-To-Life genre, I am sure many people out there have had the same idea! we have been sitting on Pixona for 3 years, we even own the US trademark! The problem is, we never get our heads high enough above water to make it. Let’s hope that our next game, get’s us the breathing room to step back and make Pixona, something we believe can have a real impact on the people who play it, and give them a new way of playing games. (even if someone else makes it, I guess our execution will be very unique and special…but still I don’t want to be in a secondary position)

After that maybe I will get round to the other crazy ideas I have like fixing the record industry with a new media format, or making a platform for crowd sourcing/game dev unlike anything else out there…I guess it’s good to aim big, but if you don’t ever get to try these things it can lead to a life of disappointment.

VRmockup

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2 Comments
  1. Daniel permalink

    We had a group of students who got a grade 2,3 (on a scale of 1-4 where 4 is realy bad) for a monster game like Pokemon GO 3 years ago but they didn’t finish it because their prof said it wouldn’t work out. But i realy think that this kind of game just works for something like Pokémon because it created a huge fanbase over more 15 years. Same with your star wars game. It’s a great game but only-as you mentioned- only with the franchise.

    I played and still play the old LucasGames from my childhood like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That was great Pixel Art 😀

    Interesting blog!

    • I agree that the IP makes a massive difference, having a huge player base is essential for a game like that. It’s why so many multiplayer only console games/PC games just die a horrible death…no players…no game!

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