Pokémon Go and the Power of Maps

If you want to catch 'em all, you need to find them first.

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By Randy Meech

Brendon Thorne | Getty Images

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Pokémon Go came out of nowhere and in a little over a week surpassed the number of downloads that games like Candy Crush Saga took years to build. While the game owes its success to multiple factors, including a flagship brand and decent dose of nostalgia, its ability to incorporate gameplay seamlessly into real life sets it apart.

Augmented reality has been a conversation in gaming for years, but has largely remained niche. Pokémon Go is the first time this technology has caught on for a large mainstream audience because of the great execution of the Niantic team. However, their success is not because Pokémon Go features a particularly advanced form of AR, but because of their mastery of a real-life map as the playing board. The game integrates easily into the daily lives of players who only need to make minor changes to their lifestyle: they can advance in the game while walking to work, running errands, or hanging out with friends. This is possible because of the game's mapping function already recognizable to smartphone users.

For many gaming developers, especially the independent gaming community that has benefited significantly from the popularity of mobile games, maps pose a huge challenge. Technology leaders like Apple and Google have invested billions of dollars and multiple years to build proprietary mapping solutions from the ground up. One thing is sure: great mapping technology is not built overnight.

Related: 4 Things Online Business Owners Can Learn From Pokémon Go

The Pokémon team has an impressive mapping resume. Niantic CEO John Hanke was acquired into Google through Keyhole and ran Google Maps for years. Before Niantic spun out of Google, they created Ingress, a similar game where users interacted in the real world on top of Google Maps. And while the team has yet to publicly credit the source of its mapping data, a Google connection seems likely.

Pokémon Go has changed the future of gaming. Fans are already asking for copycat apps created for a range of popular brands. Developers have an opportunity to add a creative AR layer to pre-existing apps or create new ones entirely from scratch. But how should they approach the mapping conundrum?

App developers who use Google and Apple maps for display might be surprised to learn that both companies restrict access to the raw data necessary to build a game like Pokémon Go. Most developers are not in a financial position to do the deals necessary to get access to this data from a suitable mapping provider. Will AR and games be restricted to those with access to large companies and their resources?

The majority of game developers, especially indie developers, are better served by relying on the open mapping community. Resources like OpenStreetMap, a wikipedia-like map run by an global community, will prove to be a powerful dataset for creative applications like AR due to its less restrictive nature. Additionally, multiple cities like New York, San Francisco, and others are proactively opening up their mapping data. As other cities realize the immense benefits of this (outside of supporting really fun games), more will follow.

Related: 3 Ways to Level Up Your Marketing With Pokemon Go

Pokémon Go plants us firmly in the next era of gaming and AR. When starting to develop similar titles, developers must think strategically about their supporting technology and how it aids in the adoption of their games. How maps are incorporated into game play and where this mapping data comes from are vital considerations, but developers shouldn't be stumped for a lack of resources.

Randy Meech

CEO of Mapzen

Randy Meech is CEO of Mapzen, an open source mapping lab based in New York City. Mapzen builds mobile apps and services using all open software and data and is working to provide collaborative solutions for geocoding, navigation and vector rendering.

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