Pokémon GO is a runaway hit, one that few people could have dimensioned completely. Personally, it’s a game that holds a lot of meaning; it’s an idea that I, along with my ex-business partners, tried to develop and sell for around 5 years before finally giving up and deciding it was not going to happen, at least not for us. The following is the untold story of the Chilean Pokémon GO that could have been: A story about dreams, battles, PlayStation, Pikachus on the beach and a tall French guy in kilt.
A Dream at the Edge of the World
In 2007, then in college, some classmates and I decided that we wanted to make video games professionally and asked (Pleaded! Demanded!) our Computer Science Department to create a course about that. Early the next year it happened! But sadly it was, as we say in my country, “as boring as listening to a chess match on the radio”. Our teacher had made many Feature Phone games (Smartphones were not a thing yet!), but he could not teach Game Design to save his life.
Definitely the Edge of the World. Specially for Game Developers in 2008.
In one of his classes he asked us to sell him an idea for a game, and one random classmate suggested “hiding QR codes throughout a mall and give Players a Pokémon when they scanned them”. The idea itself wasn't bad, but it had many technical and logistic problems, so nobody really cared, except for my future business partner and me. We looked at each other knowing we were thinking exactly the same thing:
- What if we use GPS instead of QR codes?
- What if we map the game’s world to our city?
- What if we only show Water Pokémons at the beach?
- What if Legendary Pokémons only appear for a brief period of time at very specific places?
- What if this is the next BIG HIT?
So many possibilities with this design! We would talk endlessly about it, referring to it as “Pokémon with GPS”. Eventually, when Foursquare became a thing, we would explain it at GDC and other venues as “Pokémon meets Foursquare”.
Pikachus on the Beach
In the second half of 2008 I took another course in which the teacher, though amazing and talented, was as lazy as a Snorlax. He would ask us to pitch a project in August and then disappear until November to check the software and grade it. I got my grade next APRIL. My project was GPSmon (I know, super original!).
I developed a prototype in J2ME doing a copy of the battles in the original Game Boy game and mapping quadrants of my city, Viña del Mar, to spit out either Pikachus, Charmanders, Bulbasaurs or a picture of one of our Physics teachers, who kind of looks like a Weezing. And that was that! It worked! I could walk through beautiful Viña del Mar and find Pokémons, fight them and capture them (if their HP was low enough!). The prototype would log coordinates for each one in a convenient list. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever done and, as far as I knew, I was the first to capture a Pokémon in the real World.
The background for the battle was hardcoded for each quadrant. If the player was outside all known quadrants, he would get a blank background and a Dark Eevie. Bottom-left box is for commands; Bottom-right box is for messages. These are actual assets from the prototype.
I can’t express how I felt the first time I did a field test. I sat on the rocks by the sea, selected “Fight” and, after a brief loading in which my Feature Phone’s GPS deduced my position, Pikachu appeared as my enemy!
As far as I know, the first Pikachu ever captured in the real World appeared on these rocks overlooking the Pacific Ocean, in Viña del Mar, around October 2008.
Games in Cereal Boxes
The next year, in 2009, some classmates and I decided to create our own game development company, Mazorca Studios! We didn’t tackle the GPSmon project because nobody had GPS or data plan back then. What we did do was send e-mails to Sony telling them we wanted to make games for their platforms, so if they would be so kind to send us devkits, that would be really great. A PS3 and a PSP would suffice, though two of each would be nice! I think they laughed all the way to Japan before telling us to build the company and a portfolio to work with them in a couple of years.
While we worked on building our company, we tasked a younger group of developers with creating an improved version of my prototype. They changed the theme, making it darker, less cute. They called it Hidden City. This version was ok, but didn’t do much to advance the very basic technology I laid out in my first prototype.
"Hidden City" (Ciudad Oculta) was developed for Feature Phones using J2ME.
So the Pokémons went to sleep while my friends and I finished college and made a name for Mazorca Studios. We specialized in Augmented Reality Advergaming, doing a project for Rexona (kids, the dream of making motion-controlled games about deodorants can come true!) and another one for Nestlé’s breakfast cereal Chocapic. This portfolio and some other internal projects would get investors interested and we managed to create our second company, IguanaBee, aiming at leaving advergaming behind.
I never get tired of the kid's face. First time experiencing AR, in 2010!
Getting the Pokémons Back on the Streets
In 2011, with more game dev experience under the belt and Smartphone technology moving forward like lightning, we decided to resume work on Hidden City. This time the effort was much more professional, with a proper art proposal and changes in battle mechanics that took us away from being a Pokémon clone with a gimmick. Our aim was to create a new IP. We worked with many amazing people, eventually returning to a cuter, more approachable look. This new game was called Breachers, and to show off the idea we put together this teaser:
In early 2012 we took all of our projects to GDC along with other young Chilean companies. The Breachers teaser was playing in our stand non-stop. We explained the idea to everybody that seemed like a suit with decision power. We chased investors to sell them our idea… Everybody looked at us funny. They could not imagine that it could work. They could not imagine people getting off the couch to go find virtual creatures on the streets. We met with people from Google and their response was lukewarm, too.
In Breachers, the creatures needed to be defeated before they could be captured. Turn-based battles were changed to skill-based micro-games.
One of those GDC days I saw a tall French guy wearing a kilt, showing off his legs, walking aimlessly and looking lost (he was expecting more people to be wearing kilts that day). I explained Breachers to him and he was fascinated by it. He stayed longer than anybody else. He praised everything we had. He asked all kinds of questions, and seemed happy with our answers. He handed me his card: he was Ubisoft’s VP of new IPs! He told me to send him an e-mail after GDC. I felt like everything was working out, this would be our break! He never answered any of our e-mails. Would’ve been nice to get a “no, thanks”, but that’s life. Even more true for game dev life.
We also met with the Sony guys again. They loved how much we had accomplished as a team, our work on AR and our portfolio of ideas and prototypes. They loved Breachers! So they invited us to their PlayStation Destination event for Latin America, where they would hold a parallel developers’ event to try and match LATAM studios with their internal studios.
In July we were flying towards Mexico to try and get our games developed for PlayStation platforms. We clicked with the guys from Foster City (Uncharted, Sly Cooper). They really liked our projects. They liked Breachers, but were not completely sure about it. At that time, there were few games like this, all of them struggling to get and retain players. People didn’t seem to be interested in getting off the couch. GPS and data plans were still not quite there. They liked it, but couldn’t imagine it working. So they asked us to do something else; Breachers could wait for the second or third project together.
The Dream Dies Out
I had held on to the idea that now is Pokémon GO, and fought to make it a reality. But reality fought back. Hard. By late 2012 IguanaBee had many issues that made it impossible for me to be there, so I left for other adventures.
Eventually, after my departure, IguanaBee would release a game for PSVita payed for by Sony.
After that, the idea died off. That thrill I felt when Pikachu appeared to fight me, sitting on those rocks by the sea way back in 2008… I thought nobody would ever experience something like that again. I thought that people wouldn’t get off the couch. I thought somebody else would have to come up with the same idea. I thought somebody else would have to make it a reality.
At the time, I didn’t think it would be Nintendo, since they had been resisting entering the mobile market.
I’m a little frustrated we couldn’t be the first ones to release this game years ago. On the other hand, I can clearly see now that it wouldn’t have mattered: Without the actual Pokémon license, it would have been a pioneering game nobody would have played. People wouldn’t have gotten off the couch for a new, unknown IP. They will for a Pikachu. Some will even do it for their third Rattata.
Personally I've been finding WAY more Pidgeys.
It makes me happy, though, to see the actual game completed and released. I want to contrast our game design expectations to what Niantic has done, and to see how they have addressed the shortcomings we predicted. I also want to see if people will remain off the couch, or if they’ll sit back down in a week or two. But most of all, I want to see if the market Pokémon GO is opening up for location-based games will be just for them or if it’s a spark for more games to come, because I have more ideas and I want in!
Making games is hard. Making games from Latin America is like playing the game on Insane Difficulty. It's getting better, though: the new generations have specific Game Design and Game Development courses available in many universities across Chile. There are precedents set by some of us about dealing with big companies. We can introduce new developers to the networks we have made and maintained.
But having your office at the Edge of the World has inherent difficulties that can't be overcome easily: Like working on different timezones; Like the basic aspect of face-to-face interaction with a potential business partner. Sony took care of that, and still does, with their Incubation Program and regular touring through Latin America to discover and meet with new developers. I think their program is exceptional. Sadly, Nintendo didn't (and as far as I know still doesn't) have anything like that. Which is sad, because there are many wonderful teams working on interesting game experiences in that part of the World, and they are looking for a break and a chance to amaze everybody.
My final conclusion comes from the viral "It takes 20 years to make an overnight success" post about John Hanke and Pokémon Go. Every person involved in Breachers is barely 8 years into his personal journey through Game Design and Development. We were clearly on to something, but we were lacking on contacts, reach, experience and portfolio, all of which generates trust in investors and publishers. The takeaway is to keep working hard so when we are 20 years in we are far more prepared to make a next big hit happen!