Augmented reality is a term that seemed to be on everyone’s lips a few years ago. Not only can AR apps help you find things like shops, public transport or where you parked your car but the scope for gaming has long been a big draw for developers and gamers alike.
The buzz behind AR seems to have died down somewhat but with Google’s Project Glass looming in the distance, the technology is bound to see a resurgence in popularity. How this will relate to gaming remains to be seen, but there are already a large variety of AR games to choose from regardless of your mobile OS.
I’ve spent some serious time over the past week putting some of the most popular implementations through their paces on my iPhone in the hope to find out if AR really is the future or not.
AR is exciting the first time you use it. The novelty factor takes a short while to wear off, even when you factor in the technology at work here. Take apps like Star Chart or Layar which take a live camera image and GPS information which the device then arranges using data from on-board sensors. It’s very impressive tech, but the concept is simple enough for almost anyone to understand.
How this translates to usefulness within standard apps varies. Finding a tube station in London is a heck of a lot easier thanks to Nearest Tube, but the aforementioned Layar never made much of an impression on me, particularly after it was updated to push interactive advertising. I don’t doubt that it’s an impressive feat of technology to have a magazine come to life on a small screen, it just doesn’t strike me as useful. How can reality really be augmented if those augmentations don’t improve upon what is already there in usable ways?
And just how useful are these apps? Why is waving my phone around trying to find something on-screen more useful to me than seeing everything in the nearby area with a simple pinch in my favourite Maps app? And then there’s gaming, and gamers themselves.
Gamers always seem to be heavily targeted when it comes to new technology. Take 3D for example; while many failed to be impressed by passive cinema 3D, marketers talked up the possibilities for 3D gaming. From personal experience I can say that interactive 3D is distracting enough to detract from the enjoyability of the game itself, and where possible I’ll turn it off. So are AR games destined for the same, lukewarm fate?
From what I can see after tireless searching for the best and most unique AR games, there are a couple of catch-all categories under which most titles can easily be classified. There are those which I will call “marker games” which require you to print a marker. These apps can identify and translate these print-outs into in-game objects which appear on your desk or floor. There are also the “accessory freemium” titles which rely on an accessory to properly work, though the apps themselves are free.
Finally there’s a slew of games which require neither a marker nor an accessory but instead rely on your real-world geographic location. I’m not sure these quite qualify as augmented reality, but they take the characteristics of your physical surroundings and do something a bit different with them. There are always exceptions of course, but the limitations of the technology are fairly visible without looking too hard.
Two of the most popular marker games on the App Store are AR Basketball and AR Defender 2, both of which use a marker which must be printed prior to playing. AR Basketball is the only game that requires a marker to play, with AR Defender 2 still functioning as a simple tower defence game if you’re not bothered about using your device’s camera. Both are also free to download, so you can grab them right now and (provided you have access to a printer) try out AR for free.
AR Basketball is probably the most accessible, and unsurprisingly the aim is to sink as many baskets as you can in the various game modes. While there are a couple of different modes (training, arcade action and classic), the only discernible difference I could see were optional power-ups, scoring rules and a timer. The app is faithful to its name, and will probably keep you busy for about 10 minutes.
That might sound scathing but it’s exactly what happened to me. If you’ve ever had a small indoor basketball hoop on your wall, you’ll probably be used to occasionally picking the ball up and throwing it across your room. It might be something you do with some degree of regularity, but you’re unlikely to sit there fixated for an hour on your own obsessively shooting hoops. AR Basketball is just like that.
It’s a fun initial experience, and the novelty of having a 3D virtual basketball hoop on your desk or the floor is pretty cool. Unfortunately if you’ve got a shaky grip from holding your arm out in mid-air to aim, small fluctuations in movement will spoil shots. It’s not a huge deal, but it does highlight one of the flaws of AR gaming (and one also experienced by devices like Microsoft’s Kinect) in that it’s not particularly forgiving. This can also partly be said for the technology itself. I appreciate there’s a lot going on here but regardless of how much light I bestow upon the marker, my basketball hoop still occasionally glitches out, flickers or disappears entirely. Things are a lot better than initial AR implementations, but it’s still not perfect and perfection is a way off yet.
The second title I’ve spent much of my week playing is AR Defender 2, a series so popular that developers clearly saw room for a sequel. Far more interesting than that, the original AR Defender was not free-to-play, did not come with in-app purchases and absolutely required the AR marker be printed in order to play.
AR Defender 2 turns virtually everything on its head: no marker is required, the app is loaded with in-app purchases and the game is free to download and play. What’s more, despite AR appearing in the name, this is an entirely optional AR experience. In fact, you will have to turn AR on rather than disabling it. This either means that AR is tough to market, or that developers simply don’t see the technology as being strong enough to carry a title alone. Maybe they asked themselves the question: who wants to buy a game where they then have to print something in order to play with no guarantee of how well the technology works in the first place?
I’d ask a similar question to the many app developers currently trying to sell their AR-powered wares in the App Store. The technology can vary wildly between “unique and refreshing” and “dull and buggy”, and I’m not sure I want to spend my own money finding out which apps are worth it.
AR Defender 2 is a truly fun game, and the AR implementation is the best I have ever seen. It’s not as glitchy as past examples, and for the few moments when I initially started playing I was really enjoying watching a battle unfold on my living room floor. The fact that you don’t have to play with AR means it’s still a title you can play on the train, though the developers include a small foldable marker in the PDF which is designed to fit inside your wallet for playing virtually anywhere.
One thing strikes me about AR Defender 2 though, and that’s how gimmicky the augmented reality option really is. It virtually adds nothing to the game, aside from drawing more power and requiring you move your phone around a bit. It’s nice to be able to do, but once you’ve done it a few times there’s not much reason to launch straight into AR mode when you can just play the game using traditional methods.
Apps that require accessories, or the dubiously named “appcessories” (shoot me if I ever use that term ever again) have long been a personal gripe. Augmented reality appears to have given accessory manufacturers a reason to go bonkers, releasing their apps for free but charging for the flimsy bits of plastic required to actually use them.
Two good examples are Foam Fighters and Doctor Who: Cleric Wars. Both are free to download and both are designed to be used with separate accessories. Each game allows you to play for free before actually spending money, though there’s little else to suggest that the idea here is to sell overpriced accessories.
Doctor Who: Cleric Wars is a simple first-person shooter that’s designed with a gun attachment in mind. As with any first person shooter that uses AR, the iPhone has no way to detect solid objects or distances. This means you will have daleks coming at you from inside your walls and other nearby solid objects, and unless you’re playing in the middle of a field or park things start to look a bit silly. It’s somewhat fun pointing your phone around like a gun, but it’s not exactly immersive.
The initial “demo level” as the game so elegantly flashes in the top right corner is just a wave of daleks that expire in one shot, approaching from all sides. This means the game is impossible to play sitting down without twisting around annoyingly, and instead requires you get up and move around a bit. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily going to win over the lazy. The fact that you only get one level that lasts less than 10 minutes for free is fairly disappointing and the gameplay experience is unlikely to make you run out and buy the required accessory. It’s lukewarm, and the gun attachment doesn’t seem to add any discernible functionality whatsoever to the iPhone. It’s basically a piece of plastic with a 3.5mm jack that costs around £20 ($30). Ouch.
Foam Fighters takes a slightly different approach in that you don’t have to buy the accessories in order to play. The accessories in question are planes which stick on to the rear of your device and provide additional levels, as well as animating digital effects like gunfire and damage on top of the models. Yep, it looks ridiculous as you can see in the video below.
Foam Fighters allows you to play with a virtual plane, though you won’t get any extra levels or AR goodness. From my experience, the AR angle here is a bit stretched – the game is at its best when it drops you into a level rather than having you “fly around” your living room. The only indicator of movement in this instance are a few clouds to denote which directions you’re actually travelling in while the rest of the arena (read: your living room) stays as stationary as you do.
At its best Foam Fighters is a flight simulator that uses movement for controls, and there are plenty of those available on the App Store already. In fact you could probably buy 4 or 5 flight sims of that ilk for the price of one Foam Fighters accessory pack, and you’d probably get the option of which control method to use there too.
Tilting your arms and holding your phone in front of you is all well and good but within about 15 minutes I had a niggling ache from the unnatural position I was forced into holding the device. Would I buy an accessory to get more life out of the game? Not for Foam Fighters, and certainly not for Cleric Wars – there’s enough plastic rubbish filling up landfills already.
There are a plenty of other titles that label themselves as AR games, though that definition seems to vary considerably. There’s the popular AR Soccer which doesn’t need a marker or an accessory, instead using basic object tracking to play a game of keepy-uppy. There are games like GhostBusters Paranormal Blast which is a first person shooter similar to Cleric Wars except it costs $1.99 and does not require any accessories. These are fairly straight-forward games that are cheap and enjoyable.
Then there are location-based games, many of which are ongoing titles with more depth than any of the others mentioned thus far. I tried out one of the most popular offerings called Parallel Kingdom, a cross-platform MMO which uses your geographical location as a backdrop for a top-down RPG. The idea with many of these is to dominate your neck of the woods, but more often than not Parallel Kingdoms seemed lacking and gimmicky.
The map in the background is flat and lifeless, and uses no aerial photography. You can’t pinch to zoom, so finding your character can be tough. Aside from the familiarity of the street names and bend in the river, there’s virtually no “reality” in this augmented reality game. You can even walk right through rivers and oceans if they’re in the vicinity, making the map nothing more than a static canvas. I’m not sure this even qualifies as AR any more. Parallel Kingdoms is a satisfying little grind ‘em up for RPG fans and those interested in owning their real-world location. The depth here ticks all of the MMO boxes, but it’s not really augmented reality.
Similarly the previously quite successful Shadow Cities also uses this principle on a less-complicated scale. There are two teams to choose from before you are dropped into your own virtual locale where you must capture spirits with spells by scrawling on the screen. I found Shadow Cities to be a lot more satisfying with its simpler gameplay model, but was also left wondering where the A in AR had gone. These titles probably fall under their own category of location-based gaming, and at that they’re good examples.
So, Is AR The Future?
I don’t see it myself. I’m not writing off the genre, but the best implementation of AR I’ve seen in a game has been as an added optional extra. AR Defender 2 does it perfectly, providing the gimmicks when you want them and the core gameplay when you don’t. AR Soccer demonstrates another solid but simple implementation at the right price point, but don’t buy it if you don’t want to kick a virtual football around (obviously).
I don’t understand the market for apps that require accessories to use. It seems overly limiting in an age of “I want it now!” entertainment, and for the price of most accessories you could purchase 5, 10 or 20 other high quality games that will keep you happy for months. AR gaming is a gimmick, but one that is redeemable in the right context. Real-world usage in apps like Star Chart and Theodolite makes the technology shine and seem very useful indeed, and it’s here where the market is currently at its strongest.
To put it bluntly: if you want to be wowed by AR you should probably steer clear of all but a few AR games.
Do you have any AR favourites? What do you think of AR gaming in general? Give us your opinions in the comments, below.