A reality-bending metaverse park in Croatia. A WarioWare-esque mini-game marathon. A 4-way race to take out a rogue AI. Fighting a dark alien vine with the help of a mysterious object from space. Racing customizable cartoon pigs. Claiming real-world territory with virtual paint globs. An adventure game that encourages players to explore Japanese landscapes.
These are just a taste of the 19 augmented reality (AR) games and experiences that Playcrafting has built in the past year across 4 continents.
We have helped dozens of brands and technology companies engage with game developers and build custom interactive experiences. I’m excited to share some of the many lessons we’ve learned about the challenges, opportunities, and possibilities that come with building games that blend and blur our physical and virtual worlds through AR. Here they are, all in one place, so that teams and brands can have a leg up in building the future with augmented reality.
The most exciting content encourages players to get out and explore.
One of the biggest benefits of augmented reality, especially in our pandemic times, is that it can be used to encourage players to get out of the house and outside. This opens up new ways to interact with the environment and with other people. We already know that games are a great way to engage with and incentivize people of all walks of life. Through AR, these same principles can be applied to areas with applications in the real world, including travel, fitness, social impact, and entertainment.
Don’t just aim to make “the next Pokemon GO.”
A common misconception is to look at the most popular AR games in the world, like Pokemon GO, and just make a new version of it to serve a different purpose. Pokemon GO works so well because it literally takes the “gotta catch ‘em all” experience that the franchise has perfected over the last 25 years on more traditional video game platforms and propels it into our physical world. Not everything can or should be Pokemon-ified. There already is a Pokemon GO. Think outside-the-box. Players can sense a ripoff and will not respond well.
Developers are eager to make AR games and experiences.
When we publicly announced the Lightship Global Jam – an international event to build AR games and experiences with the Niantic’s Lightship ARDK – we were really impressed by how many teams wanted to dive in and make AR games from scratch. We could only bring in about 10% of those who wanted to join. And for those developers who did take part, 84% had a positive experience (even when the technology was still early on in its beta!). Since then, we’ve been collecting hundreds of responses from developers for our Developer Sentiment Index. Augmented reality was one of the top new technologies that developers indicated interest in. When I spoke at the first-ever Lightship Summit in May, I was blown away by the quality, diversity, and passion of the developers there that were building AR games and experiences. These folks represented all walks of life, companies of all sizes, and backgrounds in everything from tourism to medicine and, of course, gaming. When developer sentiment and adoption is this strong for an emerging technology, it’s in the best possible position to resonate with consumers.
Find the right AR SDK and technology provider.
This is a really important one. With the right AR toolset, developer feedback can directly impact the technology itself. Get a sense of how supportive the toolset provider is prior to building. Do this by checking out an SDK’s support documentation, sample projects, and developer portal. If they’re lacking, it can be a pretty good sign that the technology and support is not quite there yet. A technology provider that can be a true partner in successful development goes a long way to saving time and money.
Single player experiences in a controlled environment are the quickest to develop.
It took only a day or two for our teams to get a decent AR prototype going that uses features like meshing (a 3D virtual representation of objects in the world, based on camera images) and semantic segmentation (classifying objects like ground or sky). It takes more elbow grease to get a multiplayer experience up and running. While even multiplayer is getting easier and easier to build, single player is still the way to go for projects with smaller budgets and shorter timelines.
Multiplayer experiences work best with tighter constraints.
More players and higher session times put more strain on the devices being used. If a company is looking to make a multiplayer (or “shared”) AR game now, aim for a tighter and shorter experience with fewer players. We found the sweet spot to be about 5 minutes with 4 players. Keep in mind that earlier devices with lower processing power are less likely to handle shared AR experiences. Nothing ruins an AR experience quite like bricking someone’s phone.
Getting playtest feedback is a bigger challenge than with traditional mobile games.
With traditional screen-based mobile games, getting player feedback through playtesting can be relatively easy via soft launching, Testflight, and more. This can be a little trickier when it comes to player feedback for AR games. Be specific in capturing things like device generation (i.e. iPhone X versus iPhone 13) and even environmental conditions when getting playtesters onboard. Depending on the in-development AR app, setting (i.e. urban vs rural, indoor vs outdoor) and quality of cellular service can have a big impact on player experience. Some AR apps are designed for very specific locations too. Keep this in mind when getting playtesters and capturing their feedback.
Promotional materials need to be more than just in-app capture.
Just as augmented reality blends the real and virtual world, so too should promotional materials designed to give a taste of the player’s experience. Companies must combine screen capture with 3rd-person views of the players using the app in physical space to really get the experience of playing across to viewers. Depending on how early the build is and the intended audience of the video, some additional mockup overlays and animations can further get the point across. The Metaverse Park is a great example of this from our Lightship Global Jam. Check out any number of promotional videos for games like Pokemon GO or the upcoming Peridot to see what this blending of perspectives and footage looks like on a grander scale.
Brands need to be realistic about what they can accomplish.
Augmented reality can sound overwhelming to brands that are looking to get their feet wet in this exciting new technology. I think a tight scope and constraints are extremely important here. Start with things like AR filters or an AR mini-game. Simplicity is key here. Pokemon GO took a lot of money and a lot of people to get right, and it’s still a work in progress. Start small with a tight experience that has a limited number of players and as little variability around environment or device generation.
Developers with Unity experience but no AR dev experience can quickly get going.
Many of the teams we have built AR games with in the last year had not yet built any AR projects prior. The Lightship ARDK works extremely well with Unity. It was clear that Unity skills could easily transfer over to building with Lightship. Set up virtual test environments within the engine that can simulate the real-world experience. That being said, finding a developer that can adapt for AR design specifically is paramount. Which brings us to the final lesson we learned from our work so far…
User interface, onboarding, and overall design need to be big, sharp, and clear.
Augmented reality is a new concept for a LOT of people. Yes, games like Pokemon GO and Ingress have gotten millions of players around the world adept at the coordination needed to interact in AR. Always assume that players are total beginners no matter what, especially if the target demographic of the app includes nontraditional players of various ages and backgrounds. Include extremely clear onboarding screens and, ideally, a tutorial to enable a full grasp of the game’s core mechanics. Any environment-based objects (such as characters, player scores, or animations) should be easy to see and clearly defined. Account for variety in lighting and setting for experiences that are not built around a specific location. And vibrant animations and sound effects should be used when a player is making objects interact.
It’s true that the landscape of augmented reality and the technology behind it is evolving by the day. Regardless of goals, it’s important to dive in with a clear understanding of the limitations and possibilities that define AR. Perhaps even more than more traditional screen-based games and experiences, the design and technology constraints are extremely important for creating something that resonates with players.
I, for one, am more excited about AR than I have been for any other XR technology. The device adoption is there since it leverages mobile devices and doesn’t require additional hardware. It blends our real and virtual worlds, especially at a time when all of us are trying to come out of our pandemic shells. And the sheer number of developers interested in and building for AR indicates that the barrier for entry is lower than most other new technologies.
That being said, don’t go in blind. Use the lessons we learned to get started. Build a connected immersive future that captivates and inspires people to engage with their world and each other in ways that were once impossible.
Founder & CEO at Playcrafting
This article first appeared on We made 19 AR games in the last year. Here’s what we learned..