Designing Great AR Games: Tips & Suggestions – Part 4

In chapter 4 of “Designing Great AR Games: Tips & Suggestions” will take a look at some of the things that makes AR game different from standard mobile games. Furthermore, we’ll get to talk about each one in-depth and hopefully, you can get inspired of using those to deliver a game that is more tailored toward AR and can deliver a more compelling AR gameplay experience to your users.

If you haven’t read the previous chapters, I highly recommend doing so: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Use AR to Create Unique Gameplay Experiences

I’ve played many Augmented Reality games where I felt like I was playing the same type of game, with the only difference is that now I can see the living room instead of a virtual scene around it. Some games felt very much alike non-AR games, so there wasn’t anything excited to look forward to.

When you design AR games, it’s important that you understand the medium you are developing for. I’m sure there are plenty of developers who just say, hey, I just port my non-AR game into AR and I have a great AR game—so, No.

Of course, there will be some games that this might work for them, but for the majority, you need to think about building AR-first games. In other words, develop a game that is designed from the ground up for AR and takes full advantage of the technology and its unique offering and game design opportunities.. This allows you to create controls, interactions, visual design, UI and other elements that perfectly fit the medium.

So what are the main differences between AR and a standard mobile game? Let’s touch some key points (these are not all of them of course, I will add more over time) and see how you can utilize those to design new compelling AR games.

The Device is the 3D camera and the user is its controller

Users can move in the real-world scene and act as the 3D camera controller. They can move around the 3D scene and view objects from different angles.

A good example is optical illusion puzzlers like AMON, Mazelith, ARise or object searching game like Shadows Remain.

Sculpture puzzle pieces scattered around the room
Find the right angle to solve this optical illusion puzzle.

So using this unique AR feature you can create games that require movements around the real-world or within a virtual 3D scene to search for objects (e.g. ARrrrrgh, AR Hide and Seek Virtual City), a game that requires careful examination of a scene by moving around it prior to interacting with it(e.g Math Ninja, YuME: Alice’s Dream),  intersecting or passing through virtual objects (e.g. Meddling Martians, ), physically moving to avoid intersection with a virtual object (e.g. ARZombi, Alien Invaders AR).

Directional lighting inheritance

Virtual objects match the lighting conditions of the real-world scene (estimating the directional lighting environment in the scene).

This might not be used for any unique interaction in the game, but it can definitely make you consider which 3D models you plan to use in the game in order to produce a better perception of depth.

Users can get close or get far from game objects

This also derived from the fact that users can move around the scene. However, this also raises an opportunity to create games where there is an effect of the distance of the player from a virtual entity in the game.

One game that took good use of that is FishingGO.  Not just that the user had to move around and observe the scene to find a particular fish, he had to get close to it to lock a snapshot and mark it as “discovered”.

Locate the fish, FishingGO app screenshot
Playing FishingGO. First, locate the fish, then get close to take a snapshot.

For example, you can create a character behavior that reacts when you are close or far from it. You can measure the acceleration and make it affect other virtual entities, like blowing up the fire of a candle or make that movement move a cloth or something based on the distance and acceleration, mimicking the effect of air movement.

You can make it so when you can close to a virtual pet, he can then be seen climbing on the screen of your device. I haven’t seen this done in any pet simulator game that I’ve seen if I recall correctly.

I can spend all day writing ideas for it, but I think you understand the point. This by itself can open your mind to a whole set of new interaction ideas for a new AR game.

Intersecting or passing through virtual objects

A user, as a controller of the camera, can move it so it can  “touch” a virtual object and even pass through it. This opens opportunities for building AR games where there is collision detection between virtual objects and the device itself.

This is done in games like AR Matrix Ball and Wall Buster, where the ball is projected back when it intersects with the device’s glass, which is actually the coordination of the 3D camera.

In Catchy Words, you need to move the device through a rectangular shape where you want the letter to be placed.  In Twilight Pioneers: Dragon Arena and Waddle Home AR you can take your device and move it through the water and see how it looks from the inside. The game detects an event where the player is within the water area and adapts the sound and visuals accordingly (also refer to the spatial audio remarks that I made in Part 1).

By the way, it’s important to carefully test the gameplay mechanics for usability. For example, I remember playing an AR iOS game called Table Tennis AR by scomp4ny, and it didn’t enjoy it. It supposes to give you like a room-scale table tennis AR experience. The problem is that you control the paddle with your mobile device. How exactly you can play where you use the same controller to control the angle of view and the paddle at the same time. It’s wasn’t actually that bad, but it leads to a poor gameplay experience. I always wanted to have a virtual table where I can play table tennis wherever I am, but this is just not the way to do it. I stopped playing it after like 2 minutes.

holding virtual Items

In AR you can position a virtual item that is locked onto the device’s location and move with it. When players hold the device, it appears like they are controlling the paddle using the device.

Of course, it can be any object, a sword or an electric saw to slay enemies, a bucket like in Meddling Martians, a net to catch a fish, a spray to exterminate insects, a glass full of water when you move the water drops out, just about anything you can imagine.

I’m sure that just reading the last line brought you some ideas for games. That’s the thing, you can just run through different objects in your head, and I’m sure some ideas will come up to your mind, and we are just touching this part of the article. You can mix it with the other interactions to create something even more amazing.

I really appreciated the developer of Meddling Martians coming up with that interaction, while I’ve seen many developers just porting standard games to AR. It was interesting, new, unique and refreshing. This is why even after testing hundreds of Augmented Reality apps and games, I still can’t forget that experience.

Use the device to detect the player’s location inside a virtual scene

I am definitely not a fan of that type of room-scale type of games. In those games that feel more like a VR game played on a mobile device screen without a headset, the real-world is either completely not visible or partially visible.

They wrapped the place with virtual walls, making you feel like you are in a completely different place. This is used in games like Alice in Wonderland AR and the player’s virtual environment exploration within the portal (check out this scene). In that part, I was actually moving around the virtual environment as I was walking across the room in the real world.

Another game that I came across recently uses the same technique. It’s called Laser Mazer. I’ve also played a game called Ghost Hunter, and if I remember correctly, ut gave you some view of the real world.

Anyways, this type of game design is available for those who use ARKit and probably other AR frameworks. I probably wouldn’t abuse that all-virtual too much, maybe just for certain transition points or for storytelling purposes.

Again, these are not AR games, at least if you judge it by the visual presentation of the game, but the AR technology can be used to add this type of game design to your game.

Real World Interaction

One of the main differences between standard mobile games and augmented reality (AR) games is that in AR you have the option to actually see the worlds around you as you play.

Most AR games that I play do not use real-world objects for any in-game interaction. You mostly scan a surface and place the game onto that surface and start playing.

I did, however, play some outdoor AR games like Domination: Earth and of course Pokemon Go that use GPS. What is common to all of them is that they encourage, even require, players exploring the outdoor environment.

Some AR apps that I tried utilize computer vision technologies to detect real-world objects and provide contextual and relevant feedback to the user. However, I  am yet to find a game that uses these type of technology, or at least I can’t easily recall one.

There is definitely plenty of room for making games that take good use of the real-world environment to deliver unique outdoor AR gaming experiences. This market relies on you, the developer, to come up with great ideas and make good use of it.

One app that I tried that was really fun was Rampage: AR Unleashed. The reason that app stood out from the rest is that it had an option to change the character posture from standard standing posture to vertical climbing one. The shadow flipped to reflect that change.

This is not all. The main reason the app was so entertaining is that it encouraged me to go outside and try to place Rampage monsters on different buildings and skyscrapers.

The results turned out to be impressive to say the least.

You can clearly see why this app was able to easily stand out from the rest. it didn’t use GPS, nor any other location-based technology, but it ingeniously took good use of the real-world outdoor environment to deliver a compelling augmented reality experience. This is definitely a good example to think out of the box. I still enjoy using this app and it’s with me all the time. I never even think to uninstall it.

When I was in Tokyo, a guy came to me, asking me how can he download that gorilla and put it on the tree. I laughed, but I saw how amazed he was when he looked at the screen and I knew that I am not the only one who is so excited about it.

Being able to see the real-world as the environment of your AR game is something that should encourage you to think about ways to make good use of that.

Don’t limit yourself to handheld AR gaming

I cannot forget the first time I’ve tried playing the AR location-based game HADO in Tokyo, Japan. I’ve first read about the game on Twitter, and only when I visited Tokyo I’ve decided to check it out (there is also HADO in Seoul as well, where I stay now).

I was introduced to this game by a professional HADO team called Slam DiVA. This was hands down, my best AR experience to date.

HADO game viewed on LCD screen
HADO game viewed on LCD screen for spectators. You can see the game with all the virtual gameplay content as the players see them.

Now, the thins is that HADO plays very much different than other mobile AR games because the device is actually mounted inside a head-mounted display (HMD). You also have a second device mounted on your wrist which you use as a controller for releasing fireballs or deploying shields.

Without getting into too many details about the game here, you can read more about it here if you want, the point is that you shouldn’t limit yourself to the thinking that an Augmented Reality game should be played handheld only. HADO was born with that same out-of-the-box thinking and it’s now a popular eSport game, featured in many VR arcade locations around the globe.

When thinking about ideas, think big and don’t limit yourself only to handheld gaming and HADO is a great example of that. Although HADO is designed as a location-based arcade game, it doesn’t mean that your game should be like that. You are the designer of the game, design the game the way you want it to be played.

To be Continued…

I hope that you find this article inspiring and useful. I really want to share my knowledge to help developers develop amazing AR games.  Some points might not be 100% accurate, but I’m pretty sure it got your brain wheels working and I do hope that it helped you think about some great ideas for a new AR game.

This is not all, our journey will continue in Part 5 which will come up next. Don’t forget to share this article if you find it useful. You can support me by checking out my pinned tweet on twitter and also make sure you subscribe to my social channels. Thank you.