Mobile AR games have been decades in the making but they’re still waiting for a breakthrough

by Lewis Leong on Jan 11, 2019

As the modern narrative goes, mobile AR games are nearing an inflection point. 5G networks, purpose-built devices, and more tools for developing AR experiences are emerging just as huge international markets open wide and gaming revenues spike. With so much focus looking forward, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that designing AR experiences for mobile gaming has fueled our thoughts, hopes, and dreams of what mobile can be for over two decades.

Go back and you’ll be able to find research and concrete examples of AR experiences built as a primary driver of both mobile gaming and the mobile industry as a whole, from researchers and analysts, independent developers, global telecommunications companies, and some of the world’s most recognized brands.

If we’ve been working on mobile AR games for over two decades, why does it seem like it’s taking forever to take off? And what’s going to be so different about the next generation of experiences? Or will mobile gaming continue to ape Pokémon Go? To learn about where the market is going, let’s first look in the rearview mirror.

The dawn of mobile AR games: 1998 – 2004

One of the notable early perspectives on the looming opportunities of mobile phones, gaming, and AR was succinctly captured by a pair of Ph.D. candidates from Dongseo University in South Korea, in 1997, a full decade before the iPhone was launched. Discussing the commercially desirable aspects of a handheld ‘Smart-phone’ device suited to mobile gaming and AR, the paper’s authors noted:

“First, it is socially acceptable, meaning that it is subtle, discrete and unobtrusive. Second (users) need to be able to interact with the system in a natural way. Last, (the device) must be fashionably acceptable so the user does not look strange while operating the system.”   

That’s a pretty sharp call for 1997, and perhaps makes some of today’s thought leadership seem a bit dated by comparison. But this was really just the start of the conversation.

“Last, (the device) must be fashionably acceptable so the user does not look strange while operating the system.”

By 2004, mobile devices had gotten a little better, but not much, as expressed by Dixon, Mitchell, and Harker in their paper, Mobile phone games: understanding the user experience: “The current mobile gaming experience in terms of graphics, interaction mode, and content more closely resembles that presented by personal computer games of 20 years ago than anything evoked by today’s console based offerings.”

The same paper goes on to note a deep research focus at the time on exploiting “the entertainment potential of ubiquitous technologies and augmented reality, making both the proximity of others and the mobile environment itself part of the gaming experience.” As a result, there wasn’t much in the way of really notable experiences out there, though that would soon change as our current understanding of what a smartphone could be was introduced to the world with the introduction of the iPhone and App Store.

The iPhone is born: 2007 – 2012

The iPhone launched in 2007 and the App Store a year later. Once 2010 had rolled around, the iPhone was already iconic, and examples of AR mobile gaming experiences being developed and tested for mass consumption were becoming more prevalent. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man, ARCade by HSPC created a “Layar” that allowed players on iPhone and Android to chase and gobble up virtual yellow dots, all while being chased by multi-colored ghosts, just like the real Pac-Man.

Though it’s tough to draw a straight line, the experience of interacting with augmented creatures layered upon an authentic physical environment that the user moves around feels like a precursor to the Pokémon Go experience, which remains the most popular AR mobile game of all-time.  

Layar Pac-Man mobile ar game concept

Source: Layar 

But it wasn’t just startups or traditional software companies that were developing AR gaming experiences in 2010. Mobile communications giant Qualcomm partnered with toy maker Mattel to update their own classic game for AR: Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Using Qualcomm’s embedded smartphone camera, “players could see superimposed virtual robots on their smartphone displays. Players used the buttons on their handsets to throw punches, and their robots actually moved around the ring as the players physically circled the table where the image of the ring was placed.”

Viewed in action, you can see the foundation for how more modern experiences have evolved, and the opportunities to use virtual screen real estate to monetize the AR gaming experience. Though the $5.2 billion revenue generated by The App Store in 2010 was peanuts by today’s App Store revenue numbers—with gaming’s contribution just 16% at the time—user’s thirst for more and better gaming experiences gave prognosticators hope for ads within AR gaming apps:

“Augmented reality enhances the gaming experience, but it’s also a nice way for advertisers to improve their reach to consumers by bringing in contextual awareness between the device and the physical world.”

Mark Donovan, senior analyst at ComScore in 2010.

Another interesting tidbit is that the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots experience was built using a special kit Qualcomm created for developers in order to showcase what was possible on Android phones. Keep in mind, this is still eight years before Google’s ARCore was released. Qualcomm’s ability to identify the need and market opportunity to create a bridge between device manufacturers and Android developers who wanted to create AR experiences was visionary at the time.

The current state of mobile AR games

Today, the AR challenges we are trying to crack for the “first time” in mobile include optimizing for experiences over superfast 5G connections, finding an AR gaming device that the takes the world by storm (whether that be a phone or wearable), and giving developers more incentive to develop and monetize AR gaming experiences. I’d argue that we’ve been here before.

There was a next great network evolution in the past with the jumps to 3G and 4G, and there will be additional network revolutions beyond 5G. Mobile markets will continue to splinter and morph (by platform, by middlemen, by region), and there will be lots more tools for developers, marketers, and brands to engage mobile AR gaming audiences.

ARKit and ARCore are a good start, helping mobile developers create AR experiences much more easily and faster than before. Pokémon Go was just the start, and we’re now seeing innovative games like Smash Tanks, Knightfall AR, and My Tamagotchi Forever come to mobile. But AR is still left waiting for its “killer app.” Pokémon Go was that app for a while, thanks to its incredibly strong IP, but mobile gamers want to see something new.

With hyper-casual games and console ports like Fortnite and PUBG dominating mobile, mobile AR game developers would be wise to create in-depth experiences as it’s unlikely users will be firing an AR game to play while in line or commuting to work like they do with hyper-casual games. AR as a platform is undeniably engaging when done well, and the games that will succeed must provide players with experiences they can’t get anywhere else.

Lewis Leong is AppLovin's Content Marketing Manager.