Image: AR Dragon / PlaySide Studios
When iOS 11 launched late last year, Apple created a gargantuan AR platform in one fell swoop. But while it was nice that the AR install base had grown exponentially overnight, the biggest winners were developers.
Instead of having to build the tech themselves, ala Pokemon GO, Apple's ARKit made it vastly easier for AR games to exist. Several months down the line, the amount of AR games on iOS has ballooned. But while the streamlining of the tech is impressive, there's still one major problem: the games aren't quite there yet.
Apple held an AR briefing in their Sydney offices recently. It was a mix between a backgrounding in the evolution of ARKit, Apple's AR development platform that leverages any iPhone or iPad (from iPhone 6 and up, or 5th generation iPad and newer). Put simply, ARKit's a tool so developers don't have to build the AR tech themselves.
The practical implications for developers are staggering. At Apple's AR briefing, four Australian developers showed off their latest wares: Shadows Remain an AR pixel-hunting thriller from Halfbrick Studios that was developed in an internal gamejam; Let's Stack AR, a reaction-based game developed by a 11-year-old; Mammoth Mini-Golf, a straightforward mini golf game from Perth with a prehistoric theme; and AR Dragon, a pet simulator from PlaySide Studios in Melbourne.
Image: Mammoth Mini Golf AR / Ezone
Most of the games, at least the ones that were built for AR from scratch rather than being retrofitted into existing games, aren't lengthy experiences. AR Dragon is basically AR Tamagotchi: people see a virtual dragon on the screen, and proceed to feed, pet and play with it while collecting items.
It's a game to keep kids occupied, and as successful as it's been - PlaySide's TJ Munusamy confirmed that the studio has around 50 employees, a substantial figure for any Australian developer these days - it's not the AR future a lot of gamers would have imagined post-Pokemon GO.
An exception was Shadows Remain, which morphed the traditional pixel-hunting game into an AR space and horror elements. The game's set inside an ordinary house, with an isometric perspective that you can rotate either by moving around or with gestures. Moving the iPad/iPhone forward lets you zoom into corners, which is necessary to find certain objects.
Image: Shadows Remain / Halfbrick Studios
There are plenty of games that would, very simply and immediately, benefit from AR. Playing Shadows Remain made me immediately think of The Room, but instead of moving Myst-style from puzzle to puzzle, the player now has to manipulate their environment.
Puzzles are the most common genre that pops up amongst the AR games. A lot were patched after release to support AR, like GNOG, Ticket to Earth and Splitter Critters. It's a bit like the first wave of VR games though: AR offers a different experience, but not one that substantially improves or transforms gameplay.
The AR adaptation of Ticket to Earth overlays the game board on a flat surface or in the air, if you choose. You have to physically lean in to get a closer view of the board, however, which you'll need to accurately determine the movement of your characters. The AR looks good, but it also makes the game more impractical to play.
Something that might change that, however, is when nearby environments can be implemented into an AR game in real-time. Ezone's Simon Edis, one of the makers of Mammoth Mini-Golf, said it would only be a few years before an AR game went from overlaying - in his game's case - a mini-golf course over your lounge room floor to creating a course based on the data interpreted from the iPhone's camera.
And that's a drastic transition: instead of just superficially turning, say, your kitchen table into a live surface, the game procedurally generates a level or surface based off the data interpreted by the contours, objects and available space in your kitchen, bedroom or living room.
But the current crop of AR games aren't that technically proficient. And as far as substantive games that would rival or surpass the experience you might get from other mobile offerings - or something on the Switch - there's still not much there.
That might change a little with the release of Niantic's licensed Harry Potter AR game, which launches fully on all mobile platforms later this month. That'll run on Niantic's tech though, which makes sense given its simultaneous launch on Android.
On the plus side, ARKit has simplified the process so much that developers are able to smash out AR games in record time. Yuma Soerianto, the 11-year-old genius who already has nine apps on the App Store, told me that he put together his game in a few months with no prior experience working in AR. Mammoth Mini-Golf AR only took a couple of months, a solid turnaround given Ezone has two people.
The challenge for AR going forward is to avoid, as legendary iD programmer and technology doyen John Carmack outlined, the tendency to rely on technology as a gimmick.
But developers need to work out where the boundaries are before they can push them further. And Apple simplifying matters through ARKit helps substantially on that front.