One of the big things that makes the Niantic games special is the way you go out into the real world to do things. Ingress and Pokémon Go both involve a heavy amount of roaming the space around you, naturally encouraging you to meet up with friends, and generally being more active. The secret ingredient to all of that is the map, which both Ingress and Pokémon Go heavily rely on to function. A lot of this data came initially from Niantic's old parent company, Google. Over time, Niantic was able to refine some of the mapping data based on how people really walked and interacted with specific areas on the map, but that top-down map from Google powers a lot of the experience.
This year we're going to see a whole lot more of these map-based experiences, and it looks like all of these games are powered by a new Google Maps API.
Google says that its new Maps platform for games is divided into three main parts. First, and most obvious, is that developers who sign up will have access to real-time Google Maps data. As part of this, Google is also launching a new software development kit for Unity, one of the most popular game engines in the world, to make it easy to incorporate this mapping data into a game. "Our new Unity SDK does all of the heavy lifting," says product manager Clementine Jacoby. "No Google Maps expertise needed."
Lastly, Google is introducing a new API so that developers can create gameplay experiences around real-world locations. Jacoby says that Google will be working with developers on this aspect, helping them find "places that are appropriate, unique, and fun to play anywhere on Earth."
This is huge for several reasons. First, no company but Google can provide this kind of information and have it be as trusted and accurate as the data you get from Google Maps. It's the most trusted mapping app by far, and with good reason. Giving developers real-time access to this information is huge for companies eager to make their own Pokemon Go clones, a thing we're starting to see more and more of all the time, but it also guarantees Google is the default choice for these games. Even if another company were to release a similar API for its mapping data, there's little chance it would be used to great effect.
Imagine a real-world Stranger Things, where you could pass through portals in AR.
The video Google used to share this also offers some promise for the future. While Pokémon Go clones are certainly on the way, the video paints several pictures for alternative experiences where Maps can thrive. One thing Pokémon Go is only now starting to do better is integrate ARKit into the real-world AR experience it has created. When we look at how other developers have been using ARKit, including fun portals to other worlds, it's not hard to imagine games where you go to a physical place and use ARKit to pass through a portal to the next part of the game. Imagine a real-world Stranger Things, where you could pass through portals to and from the upside-down in order to unlock elements of a story. This could happen with relative ease thanks to the combination of ARKit and this new Google Maps API.
Google plans to explain this system in greater detail during the GDC conference, where we will undoubtedly also learn more about new games coming soon with this tech onboard. With the explosive popularity of Pokémon Go last year, you can bet this API is the start of a scramble to build the next big global experience.