There’s been a wave of location-based mobile games announced recently, based on everything from The Walking Dead to Jurassic World. It turns out these games have more in common than just timing: they’re all powered by Google Maps. Today Google is announcing that it’s opening up its ubiquitous mapping platform to allow game developers to more easily create real-world games. The next Pokémon Go might finally be on the way.
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.”
The Unity integration will also allow developers to customize maps with what appears to be a great deal of flexibility and control. Things like buildings and roads are turned into objects, which developers can then tweak in the game engine. During a demonstration, Google showed off real-world maps that were transformed into sci-fi landscapes and fantasy realms, complete with dragons and treasure chests.
Jacoby says that one of the goals of the project was to help developers build detailed worlds using Maps data as a base to paint over. Developers can do things like choose particular kinds of buildings or locations — say, all stores or restaurants — and transform each one. A fantasy realm could turn all hotels into restorative inns, for instance, or anything else. “In this way you can create unique game environments that still feel connected to the real world,” says Patrick Donelan, lead engineer on the project.
Similarly, the new API will make it easier to add points of interest, like spawn points or mission locations, in the right real-world spot. “We use a vast array of Google Maps signals to determine the best places for gameplay and AR experiences, ranked by prominence and popularity,” Donelan explains.
Google has already partnered with three game developers on new location-based titles, all of which have been previously announced. These include Jurassic World Alive, The Walking Dead: Our World, and Ghostbusters World. Each looks similar to Pokémon Go, combining augmented reality and location-based gameplay to bring popular fictional worlds into the real world. In Next Games’ Walking Dead, for example, the developer says that iconic locations like the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the London Eye, and Burj Khalifa will all be prominently featured. “With Google Maps, we can count on providing the most up-to- date location data, meaning that when new buildings or roads are built, we’ll have them in our game,” Next CEO Teemu Huuhtanen said in a statement. “This enables us to create an immersive experience, tied to the players’ location.”
According to Jacoby, around two years ago Google started to receive an upswing in requests from developers looking to utilize Maps data for mobile games. “We were a bit surprised by the amount of demand that we saw from the gaming space,” she says. Not coincidentally, this was around the same time Pokémon Go launched and became a widespread phenomenon. Following that breakout success, and the increase in interested developers, Google began meeting with game studios. “We went out and talked to a big wave of developers from all across the space, to try to understand where we could have the most impact,” says Jacoby. The result of those discussions was the new Maps gaming initiative, which — at least for now — is focused on location-based mobile games.
With Pokémon Go, developer Niantic (a former Google subsidiary) had the advantage of a previously existing trove of mapping data. The studio’s first game was the sci-fi-themed location-based game Ingress, which allowed the developer to gather up data from the millions of people who played the game. Pokémon Go was built on top of that, and the data became more refined and detailed as the game exploded in popularity. Niantic is now building a third game using that data, with the release of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite later this year.
This difficulty in creating accurate mapping data is one of the main reasons there wasn’t a surge of location-based games that followed the wake of Pokémon Go’s widespread success. But with Google opening up Maps, it seems that’s finally about to change. Google says it will be talking more about the initiative next week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.