In 2016, Niantic launched Pokemon Go, one of the most successful mobile games of all time. The AR game spurred hundreds of thousands of people to wander the streets and fields, hunting for new Pokemon to capture and train. The success opened the doors to the AR games market when a deluge of new titles poured into app stores. Niantic recently launched their next title, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, hoping to capture the same success as three years ago.

The company may be disappointed. AR games face a unique set of challenges that hinder their spread, such as ease of accessibility, monetisation, and general pickup by the world population. When the AR games market has one single title that hit mainstream appeal, an entire ecosystem of AR games can maintain itself. Lightning struck once, and dozens of game titles followed its wake. The market will not grow by just slapping AR on their games as a gimmick, but using the technology effectively to engage its users.

The conclusion is that current games rely too much on brand appeal and gimmicks to prop themselves up, using mobile mechanics already widely used by the industry to keep users engaged. The future of AR games may not be on mobile phones, but AR glasses instead.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite
Image credit: Niantic.

AR games market size

Tracking the size of the AR games market is tricky, as there are few straightforward statistics to cite. Some analyst companies, such as Market Research Future, lump AR and VR together to analyse its impact, which warps the data by merging two very different technologies. Additionally, mobile app stores contain games of all varieties and functions, making it tricky to track all software titles unless they explicitly mention their AR capabilities.

The most reliable report comes from HTF. According to the company, the AR gaming market may reach $285bn by 2023, a significant sum. Having said that, they do not focus solely on mobile devices, looking beyond phones to capture a broader market. Because of this, the actual figure may be much lower.

Regardless, most reports agree that the AR games market will grow more with time. Though direct statistics on this are scarce, many agree that the potential can be massive.

Why will the market keep growing?

AR games have a lot of growth potential, assisted by several global trends. According to HTF, they include:

  • AR designed for mobile devices. Companies like Facebook and Google produce developer kits much make it easier and easier to make AR experiences on mobile phones, fuelled by people interested in face filters. In turn, mobile phone manufacturers are integrating AR technology into their products, such as Google Pixel allowing them to take photographs with depth. As phones improve their capabilities, AR will improve as well, which will, in turn, improve their appeal. 
  • The growing global population. While population growth is slowing across many Western countries, more people are entering the world and buying phones, increasing the capacity of the market. India and China are growing at such a rapid pace that the potential for AR games to spread widely in the countries is massive. 
  • Improved internet penetration globally. This year will see the first half of the world population go online. As the second half of the population logs on, at a more rapid pace, the AR games market may explode in popularity.

These are background predictions which would facilitate the growth of AR games. Yet they do not take into account the most critical factor: the games themselves. While the factors are there for AR games to be successful, the most crucial step is to design AR games in the right way to capture the audience’s attention.

The AR games market may grow with titles like Pokemon Go.
Image credit: Niantic.

The difference between mobile games and consoles

While a successful AR game can be subjective, certain traits have become predominant in the current market. Firstly, mobile game development is very different from console development. On consoles, players expect to play an initial fee to play a more extensive, high-budget experience on a TV screen or monitor. The game could include an epic story like in God of War, or high-fidelity graphics for multiplayer matches like with Call of Duty. On top of the base game, developers may also include microtransactions or expansion packs to provide additional value to the players.

By comparison, mobile games are different experiences prioritising short, fun experiences. There are exceptions; many mobile games offer expansive stories, with graphics that blow competitors out of the market. However, publishers have worked out the most optimal way to keep players coming back to their games, using behavioural science to their advantage.

What makes a successful AR game?

  • Make it free. While it seems simple to state, making any game free brings down the barriers of entry to zero, meaning anyone can play and reaching out to the broadest audience possible.
  • Create a positive feedback loop, then delay the rewards over time. By slowing down the rate of granting rewards, it incentivises people to play for longer or purchase microtransactions, so they either buy awards or speed up gameplay.
  • Use simple game mechanics. The most popular mobile games require just a few clicks or flicks of the finger. From Angry Birds swiping slingshots to Pokemon Go flinging Pokeballs, simplicity is essential for adoption.
  • Build a community. No-one wants to play games in a bubble; providing a platform to share and compare stats and stories adds flair to the game. Sharing stats or comparing acquired loot builds a sense of community.

While this is up to debate, a successful AR game can leverage behavioural traits to keep players engaged and playing the game. That said, with these established mechanics, why is it that only one game seems to get much success in AR, while the rest of the market sees less interest by comparison?

The importance of brand appeal

Why did people pick up Pokemon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite? It was not for the AR, or the gameplay, or the story (hopefully). It was the brand appeal of both. Also, when the most successful AR games rely on the legacy of known names to prop up its appeal, then the market is unlikely to thrive anytime soon.

Dangers approach in the AR game
Image credit: Niantic.

Pokemon has been around for decades, ensnaring the nostalgia of children around the world. The concept fits well for keeping people playing the game; wander around find Pokemon. It was the perfect recipe for a hit game, coupled with the sheer force of Nintendo’s second biggest franchise. If it was called Chinpokomon Forward, where people collect unknown monsters, it would not have seen the same appeal.

Niantic’s previous game, Ingress, shows this in action. It was a smart idea, setting the same mechanics that Pokemon Go would use. Ingress even saw a modest and dedicated following. With that said, brand appeal smashed the game out of the park in 2016, and it continues to be a force into 2019.

AR in Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

The same goes for Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Are people playing the game because of the potion-making minigame, or the use of AR to hunt Foundables? No, they were drawn in because Harry Potter is one of the biggest franchises of all time.

Some, like Tony Pearce of Reality Gaming Group, said that it spurs on interest in AR games generally: “There is a great demand from consumers for genuinely innovative AR games that are also fun and engaging to play.” The statement may be inaccurate, as it may just mean select titles gain popularity rather than AR games as a whole. So how can an AR market thrive when the most significant titles rely on other source material? The answer is good-quality AR.

Games need a reason to use AR

AR should never be a gimmick, shoved onto a game for the sake of hopping onto a trend. It should fit into the gameplay seamlessly and effectively, with a reason for its existence. In recent years, that has not been the case.

Mobile phones might not be the right platform for AR. When people are on their phones, they want to flick their fingers and progress through games with ease, not hold their phone up and wave it around. Paul Smith of RiseAR agrees, saying that the “mobile format will limit interactivity… and restrict users to ‘fleeting’ sessions of 3-4 minutes.”

Because of this, many people switch off the AR function in Pokemon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. When people switch off AR for a better gameplay experience, something has gone wrong.

Using the constraints of AR

One answer might be to use the constraints of AR to its advantage. Ben Hylak, a former Google Daydream UX Engineer and AR specialist, notes that the treasure hunting mechanic in Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is a clever mechanic using AR appropriately: “The mechanic also embodies the narrative — the phone acts as a lens that enables the player to see the world of magic.

“Additionally, when people think of ‘the users world’ in the context of AR, they usually think in terms of planes and feature points. When we think of our world, we think of coffee shops, parks and museums. AR games are best when they are truly in our world, not just our bedroom.”

Perhaps the answer is to wait a little longer. Currently, AR is rudimentary, using a simple overlay and location mapping to make a flat experience. Better AR, enabled by newer phones, can change the game for some players. Imagine using a phone to see a game board of Catan, for example. However, overall, it may be that mobile games are not the right platform for AR.

AR glasses and gaming

The success of games on AR glasses is a wild stretch of speculation. Facebook and Apple have not yet shown the capabilities of their glasses, and the hardware quality is up to debate. However, it might be that the future of the AR games market is in glasses, not phones.

Accessibility is a core issue of AR games. Few people want to wave their phones around and play.

AR glasses could solve this. Simply putting them on, and using hand gestures, could bring the ease of use that makes some games fun. Imagine riding a tube to work, and while looking forward on the seat, flicking fingers to launch Angry Birds on the lens. Alternatively, perhaps playing a virtual game of chess on the grass, playing with a friend who sees the same board. The capabilities of putting an overlay on reality, with a friend, could be extraordinary.

Where mobile phones fail with accessibility and use, AR glasses could solve. While at this stage, it is science fiction, it may become a reality if the lenses are powerful enough.

Concluding remarks on the AR games market

There is still room to grow for AR games. While one or two top titles hijack news pages, few other games reach the same illustrious heights. Perhaps with the savvy use of AR and the ongoing progression of tech, another game could hit the same appeal. However, currently, that does not seem to be the case.

Theo Priestly, an Antifuturist, has a harsher view. “There is no solid use case yet… Sporadic use at best, once and done type tasks, and consumers just have little appetite to use AR on a daily basis. The market sizing is all wrong for this and driven purely by VC money.”

The AR games market is young, dominated by few players, and seen as a subsection of mobile gaming generally. While other forms of AR see more use – such as among enterprise customers – consumer uses fall flat.

There is potential for growth. Internet use is increasing, devices are becoming better, and AR glasses might break the mould in a big way. Time will tell.


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Tom Ffiske

Editor, Virtual Perceptions

Tom Ffiske specialises in writing about VR, AR, and MR across the immersive reality industry. Tom is based in London. 

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