Niantic, the company behind the mega hit Pokémon GO, has reached a turning point.
Whether due to pandemic fatigue or frustration with the limitations of current AR technology, the Google-spawned startup has struggled mightily to replicate the success of GO, which became one of the fastest growing games in the industry shortly after its July 2016 launch. became history. Niantic shut down Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, the first high-profile title after GO, just two years after its debut, while another tentpole project – Pikmin Bloom – has generated only a fraction of the downloads that GO has achieved in the same period.
Last June, Niantic laid off 8% of its staff — about 85 to 90 people — and canceled four of its projects, including a Transformers game that was already in beta testing.
Needless to say, there’s a lot going on at NBA All-World, Niantic’s latest attempt at iOS and Android virality once again. Unveiled last summer in a joint announcement with the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association, All-World – which is visually quite similar to GO – is packed with merchandise, references to basketball culture, mini-games and opportunities to meet avatars of real NBA players like Jordan Poole, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the All-World core demographic. The only team I’ve ever followed is the Cleveland Cavaliers, and that’s simply because I grew up near Cleveland (and well, LeBron’s fame didn’t hurt). Since I’m not much of a sports person – my favorite game type is controllers and screens – I hadn’t given much thought to All-World until Darrell Etherington, australiabusinessblog.com’s editor-in-chief, commissioned me to write a piece on first impressions .
So I went blind to my All-World demo, which took place on a gray, gloomy, rainy afternoon at the Compound at Red Hook in Brooklyn. The Compound, I was told by the PR people who handled the affair, was founded by hip-hop DJ Set Free Richardson of AND1 fame. Neat. In any case, the loft-like space was nicely decorated, with checkerboard-patterned rugs, Picasso-esque prints, and a pool table ready to play.
But I wasn’t there for the pool. After arriving and pouring myself a cup of coffee, I plopped down on a thick leather couch next to Glenn Chin, head of global marketing at Niantic, and Marcus Matthews, a senior producer for All-World, to spend a day exploring All-World. world to run. prior to release on the Play Store and App Store.
I started with the obvious question: why basketball for Niantic now? Why did the studio choose this one sports for its next AR venture? Chin answered candidly, pointing out that licensing deals are much easier to make with an international organization like the NBA than with, say, disparate football confederations. But he and Matthews—who grew up playing basketball in Downtown Jacksonville, Florida—also repeatedly emphasized the communal aspect of basketball, especially in cities with public courts where kids and teens gather (I’m told) to casually shoot some hoops.
By emphasizing social, the development team behind All-World followed in the footsteps of GO, which – beyond the brand power of Pokémon – resonated for the compelling mix of shared and competitive experiences it delivered. (Think gym fights with strangers and crazy dashes for rare pokemon.) It’s the refinement of a well-known formula, albeit with a few twists and adjustments to meet the expectations of today’s game-playing audience.
Similar to GO, All-World players can explore their own neighborhoods in search of collectibles, power-ups, and other items from various intruige. Exploring requires physical walking to a place – this is after all, a Niantic game – and navigating menus with tap-and-swipe-based gestures. In the app you are represented by an avatar.
All-World is built on Niantic’s Lightship platform, which uses the Unity game engine to power graphics and gameplay. Orlando-based HypGames co-developed the experience with Niantic; HypGames CEO Mike Taramykin was VP and GM for EA’s Tiger Woods franchise until 2013.
On top of a real-world map of a player’s environment, All-World superimposes things like power-ups, challenges, gear, boosts, and in-game currency. There wasn’t much around the Compound when Matthews demoed the game to me, but he managed to pick up some moolah to use as clothing for his NBA player avatars.
A central mechanic in All-World recruits those players, who can then be ‘upgraded’ to become the ‘rulers’ of local basketball courts. (The game currently has over 100,000 courses.) Players can challenge each other to three-point shootouts and other timing-based mini-games in recreations of real courses, which level up not only a player’s recruits, but their overall team level.
The team level serves as a merit-based substitute for real salary caps – the higher the level, the stronger the NBA players an All-World player can recruit.
In addition, All-World has a robust merchandising component. Players can search for jersey “drops” and more (a la supreme) from brands such as Adidas and Nike that reflect real world SKUs. Their in-game team members wear this merchandise, some of which improve their game stats. Chin says the plan is to collaborate with other brands to create and recreate accessories, balls, clothes and sneakers, and even timedrops with real-world product launches.
The merchandise mechanic is built to reflect – and respect – the basketball fan frenzy around collectibles, say Chin and Matthews. I don’t doubt that fact. But there is also a clear profit motive. All-World may be free to play, but it’s definitely not a charity.
Another example is that Niantic also plans to make money by selling “boosts” for player stats such as offense and defense, which improve performance in the minigames. Chin and Matthews don’t deny that players who drop out can get through certain aspects of All-World faster. But Matthews stressed that players don’t need transfer money if they play relatively often.
That remains to be seen. I was only treated to a glimpse of the game, which unfortunately experienced some freezing issues during the demo. (Matthews blamed the Compound building’s poor reception, which isn’t unlikely — it wasn’t good.) The bigger question is whether All-World has staying power — and indeed whether it can make enough noise to stand out in the very busy mobile market.
With All-World, Niantic is betting on both the power of the NBA brand and the appeal of AR. As a sports ignorant I can’t speak to the first point. But I wouldn’t write a eulogy for AR about the latter. The technology is just getting started I would say – especially if rumours of an Apple headset will ever happen.
If Niantic can keep All-World fresh and interesting with immersive AR-focused gameplay, it might have a fighting chance. (My impression is that it’s a little light on content at this point, but to be fair, it’s early.) On the other hand, if All-World later transitions into a pay-to-win collect-a- thon, I don’t see it at the top of download lists for very long – if ever.
Whatever All-World’s success or failure might mean for Niantic, it wouldn’t necessitate the company. Niantic sells its Lightship platform to developers as a paid service. And GO (pun intended) is still going strong, with estimated sales of over $1 billion. In addition, Niantic raised $300 million in November 2021 at a valuation of $9 billion – more than doubling its valuation from 2018.
But after years of development, it would undoubtedly be a disappointment to the studio – and to the NBA head honchos who clearly have faith in Niantic’s ability to spin viral magic.