It looks like Pokémon GO players may get a surprise gift from the game's developer, Niantic, this holiday season.
After teasing the arrival of Buddy Adventure last month, Niantic revealed on Tuesday that the new interactive mode for its blockbuster game will arrive by 2020. And, with just two weeks remaining until 2020, that would mean an update is imminent.
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"Since launching Pokémon GO, this might be the most collaborative feature we have had with The Pokémon Company," said Ryuta Hiroi, Niantic's lead product manager for Buddy Adventure, in a blog post. "Even with your phone in your pocket, you'll feel like your buddy is right beside you."
As part of the announcement, Niantic released a trailer for the new features and revealed some details of what players can expect from Buddy Adventure.
First, the game will enhance the existing buddy system, where trainers select a sidekick from their captured Pokémon that earn in-game rewards (candy for upgrading characters) based on step counts. In addition to being able to swap out buddies without losing progress towards rewards, a new leveling system will unlock new abilities through interactions.
At the Good Buddy level, players will be able to see their sidekick in map view and what their current mood is. The Great Buddy level will enable buddies to assist in Pokémon encounters. Ultra Buddy level gives buddies an exploration ability, where sidekicks can discover nearby landmarks and acquire digital keepsakes, which are tracked on the buddy profile page.
Finally, Best Buddy level unlocks a Best Buddy Ribbon that other players can see, as well as combat point-earning permissions.
"I'm surprised by the number of Pokémon I'm falling in love with from interacting with them," said Laura Warner, the lead game designer on the project. "Like watching a Spheal roll behind me on the map... I just care about Pokémon unlike ever before. We're excited for Trainers to try out different buddies and see how each one becomes their friend."
Additionally, players will now be able to interact more with their buddies in the AR+ Mode, enabled by ARKit or ARCore, in order to level up. For instance, players can feed berries to their buddies or play with them by tapping the "Play!" button on the buddy profile page. Moreover, each Pokémon has its own personality and actions, which encourage players to swap them out and interact with them.
"It's almost as if each Pokémon were a family member," said Niantic tech artist Lena Verstappen. "How they eat, how they walk, and even where the Best Buddy Ribbon should be placed on each Pokémon's body — all of this and more was taken into account when crafting an as-immersive-as-possible experience."
Player interactions will also impact the buddy's mood and earn new in-game rewards in hearts that measure affection. Hearts are earned by exploring the map or entering battles with the buddy assigned as a sidekick, playing with or feeding the buddy, or taking a snapshot with the buddy. By elevating the buddy's mood, players will be able to decrease the distance to earn candy, earn more hearts with each interaction, and earn bonus hearts. Also, an upgraded buddy profile page will show progress towards rewards, activity status, and history.
"Our core design philosophy was not the only guiding compass when developing Buddy Adventure. We also wanted to make sure it still fit within the Pokémon universe. In this case, we wanted Trainers to be able to feel as if their buddy is a true partner and friend—just like in the sorts of partnerships they've seen in various Pokémon series in the past!" said Ethan Chan, technical lead for Buddy Adventure and Pokémon GO client engineer.
Finally, in an update following "soon" after the initial launch of Buddy Adventure, Niantic will bring a Shared AR Experience mode to the game. This will enable up to three players to sync their game environments and take a group photo with their buddies.
"The upcoming shared AR mode creates a meaningful real-world social experience by letting up to three Trainers place their Pokémon in the same space and take a photo together. We hope that features like this will enrich Trainers' lives as they discover even more places alongside their buddies," said Chan.
The Buddy Adventure features are made possible by Niantic's AR cloud platform, known as the Niantic Real World Platform, which the company announced in 2018. Leveraging multiplayer and neural network technology from its acquisitions of Escher Reality and Matrix Mill, respectively, the platform uses crowdsourced camera data to build 3D maps of the physical world, which enables shared multiplayer experiences, persistent content, and real-world occlusion.
In fact, Niantic used a proof-of-concept with Pokémon (see video above) to show how the platform could apply occlusion, though this capability isn't a part of the implementation of the platform for Pokémon GO as of yet.
Since then, Niantic has begun integrating the platform into its existing games, including the Ingress Prime reboot and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. The platform also enables background step tracking for Pokémon GO, but Buddy Adventures would be the first instance in which the next-generation mobile AR features have been applied.
Niantic isn't the only platform maker working on AR cloud functionality. Both Apple and Google have deployed multiplayer capabilities and persistent content support in their respective ARKit and ARCore toolkits, with Apple also bringing People Occlusion and Motion Capture to ARKit 3 and Google recently taking the wraps off its Depth API for real-world occlusion via ARCore. Startups 6D.ai and Ubiquity6 have also launched their own variations on the technology.
But what Niantic has that the other platforms don't have is, by far, the most successful mobile AR game in existence with which to introduce its AR cloud capabilities to the world. And that's a big advantage.