It’s awards season for the video game industry, and one of the first announcements out of the gate comes from Apple, which unveiled its App Store Best of 2020 winners. The honors highlight coders who have created programs that have “proved to be essential for making life, easier, healthier and more connected” in a year that’s been upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
The iPhone Game of the Year was “Genshin Impact,” a console-quality title that happens to play well on mobile devices. The Chinese developer, miHoYo, read the tea leaves early and realized that the devices in players’ pockets would soon be able to push out visuals and gameplay equal to what they see on their living room televisions. As point of fact, “Genshin Impact” also released on PlayStation 4 and PC, showing that the hardware gap between the two devices is closing. The game can also be played across those different platforms.
Another title that showed how Apple devices were closing the gameplay divide was the iPad Game of the Year, “Legends of Runeterra.” This collectible card game is a spin-off to “League of Legends,” but what separates it from the likes of “Hearthstone” is that players can purchase individual cards and not packs of random ones. It’s a way to get players into the game without the need for spending hundreds of dollars on card packs that may not have what one is looking for.
The Mac Game of the Year and Apple TV Game of the Year are both unconventional tales that players may not be too familiar with. Each carries a distinct theme. The role-playing game “Disco Elysium” was heralded last year for its storytelling, winning four trophies at The Game Awards 2019. “Dandara: Trials of Fear” is a Metroidvania-style game from Long Hat House, a studio out of Brazil. It’s filled with images inspired from the country and the titular hero is a freedom fighter from the nation’s past.
The last two games are the most notable because of the stories behind them. “Sneaky Sasquatch,” the Apple Arcade Game of the Year, came out of a 2015 Game Jam idea from the two-person team at Rac7. Developers Jesse Ringrose and Jason Ennis worked around the theme of “You Are the Monster” and they came up with an idea of a Bigfoot that snuck around stealing food from campers.
Although it was fun, the two put the concept on the backburner and came back to it with the advent of Apple Arcade, which seemed like the perfect platform for a title that is constantly evolving and updating. “Sneaky Sasquatch” started out as game reminiscent of “Untitled Goose Game” with more of a “Metal Gear Solid” bent, but it strangely evolved into something more, as the team ran with the idea.
They gave the Sasquatch a disguise and that led to the monster getting a job and climbing the corporate ladder. The creature could earn money and acquire resources to upgrade its home. It turned into a life simulator akin to “Stardew Valley.” Ringrose said the process was like jazz in that the two didn’t have a plan initially.
“It’s improvised,” he said. “We try to do one thing one month and then listen to what the community wants next month.” A lot of the ideas for Sasquatch comes from their own personal lives. The latest update, which features an adoptable dog, has its basis on Ringrose’s own pooch. He said that the in-game dog is named after his own pet.
Diving deeper into their past, Ringrose talked about how the game reflects his and Ennis’ childhoods in the Pacific Northwest. The two creators lived across the street from each other and spent considerable amount of time outdoors.
“We’re pulling from our own lives,” Ringrose said. “My friend and I went skiing, canoeing. … We’ve been building our childhood into a game and that means a lot when kids didn’t have a childhood this year.”
Children stuck at home because of the coronavirus have been exploring the wilderness in “Sneaky Sasquatch,” and they’ve been having adventures in the world inside their screens. Because they are missing out on part of their adolescence, Ringrose said, “They can play some of our childhood.”
“Pokemon Go” needs no introduction. It was a title that blew up in the Before Times of 2016, lost many of its initial users but steadily regained a following because of its improvements. The mobile title earned the App Trend of the Year award in 2020 for its ability to reinvent the game amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Few games had a steeper hill to climb than “Pokemon Go,” which requires players to be outside and socialize face to face with others. So how do you adapt a game, when the pillars that it’s built on don’t work in a pandemic?
Senior product manager Matthew Slemon and his team faced that question after returning from PAX East at the end of February. They discovered that they couldn’t go super local with changes because different states and nations had their own COVID rules. If they made changes, it would have to be global and they would have to do it quick. The plans for the 2020 feature set had to be altered drastically.
“We threw out the old road map,” Slemon said.
Niantic began asking, “How do you keep ‘Pokemon Go’s” spirit alive? How do we stay true to the core principles?”
Concepts like remote raiding were brought to the forefront. Slemon said developers wanted to keep the regionality and sense of place. They did that by requiring players to be friends with one another and showing them where raids would be taking place locally. That sense of place showed up well during the Lake Trio event, when players had a chance to capture legendary Pokemon not normally found in their neck of the woods. They just had to get invites from friends in Europe, North America or Asian Pacific region
Other ideas like stickers were fast-tracked because Slemon said they were easy to implement and they added to the social interaction of sending gifts to friends virtually. He said the stickers with their messages were bite-size pieces of socialization amid the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Team Go Rocket balloons actually came out of a promotion for Pokemon Go Fest in Germany, said Veronica Saron, product marketing manager for Niantic. She said the team there rented an air balloon for the event, and the real-life promo event ended up being part of the game as Niantic adapted its Team Go Rocket element so that players could challenge the villains from their home instead of venturing out to a Pokestop.
Although the team made strides in trying to keep players safe while enjoying the fun and virtual socialization from the game, Slemon said that Niantic did make some mistakes. He said during the fall when coronavirus cases were falling, the team removed some of the bonuses that helped keep players socially distanced in order to “focus more on the real-world gameplay.” But as cases began skyrocketing, Niantic, to its credit, returned those perks.
“We got it wrong,” he said, calling it a lesson in humility. “Things are changing again. We try to incorporate community feedback, and this time, there’s more a heads-up” about the bonuses. He said the gameplay boosts were taken away rather abruptly. Niantic said the bonuses would remain until June and they would give players a better heads-up before returning to normal gameplay.
Now entering 2021, “Pokemon Go” has again set its sights on the future with the introduction of seasons and the raising of the level cap to 50. I’ve written about this before, but both big announcements are huge for longtime players, and the way it’s set up, “Pokemon Go” is more welcoming now for newcomers. December is one of the best times to jump in the game and take advantage of how Niantic has changed it for the better.
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