It’s… a devastating time in the world right now. In our household we’ve been doing the best we can just to keep our heads above water, suddenly having to be schoolteachers AND do our full-time jobs remotely. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for hobbies, but retreating into hobbies has always been my way of dealing with stress. Thankfully we’re experiencing an early spring, and living in a less-dense suburban area means we can frequently get outside for walks while keeping a healthy distance from others. It’s an absolute necessity when living in a small house with a young, energetic child.
One of those aforementioned hobbies is location-based gaming, which for me has come roaring back after a winter lull. (Birding aside, that is.) My gym is closed so my morning runs are accompanied by the groans of zombies. Run an Empire recently pushed some major, new updates and I’ve started poking at it again. My kid is obsessed with Pokémon so of course Pokémon Go continues to be a mainstay. A friend set up a Minecraft server which got me to return to that video game; the inspiration needed to finally check out the early access version of Minecraft Earth, which I hadn’t realized has major location-based gaming elements.
On a professional level, it’s been interesting to see how the genre has scrambled to adjust its rules of play in a time of quarantine. At Traipse, the location-based gaming company I work for, we’re pretty much entirely on hold. Technically most of our scavenger hunt walking tours are totally possible to play without interaction with other people, but it feels irresponsible to tell people it’s ok to leave their homes for anything other than what’s necessary. Geocaching.com seems to be struggling with similar messaging and, at least for me, is a pursuit that while possible, would feel like flaunting my state’s stay-at-home orders.
Niantic’s trio of big location-based games (Ingress, Pokemon Go, and Wizards Unite) have been the most eye-catching for me. Niantic has been remarkably agile about pushing game updates to make playing them possible without having to walk very far.
Pokémon Go and Wizards Unite in particular are about collecting things, and now those virtual creatures/objects spawn around you at a much higher rate than normal. Game materials needed to assist the capture of those collectables also appear more often. It was enough to especially re-spark my curiosity in Wizards Unite, a game I originally bounced off of very quickly.
I linked my original post about Wizards Unite above, but the gist of it was that the game was too stingy in giving out “spell energy”, an in-game currency of sorts that’s needed to power most actions. The lack of accessible spell energy made playing Wizards Unite outside of a major city frustrating and I quickly abandoned the game. Suddenly, however, after Niantic’s pandemic-driven game update, spell energy is literally just laying around on the ground.
Now, I’m finding that Wizards Unite is actually fun to play.
The lack of spell energy is what roused me to anger in the first place, but that ultimately was rooted in a frustration that I was being barred from discovering more about the game’s story. It’s a lowered expectation as there are very few location-based games with any sort of narrative, but Wizards Unite had enough of a story hook that I wanted to learn more about this one. We’ve been reading the first Harry Potter book to my kid (and they’re loving it), so right now I’m feeling extra connected to this literary canon. As you accomplish various milestones in the game, and seemingly at random, you’re given pieces of the mystery of why this wild magic calamity might be happening in the Harry Potter world and who might be behind it.
Armed with sufficient spell energy to pursue these magical traces in Wizards Unite, I could chip away at the story with some success. The level at which Niantic has made the spawning rate of energy feels just right, where I can’t just play the game all day without encountering any barriers, but I can still participate at a level where I can feel successful. The only virtual Inns in our real-life town are a long walk away, and in fits of cabin fever we’ve been heading over there when my spell energy levels are too low to catch up to the new, natural appearances of energy. Plus, oddly, Wizards Unite has kept the daily combat and inn-visiting requirements for its daily challenges, which is something I would have thought to have been temporarily removed considering the global health crisis**. Again, I’m lucky enough to be able to walk around the neighborhood and my area isn’t under lockdown, but many people do not have that luxury.
After the pandemic (what a thing to write), I’m not sure how long I’ll stick with Wizards Unite as I still have some frustrations with some inherent aspects of the game’s design. Rare traces vanishing even after a single, masterful spell-cast drives me up the friggin wall, and while I do want to learn more about the story, the way the game is structured makes it hard to unlock hidden pieces on purpose. You can’t play deliberately when so much of the game is random. But in a time when my real world has suddenly gotten very small, the game has been a reason to keep moving.
I don’t know what Niantic intends to do after everything settles down, but I hope they keep spell energy as a free-flowing resource. That would mean some rethinking about the purpose of game objects like Inns, but I don’t doubt their ability to figure it out. I remain wary, because if things go back to the way they were, my interest in Wizards Unite will once again disapparate.
** UPDATE: Later in the day after this post went live I saw the below message in the game. Once again, good on Niantic for changing their game in response to the crisis.