How could Niantic, the leading developers of Pokémon Go, possibly top its augmented-reality (AR) gaming sensation? Today's announcement from the studio hints at its future strategy: find someone else to do it.
The Niantic Beyond Reality Developer Contest talks up a prize pool of more than $1 million, but the real meat of this "contest" is a brand-new incubator program that seeks to marry nimble, indie teams with Niantic's proprietary "Real World Platform" toolset. Interested developers need to come up with a team of at least five people with demonstrable experience in Unity and Java Server and send a 10-page pitch document (as opposed to a working prototype).
Wheres Simon Cowell?
Niantic has also asked for pitch videos of up to five minutes in length from each interested developer, which somewhat resembles a reality-TV contest. However, a quick scan of the contest's rules includes no mention of contestants agreeing to any sort of ongoing filmed content as part of the contest (especially since most of the three-month period will be spent in participants' home cities).
Before the $300,000 grand prize (and two $100,000 runner-up prizes) is awarded, 10 finalists will receive travel accommodations for two Bay Area events and a $50,000 "stipend" to work on a pitched prototype for a period of three months. (Worth noting: if you pitch a project with a team of more than five people, you don't get more money.) Those trips will include conversations with Niantic developers and executives, access to Niantic's 24/7 servers, and access to the company's proprietary development platform.
Niantic clearly has an open mind about what qualifies for the contest, and well it should, since "AR" gaming and apps have a simple selection of base requirements: a 3D-capable smartphone, a camera, and GPS access. "If you have an idea that bridges gaming and other areas, like physical activity, social, travel, or shopping, please feel free to submit," Niantic writes in its blog post.
How much of the developed work in this contest will remain in contestants' hands, and how much must they cough up as a result of the contest's arrangement? We have two answers to this question in the contest's rules. The first is a relatively clear answer of how much content Niantic will have access to:
Any intellectual property created by your team–including proposed artwork and concepts–will be owned by your team. In turn, Niantic will retain ownership over its technology and the Real World Platform, as well as any other resources provided to you during the contest. All entrants, upon submission, will provide Niantic with a perpetual license to use their entries, both for marketing purposes and to incorporate any features or concepts, including gameplay, into its platform, technology, and future products.
Additionally, the contest's fine print includes a paragraph about "first right of offer or refusal" for a period of up to 90 days after the contest concludes, in the event of some other game publisher wanting to swoop in and buy up whatever a contest participant's project entails. What's missing between these two clauses is a clear delineation of what, if anything, Niantic will be owed by an outside publisher (or even an indie team publishing its game by itself) for use of Niantic's tools and platform.
Backs getting scratched?
Thus, Niantic's promotion somewhat resembles other incubator and accelerator programs across the tech world, which offer younger teams a mix of training and proprietary tools in exchange for giving away some of their creative and developmental results. And like other incubator programs, particularly Ubisoft's Station F program in Paris, this effort sees an established studio asking brand-new voices for fresh ideas. (Ubisoft's program, as reported by GamesIndustry.biz, seeks ideas in the realms of artificial intelligence and machine learning that may or may not eventually apply to its video game businesses.)
Whether these programs offer a fair "scratch-my-back, I'll-scratch-yours" exchange or not is up for debate, especially as more game developers and tech workers speak out about the benefits of unionization and establishing best practices instead of taking advantage of desperate labor (whether because of age or lower cost of living).