After Pokémon GO took the world by storm in 2016, we saw so many developers and franchises jump on the augmented reality train.
From The Walking Dead to even Harry Potter—there was game after game. This led to Bandai Namco joining the fray with augmented reality Pac-Man!
Pac-Man Geo was originally announced back at GDC 2019, and released a year later in 2020 for Android and iOS devices.
So, what was the game exactly? What led to its fast shut down just a year later in 2021?
Unlike Pokémon GO and the copycats that followed – Bandai Namco dared to be different. You weren’t collecting various types of Pac-Men (and Women) around your neighbourhood.
Instead, they stayed true to the roots of the franchise with Pac-Man Geo. It features the classic arcade gameplay, but you could turn real-world locations into stages!
Ever wanted to turn your street into a Pac-Man maze? Or maybe you wanted to eat power pellets around the Berlin Wall?
With Pac-Man Geo, you could be running away from ghosts around the cityscape of Tokyo. There was no limit!
Pac-Man Geo has a fascinating development history. It actually dates all the way back to an April Fool’s Prank from Google in 2015.
The prank turned Google Maps and your surrounding locations into a playable Pac-Man game. It was so popular, Google even reused it for their 2017 April Fools.
These pranks were the main source of inspiration for creating Pac-Man Geo—which, funnily enough, Pokémon GO shares the same roots.
Pokémon GO was similarly inspired by a Google Maps April Fool’s event back in 2014, when Niantic was still with Google.
“Leave no stone unturned or city unzoomed as you seek out wild Charizards and Pikachus to add to your Pokédex”Google, 2014 April fool’s announcement.
The 2014 April Fool’s event had people using Google Maps, scouring the world to find Pokémon. So, what did Pokémon GO do right that Pac-Man Geo didn’t?
The decision just seems to come down to Bandai Namco failing to generate enough buzz for Pac-Man Geo.
Despite the game being promising, as well as the formula being fun and fresh—nobody knew about the game.
You could argue that Pokémon GO was successful because of the brand, but Pac-Man is one of the most recognisable game characters in history.
For most of the hardcore augmented reality game enthusiasts I know—the news of Pac-Man Geo shutting down was the first time they had heard of it.
That isn’t to say Bandai Namco didn’t put in a good effort. A few months after launch, they released a huge version 2.0 update in an attempt to recapture interest.
The version 2.0 update for Pac-Man Geo launched in late March 2021, with the main spotlight on the new World Tour mode.
This update also added a huge change to the usual gameplay loop, introducing abilities and skills players could use to take on mazes.
The version 2.0 update was a breath of fresh air, with its new ways to play, but without the marketing to back it- the game was on its last legs.
The shutdown was announced on Twitter by the Japanese Pac-Man account, on September 28th, 2021.
It was later confirmed this closure would be for all regions, not just Japan. You can read the original tweet below:
Unsurprisingly, the replies are filled with people saying they’ve never heard of the game.
Pac-Man Geo closed down and was removed from stores on October 28th of 2021, exactly a month after the announcement.
Even though the game was pretty obscure, I think it was one of the bigger blows to the augmented reality game scene.
Pac-Man Geo wasn’t the only AR title shut down in 2021—but it was one of the few that tried to be more than a Pokémon GO reskin.
Niantic closed down Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, cancelled Catan: World Explorers, and Microsoft sunset Minecraft Earth due to the pandemic situation.
This is why I think branding doesn’t play a huge part in the success of an AR game. Harry Potter is a billion-dollar franchise, and Minecraft is the best-selling video game.
One of the more popular (and still running) augmented reality games, Orna – the Geolocation RPG, is a new IP from an indie developer.
Orna managed to survive through COVID, and fostered a tight-knit, welcoming community—which Bandai Namco forgot to do.
I think Bandai Namco struggled with marketing, and failed to explain Pac-Man Geo’s gameplay in a way that was engaging.
Whilst I personally found the game addictive, the trailers did a poor job giving you any reason to check it out, and showing off the gameplay loop.
They could have even advertised the game through crossover events with their other mobile titles—but didn’t bother.
Worst of all, Bandai didn’t capitalise on the augmented reality hype train either. They came in years late, after the Pokémon GO magic had worn off.
Maybe there’s a timeline out there where Bandai Namco put more marketing into the title, and the game had the world in Pac-Man’s pixelated hands.
Or maybe, it’s a success in a universe where the franchise is still called Puck-Man. Either way, it’s a shame to see such a unique take on the AR genre go.
With that being said, at least there’s some hope on the horizon! Niantic’s new upcoming pet-raising game, Peridot, has potential.