I’ve recently been playing Orna: The GPS RPG as a way to further explore a genre that’s still small and niche, but studios keeps trying (and failing) to expand it. It’s not that there’s only one company in the game; it’s that the big one is consistently bad at protecting players and providing reasonable customer service.
As I’ve previously mentioned, Orna’s one-man dev launched a product that even I knew was possible but for major companies haven’t been making. It’s a big reason I often prefer indie games despite feeling pigeonholed to mainstream ones, outside of wacky Uncle Nintendo: Indies can do the things players want but AAA studios are too afraid to try. But indies are also saddled with smaller sizes, budgets, and dev teams. So today, let’s make a quick comparison between the Pokemon GO giant and little old Orna.
Orna got an 8/8 on our MMO criteria list. POGO falls at about a 6.5 for lacking in-game communication and questionable on-screen “massiveness” in terms of player numbers.
Orna has a lot of features that MMO players in particular are used to: chat systems, player parties, guilds, quests, a varied combat system, classes, specializations, cross-class skill carryover, equipment, crafting, player-built towns, random treasure, fishing… I could go on. From just basic descriptions, Orna sounds like a full-featured game, especially when you throw in that the multiplayer can be in real-time. Other geo-location games I’ve played have had similar features, especially The Walking Dead: Our World, but Orna’s features are less gated, both in terms of monetization and timers. Heck, as I mentioned in my impressions piece, spawns are so aggressive that you will never run out of stuff to grind, even if you try.
POGO has catching, raising, walking, feeding, trading, and fighting pokemon with occasional PvP, territory battles, and raids. Oh, and fashion – that’s one thing Orna lacks for the most part, plus I guess AR photos/catching, the latter of which goes mostly unused. I could throw in AR tasks, but those are literally gamified jobs no one enjoys.
While that description does kind of make the game sound like a pet simulator at best, that part of the game is also likely the most shallow. No, the bulk of Pokemon GO for people who aren’t abusing hacks and bugs is catching pokemon (often with a peripheral device so they don’t have to actively play) and then sorting through their collection of monsters and items, making it more of an inventory management game with combat tacked on.
Clearly Orna wins for MMO players when we’re talking about basic gameplay. Obviously something is going on if so many more people enjoy Pokemon GO, but I’ll get to that later.
Safety and privacy are admittedly linked, but I think there’s a big difference we need to go over, especially for location-based games. For example, walking and playing Orna feels more dangerous than with Pokemon GO just because it’s more engaging, so that’s a safety issue, not so much a privacy one. Pokemon GO, like Ingress before it, not only sets teams explicitly against each other but asks them to fight for premium currency. On top of that, the “battles” include claiming RL territory with timestamps, which can allow other players to trace your route, possibly determining where you live or work. Since covering this, I’ve seen more people coming forward with stories about how Niantic games led to stalking situations, some of which involved police and successful lawsuits.
Thanks to the less-incentivized territory battles, which lack premium rewards and complete lack of time stamps on claimed territory, Orna would win this hands-down if it weren’t for yet another layer: Niantic profiles, which link a user across multiple Niantic titles akin to Steam. The problem, of course, is that unlike Steam games, Niantic games are largely played in the real world, where nearby players and far-off spoofers can use the games to harass and intimidate victims. As friend’s lists are all-or-none, using a Niantic account across multiple titles helps decrease one’s privacy only should a “friend” go rogue.
This is important because Niantic games often incentivize adding new friends, even during COVID, leading people to add strangers to their list. As soon as player are added to your friend list, they are also added to your Niantic profile friend list. While Orna developer Northern Forge only has one game at the moment, the non-linking of profiles across games is a major advantage, and we’re only talking about privacy from users.
But sadly, we’re still not done with privacy concerns. We already knew that Niantic wanted to track you everywhere you go, but Kotaku’s Wizards Unite era exposé outlined the history of Niantic/CEO John Hanke’s misuse of data even while at Google, demonstrating that Niantic either lies or makes gross errors in the regard how much it tracks. Even now, Google (where the company was founded and a key backer) is still dealing with the blowback of illegally tracking users who opted-out of tracking, much like Kotaku noted of Niantic in 2019.
Yes, Orna has territory wars and in-game chat. I’ve engaged in both as a low level and haven’t been challenged yet. I’ve used teleport options to see other players’ towns, and if someone put a gun to my head and asked where to find player X, I wouldn’t even be able to give the country for the online players I’ve partied with. But nothing that I’ve seen or experienced makes me feel like the game’s developer is watching me the way Niantic games do, and I read all the EULAs and TOSes. Simply put, Orna dominates in terms of privacy.
Now, let’s circle back a bit to how privacy and safety are linked. Once you lose your privacy in a geo-location game, it’s gone. Anyone who had that information retains it, not in-game, but in their minds, and it can be shared anytime someone thinks you deserve punishment. Literally, the only way to get out of this would be to change your RL residence and possibly your name so that people can’t just find you again. Quitting doesn’t necessarily make you safe. That inherently means any loss of privacy also becomes a safety risk, immediately putting POGO at a disadvantage when compared to Orna.
But safety goes beyond privacy. Multiple combat menus alone makes it obvious that Orna wants you to be engaged in combat. POGO‘s ranked PvP does require one to pay attention, but as you have far fewer buttons and menus, and it’s not a basic aspect of gameplay required to advance. I’d argue that most of the combat, especially in PvE, is decided far in advance by choosing which pokemon to raise and which abilities to give them, followed by pre-combat team selection.
All of this helps to ensure that POGO’s potential combat distractions are very minimal. Any veteran POGO player will tell you that most of the raids involve mindlessly clicking roughly the same spot on their screen while you chat with friends. No, instead of combat, for POGO, we should look at its basic gameplay advancement: catching.
While POGO does have the whole “waiting for just the right time” to throw the ball mechanic, most veterans (again, who are not abusing bugs or hacks) do this with little thought process involved by simply using peripherals to do it for them. Yes, there were plenty of reports early on about people driving and playing before causing an accident, but I believe this number has fallen not because of player numbers alone but because of game-supported automated play.
In fact, I would say that one of my favorite parts of the game is just walking with friends and clicking buttons to automate gameplay, occasionally checking the screen for rare spawns or other activities. While “playing” recently, I pulled a small dog away from a very real pelican that tried to make a meal of out the poor guy, as the dog itself was distracted by fallen snacks. If I had been playing Orna, we probably would have had to wrestle with that bird a bit and someone would need a trip to the vet.
I can truly appreciate Orna’s gameplay, but something that engaging being played while you’re out in the world just doesn’t feel safe, especially with the constant spawns. You can call Niantic combat/gameplay boring until you’re blue in the face, but the simple and infrequent encounters (for the most part) allow the player to be in the real world with eyes open. I will also argue that Orna’s combat ensures it would be an even worse idea to drive and play (and unlike its competitor, there isn’t a site dedicated to Orna deaths).
For basic gameplay, I’d argue that Pokemon GO is safer, especially if as you play more and use company-approved automated play options. The simple and automated gameplay makes sure players don’t need to be constantly glued to their screens as with Orna. However, and more seriously, the previous discussion about privacy means that outside of accidental deaths, Pokemon GO can lead to long-term loss of privacy, opening the player up to real-world harassment, intimidation, and worse. Overall, I wager Orna is safer, but just barely.
I have to admit that Pokemon GO is one of most fairly monetized mobile games I’ve played, especially in terms of location-based games. Forget pay-to-win; having to watch ads for out-of-universe products is one of the worst features of mobile games for me and often a reason there are very few I’ll touch outside of reviews. Even POGO toes the line here with image-based ads on pokestops and balloons that give items.
Pay-to-win is there, not just with straight-up XP and stardust multipliers but with incubators that double as a gambling mechanic. This is especially important to note because players have researched and all but confirmed that Niantic has changed odds on hatch-rates mid-event without refunding players who made purchases prior to the change. For the most part, while Niantic may be better than average in terms of location-based game monetization (and in my opinion, moreso among mobile games in particular), it’s still not great, especially when you factor in the idea that it also makes money by leveraging our data when dealing with potential partners/advertisers.
The one area I respect Niantic the most in terms of monetization is with Raid Passes. Yes, there are also fashion options, but passes are particularly interesting. Like the arcades of old, Raid Passes essentially ask you for an entry fee to try your luck at a skill-based game. Yes, the skill amount lessens as you add more players, and yes, the rewards are nice but randomized. However, players do get free passes daily, they can be unlocked with earned coins, and outside of ranked PvP, rewards don’t affect the overall game’s health, especially in the territory PvP.
Orna is similar in that monetization is primarily about “fashion” and tokens. Players can pay to unlock sprites that change their avatar’s overall look, though sadly not piecemeal (you can either look like a dark elf or not; that awesome helmet you got will never change your avatar’s appearance). They can also pay for keys and tokens for dungeons and PvP entry.
Yes, Orna does have some “power” buying options similar to POGO (like XP boosts, currency boosts, and only low-level classes that boost walk XP during a time you’re already drowning in XP), but the game is verygenerous about giving these options. I play daily and have more item boosts and tokens than I can use per day.
While I’m happy with my 1-2 daily raids in POGO, Orna allows the freebies to stack up seemingly indefinitely. There are no game-of-timers to pay to reduce either. I might not be able to do a dungeon every hour, but I can save those keys for later. Even better, since I can save my keys up, I can actually virtually pay for other players to join me, a social function that more multiplayer games should include. Orna feels like the winner here.
This one’s particularly important. While a big component of MMOs is the “o” for “online,” location-based games are a kind of hybrid, offering on-the-spot local multiplayer but also online features for when you’re at home. Sometimes, those RL aspects don’t translate well online.
For example, Spaceteam is a really fun local multiplayer game. Think of those games where you have info that your teammate doesn’t, and you have to communicate it. Now make it so everyone in a 2-8 player session has info to share that way, and you have an idea of the chaos. Playing Spaceteam online, if that were possible, would feel clumsy from the privacy of one’s own home, as well as call a lot of unwanted attention to the players in meatspace unless the developer toned the actions down.
For Orna, this area is admittedly weak for one big reason: Nearly anything you can do in meatspace can also be done simply through teleportation. Run a dungeon with a friend? Teleport. Coliseum PvP? Teleport. World boss? Teleport. Granted, playing in meatspace does make this easier, but as previously mentioned, Orna doesn’t feel great as a walking game. I could sit at a cafe with friends and play, but with COVID being a thing, that’s more limited.
The other issue is, sadly, playerbase. There are far fewer Orna players than POGO players. Because Orna is menu-based, there’s no real action that will identify you as an Orna player. POGO’s curveball throws immediately give away who is playing the game, which could lead to striking up a conversation. Having a great Reddit community or Discord channels (which both games have) is nice for talking about the game, but it’s not the same.
This is even more apparent during POGO live events like Community Day, which encourages people to play the game more during a certain period of time. Even raids do this, as they ask people to go to a certain location to get something done in a short amount of time. While the old system frequently led to paths being blocked in my local community, the expanded range (and COVID) has seen this become less of an issue.
One issue both games do well is including lower-level players. POGO gyms scale for lowbies and levels actually feel less important well before the former level 40 cap. Orna may have harder group mobs, but low-level players can still tag along without punishment, and there are quests that task high-level players with killing low-level mobs. Having a lowbie along who can make those mobs spawn more frequently makes lower-level players an occasional asset, which is a great feature for any multiplayer game.
As enjoyable as Orna is, its teleport mechanic threatens its ability to motivate players to go out, while the smaller playerbase combined with lack of identifiable movements makes it hard to physically find other players, especially as Orna lacks meatspace events to encourage socialization. Admittedly, the teleport mechanic probably helps the smaller playerbase find each other, while a large game like POGO most likely will continue to limit this to help keep real-world communities in existence. Pokemon GO wins here.
Use of GPS for gameplay
If you just want a game to get you outside and moving, I’ve heard good things about Zombies, Run! as it’s basically a running app with a story. However, the multiplayer aspect is mostly limited to leaderboards, so I mostly see it as a single-player game.
This is still important to note, though: Location-based games feel strongest when their gameplay is simpler, at least for outdoor activities. Everyone I’ve talked to about starting a location-based game says at least one of two things: exercise and socialization. Because of this, simple basic gameplay, especially if it can be automated, feels better for this genre to function. It’s not that other features are bad per-se, but the emphasis should be on going out first, and doing “stuff” second.
Pokemon GO is above average at this. Especially when auto-catching pokemon while outside, you can sit down later, go through your collection, trade with friends, and do online battles. That aspect of the gameplay loop feels like a good definition of how these games should be played. Pikmin Bloom’s way of rewarding exercise and travel is better in that it unlocks tasks you don’t need to even check until you get home, but that game’s also arguably less multiplayer (fewer direct player interactions) and less safe (literally creating trails for stalkers to follow in real-time).
As enjoyable as Orna is, having a combat-heavy game with mobs spawning at such an aggressive rate as to never run out makes it feel more like a sitting game. Yes, you can sit at a friend’s house and have different spawns while playing together, but the same thing can be done through teleportation. It’s a different kind of GPS play, but one that feels like it isn’t wholly taking advantage of what location-based games can be, instead relying more on what games already do: combat grinds.
Yes, there are reasons to go out and explore, like randomly generated items, territory control, and exploration, but as with combat in POGO, this feels like a secondary emphasis. For example, Orna will give quests like taking 2000 steps or killing mollusks and then return to an NPC, but the rewards are often far from game-defining, and like most things, they can be circumvented by having a friend/guildie with a properly placed teleportation pad.
For the alone-together crowd, Orna is a solid gameplay choice, especially if you want motivation to go out but not necessarily exercise. It offers a lot of MMO features while also providing a few reasons to go out and explore. It’s fun, fair, and especially accessible to MMO players – doubly so for people with mobility issues.
However, for people who want exercise and to expand their meatspace social circle, Pokemon GO sadly remains the king for the foreseeable future. Privacy concerns are real, but Niantic has a highly popular game IP to build on and attract players with, making it feel much more massive in meatspace. The simple gameplay with automation allows for people to do light gaming while being present in reality, and while it’s fun to do a 5-man raid, it’s more fun when you’re physically with five other people who want to grab ice cream after you win. There’s clearly a fine line to walk when designing location-based games though, and there’s room for a spectrum of features – if developers are willing to play with them.
Massively OP’s Andrew Ross is an admitted Pokemon geek and expert ARG-watcher. Nobody knows Niantic and Nintendo like he does! His Massively on the Go column covers Pokemon Go as well as other mobile MMOs and augmented reality titles!