A game in which you wander around the real world with your smartphone, catching monsters via augmented reality. Sound familiar? No, I’m not talking about Pokemon Go. The year was 2009 and this was Free All Monsters.
Pokemon Go might rule the world right now, but essentially the same game was being played seven years ago. Free All Monsters was developed by Huddersfield-based Andrew Wilson in partnership with Lancaster University. In addition to creating a fun game, they wanted to study participation in mobile gaming.
Prior to Free All Monsters, Wilson had developed Free Manchester’s Monsters, a similar game played via SMS alerts. “Flyers explaining the activity were distributed around the Northern Quarter and Manchester people submitted monsters by text messages, with a low-fi location based system that let them place the monster on a street or landmark,” Wilson explains. “You could find the monster on the street by text as well.”
By 2009, Free All Monsters was up and running. The photos accompanying this article are from IGfest, a pervasive games festival in Bristol that year. It was there that the public got an early look at the game. “Most of the events at those festivals were the zombie-chase type games with no technology element, but there was a very small (worldwide) subsection of people who did technology-based activities,” says Wilson.
“By the end of that afternoon in 2009 I knew that something like Pokemon Go was bound to happen. The positive response to the monster spotting activity was just too powerful, and it was repeated on the same terms at half a dozen other public events.”
Free All Monsters was developed for Symbian-based Nokia smartphones, and later ported to Apple’s iOS. In addition to catching monsters, you could create your own and upload them for others to seek out.
Wilson says that lots of feedback came in from people who enjoyed hunting monsters. “One player told me she and her husband got off a bus to spot a rare monster they saw as they were passing.” Tom Watson, currently Deputy Leader of the Labour party, was a player at one point.
“The crucial evidence is the expressions on the faces of those players in 2009/10. I’d go to places with four N95 phones, set up my ‘monster spotting’ table, explain to people how they played. Off they’d go, and come back with exactly the same pattern of responses every time – “thank you that was great, how did you come up with the idea, are you going to do it again?”
“Didn’t matter about age or gender, always the same responses. Always positive, always wanting to talk about it, always asking questions.”
Free All Monsters even generated revenue through a partnership with the Irwell Sculpture Trail in Greater Manchester, Wilson says.
However, Wilson says that the academic side of the project held back development. “In collaborations with academics, the artist or business should always define the research challenges – we’ve got more at stake so we make shrewder choices. And more sophisticated academic researchers recognise that – it’s the way that Blast Theory’s collaboration with Mixed Reality Lab is structured, for example.”
In the end, not enough people cared about the game to keep it going and it was taken offline in 2012.
“I set up a workers cooperative, Transpennine Games Co-operative, to try and share the ownership of the game in the North and make sure it was about building a regional business,” says Wilson. “After that I couldn’t find any other developers who were interested. I offered everyone, academic or not, membership of the co-operative but no-one cared.”
Seven years on, players are hunting monsters all over the world. But Wilson doesn’t believe that it was simply the recognisable brand that has made Pokemon Go a success. He believes that his game could have made it big if things had been different.
“If we’d given those players from 2009/10 a way to get other people having the same experience then they would have been word-of-mouth champions for it, no question. I’m sure they did go away and talk about what a great thing they had taken part in. One parent I met again told me her son hadn’t shut up about it – it’s just they had no way to pass that on. The iPhone version was an inadequate reproduction of the original game without any integration of easy social sharing.”
Wilson sees a parallel to what Free All Monsters could have been in the cult pastime of geocaching.
“(Geocaching) generated tens of millions of interactions worldwide involving technology and movement in the physical world, without having a brand behind it. It built up step-by-step through word of mouth.
“The monsters game could have done the same, and it had a seven-year head start to build a brand that would have occupied the space that Pokemon Go is in now.”
In the end, Pikachu and friends won the day. But their spiritual ancestors appeared long before, on a Nokia smartphone in West Yorkshire.
Read next: Fit Gurus is like Netflix for gym workouts
Photos courtesy Andrew Wilson