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Pikmin Bloom: How Niantic and Nintendo's new game mixes walking, memory and AR

The new mobile game is slowly making its way to launch. We tried it, and Niantic's CEO explains what to expect.

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Pikmin Bloom is a game of walking, flower-planting, memories... and mapping.

Niantic

Sitting in a park near my local coffee shop, on a beautiful autumn day, I get a buzz on my watch. Something has happened with my Pikmin. I open the phone app and use augmented reality to project a few Pikmin onto the table next to my coffee. Pikmin (the tiny, plantlike characters in a long-running Nintendo game series) have been coming with me on my morning walks lately. They help me plant flowers nearby. 

I'm beta-testing Niantic's Pikmin Bloom, a mobile game made in collaboration with Nintendo that's slowly rolling out worldwide starting this week, starting with Australia and Singapore. In some ways, it looks like the philosophical successor to Pokemon Go. In other ways, it's something completely different.

When Niantic announced its Pikmin game earlier this year, I didn't know what to expect. I thought the game would involve collaborative puzzle solving, kind of like the original Nintendo games do. Pikmin are a Nintendo franchise that's lesser known than Pokemon or Mario, but the flower-headed forest creatures have been around since the GameCube era in 2001. Twenty years later, they're Niantic's ambassadors for a new type of worldwide, map-based community game that involves walking, lifelogging memories (something I've been thinking about for a while) and laying flowers everywhere.

What's the end goal of the game? So far, I have no idea.

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The game's lifelogging and flower-planting vibe feels Nintendo-esque, and Pokemon Go-ish.

Niantic

Nintendo's game design legend Shigeru Miyamoto, who came up with the idea of Pikmin in the first place, said of Pikmin Bloom in a recorded video, "All over our world, there are unusual creatures called Pikmin, and they are invisible to the naked eye. And now, using Pikmin Bloom and your smartphone, you'll be able to find them all over."

"It's a smartphone app that's designed to make your time outside, perhaps your daily walk, more fun and enjoyable," says Niantic CEO John Hanke in a Zoom conversation with reporters. "And it's designed for people all around the world." Hanke sees the wide age-range appeal of the game as another distinguishing feature, versus the company's other games like Pokemon Go: "We wanted specifically to create something that would have a broad appeal. We think about appealing to ages 8 to 80 and all genders, and all kinds of different family configurations."

Pikmin Bloom feels, in a lot of ways, like a gamified fitness experience. The free-to-play game was designed to inspire people to take walks and discover new places. It turns steps into earned rewards that can earn Pikmin-sprouting seeds, or nectar you feed the Pikmin to produce flower petals that you collect. There are also purchasable in-game coins for getting extra boosts, similar to how Pokemon Go works.

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Pikmin on my park table, while I have coffee.

Scott Stein/CNET

"It is about collecting, exploring the map, finding flowers and then being able to collect these different types of pigments that you can get based on different location types," Niantic's Tokyo Studio director of UX design, Madoka Katayama, explains. But there's an emergent element of the game that's clearly going to be more than that. Pikmin Bloom uses shared world maps like Pokemon Go, so nearby locations can end up being planted with flowers from others. 

Occasionally, you'll be able to invite another player to plant flowers with you, according to Niantic, although I didn't get to try that yet. Sometimes a giant flower will bloom, and groups of people can plant flowers around it, almost like Pokemon Go gyms but... gentle and collaborative?

Niantic's CEO, John Hanke, says that there will be sponsorships and tie-ins with local retail locations, much like Pokemon Go has, although the specifics haven't been announced yet.

I kept looking to see how Bloom uses augmented reality. While all of the game is, in a sense, AR (overlaid on a location-based map of your place in the world), Pikmin can optionally be overlaid into the world using the phone camera, too. That effect right now feels more like a photo op for social sharing. Katayama says there are plans to use AR in more advanced ways with Pikmin in the future, though.

It reminds me of the step-counting, gamified fitness apps on the Nintendo 3DS from years ago, which turned daily steps into play coins and rewards in little minigames (there was even a flower-growing game). Pikmin Bloom ties into Apple Health and Google Fit to pull in daily step counts, and I saw notifications pop up on the Apple Watch to remind me to go back and see what rewards were waiting for me. There's no deeper smartwatch integration yet, though.

I also wonder about the memory part of the game. Pikmin Bloom leans into a lifelogging vibe, showing daily calendar entries where steps are recorded, collected Pikmin are shown off, and you're invited to add meaningful photos from that day along with captions. "These are little memories that get lost so often. And what Pikmin Bloom does is to help you remember, package them up like small memorable treasures that you can easily look back on and appreciate," says Katayama.

A little memory book starts to build itself from that, but right now there's no way to download and keep that memory book outside of Pikmin Bloom. "We are planning on working on a way to share them, and we are figuring out how to allow people to keep this data," Katayama adds.

Will Pikmin Bloom keep making me want to take walks? How much will the game evolve once more people start playing? Right now, it's impossible to really know. But as Niantic (and many other companies) continue to explore what AR games mean on phones, Pikmin Bloom looks like a reminder of where future fitness experiences could evolve, too.