Pokemon Go has captured the imagination of the world – but an almost identical game was being played on smartphones seven years ago.

Free All Monsters, developed by Andrew Wilson in partnership with Lancaster University, also challenged players to catch monsters ‘in the real world’ using Nokia phones.

He debuted the game at IGfest, a games festival in Bristol.

“Most of the events at those festivals were the zombie-chase type games with no technology element, but there was a very small subsection of people who did technology-based activities,” Wilson told Tech North.

“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

“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

The university wanted to study participation in mobile gaming. However academic input became something of a hindrance.

"In collaborations with university researchers, if there are limited resources and you want to make an impact, let the artist or business decide what the priorities are -  we’ve got more at stake so we make shrewder choices,” he reflected.

"As a team, we had a responsibility to the culture and economy of places in England's North to get the game to as wide an audience as possible, and we never lived up to that responsibility."

The game was later converted to Apple’s iOS, meaning it could be played on iPhones, although Wilson was not happy with the port.

“The iPhone version was an inadequate reproduction of the original game without any integration of easy social sharing,” he said.

Apple stands to make billions from Pokemon Go's popularity - despite having no involvement in the production of the game - and is itself looking to invest in AR.

Free All Monsters also enabled players to create monsters and upload them for others to seek out.

Free All Monsters

“One player told me she and her husband got off a bus to spot a rare monster they saw as they were passing,” Wilson added.

However as interest waned, the game 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,” Wilson said.

“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.”

Free All Monsters

So is it mostly the brand that has seen Pokemon Go become an augmented reality phenomenon?

Wilson does not entirely see it that way.

“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,” he said.

“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 success of Pokemon Go could convince Nintendo that it can reinvent itself as a mobile games company by cashing in on its vast intellectual property.

Many thanks to Andrew Wilson for granting BusinessCloud permission to use these pictures