I spend a lot of time thinking about games that leverage location-based services (LBS). I’ve worked at companies emphasizing LBS development, and I when I joined those companies, LBS was considered a wide open space for development. At the time, there was a lot of hype around the space, but folks now folks generally view location-based gaming as a failed experiment. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had conversations with people that begin with the assertion that location-based gaming just doesn’t work.
You know what I say? Horsepucky. Prepare for an education, because I’m throwing down the guantlet and going aggro.
People often bemoan the weakness of the location-based gaming genre, but they rarely offer much by way of analysis. They point to the scarcity of LBS games and the lack of success for those games that do exist and condemn the entire genre on that basis. Prior history is certainly a relevant metric for evaluating the strength of a market, but it seems a bit premature when the data points you have access to represent a very narrow set of possibilities within a potentially very deep space.
If you want to argue that people have absolutely no interest in bringing pieces of the world around them into a game, then that’s fine. Unwise, but I’d respect it. But people aren’t saying that. People are saying that LBS games to date haven’t been as successful as initially hoped. That’s true, but it doesn’t get to the merits of the market. Rather, it focuses on the failure of games to capitalize on that market. Let me be clear: the failure of LBS is the product of poor design and technical choices, not the market at large.
Gritty details time. The truth gonna hurt, but my dear readers need to know it.
The Failure of Design
The most giant fail of all: location-based games are based on locations. They make a particular location, a player’s presence at that location, and other players’ proximity to that location the centerpiece of the game, the focal point through which all mechanics flow. FAIL FAIL FAIL. Let me count the ways: (1) Day 1 Failpocalypse; (2) Depth of Play Constraints; and (3) Location Imbalance.
Day 1 Failpocalypse
When people envision LBS games, they envision two people who don’t know each other sitting at the same location and breaking out into a spontaneous eBattle for DOMINANCE of that location.
There are hundreds of thousands of locations in San Francisco alone. On Day 1, you might have 5,000 users if you’re lucky. If you have any mechanic that requires 2 players to exist within the same location as each other (or even within a 10 mile radius), you’ve got some serious problems on launch. Players will sign in, see a vast empty wilderness, and think to themselves: “This is the worst game I have ever played. I hate this game, I hate the developers and I hate my life. Where is Angry Birds?”
And I wouldn’t blame them. Why? Because the developer got greedy. They designed a game for 50 million users, not 5,000. You gotta walk before you crawl. You don’t get to assume player concentration on Day 1. If you want to get granular with location, that’s a design option you grow into, not something you implement out of the gate, particularly given the inability to effectively target user acquisition to micro-geos.
Depth of Play Constraints
The problem with tieing play mechanics to presence in a location is that people don’t lead interesting lives. They don’t travel around the city on magical journeys of discovery. Here’s what they do: they wake up in their home, they go to work, they go to the bank, they go to their favorite restaurant and then they go back home, likely to cry. That’s 4 locations to work with. People are not traveling out of the way for your game. If you require them to, particularly before they get hooked on the game, you deserve to fail.
This leaves you with a real problem. If you have only have 4 locations, how do you make LBS interesting? More importantly, if you spend most of your time at one location no one else travels to (your home), how the hell do you make social player mechanics work? More on that later, but the short answer is that you don’t limit them to 4 locations.
Brilliant, I know.
Just because Player X lives in the sticks doesn’t mean they aren’t a person too. An emphasis on presence in location is another way of telling every person that lives in a suburb, exburb, rural area or anything other than Silicon Valley, San Francisco, LA, and NY to go screw themselves. I agree we’re all special butterflies here in SV, but game designers need to be a bit more pragmatic if they’re going to inject the real world into their games.
Designing games that require interaction with numerous/diverse locations is a recipe for fail without countervailing measures (modifying the range a person can interact with a location from, creating benefits for having fewer locations nearby). It’s a lot harder to succeed with game design if you eliminate two-thirds of your audience out of the gate.
The Technical Fails
Another major obstacle to LBS games is getting locations wedged into games in the first place. You’ve got a few options available to you, most people choose the wrong one. The easy option is to go out and use a third-party location platform, but this is potentially problematic. Many platforms have a number of restrictions in license agreement that really prevent developers from doing the interesting stuff they want to with a data (like storing/manipulating location information). No storage of information makes it hard to build in persistence (since you can’t carry the data over between sessions). There may also be restrictions on the commingling of data, which makes it pretty tough to increase accuracy or add depth to the existing data set.
This isn’t their fault. Their high accuracy comes at a cost. They’re hamstrung by how they aggregate data and it’s fair and reasonable that they place these restrictions on the use of data. The issue is that it makes it very tough to build games on top of. Of course, that doesn’t stop folks from trying.
There are some alternate solutions, though they’ve got a ways to go with data set quality. Up and coming location data aggregators like Factual have far greater flexibility and they’re coming into their own at a rapid pace. There are also front line data collectors like Localeze that will license you a data set. Each of these potentially solve a snafu for game developers in this space.
Heavy Heavy Data
A lot more information needs to be transferred back and forth in a location-based game, which creates a high potential for lag. You need a very strong engineering team to figure out a scalable infrastructure. Ultimately you’ll need to pass back and forth location information in something approaching real time, and then you’ll need to layer all of the game information on top of it. Gamers aren’t really forgiving when it comes to lag, so this becomes a pretty serious complication.
I wish I could say more about the solution here, but I’m not an engineer. I believe there are some possibilities that arise out of caching data locally, updating location information when the app is in the background, or limiting any map view to include only a narrow set of locations. But really, top notch engineering is a must in this space.
Screw location based. Go location aware. The goal should be to take the data from the real world and use that as the context for the players. You can use the real world as a playground without requiring players to leave their house or inhabit the same location as another player. These ideas are cool in theory, but you can’t use them for a core mechanic in the game until you have hit critical mass, and even then it may be suspect.
Going location aware and using the real world as context has some serious benefits.
Depth Of Play
The real world is far more complicated than anything a person can come up with as a lone designer. More importantly, people have some appreciation for the universe around them, which can drive engagement. There’s an opportunity to reach out to the world around you, draw upon the available data and create games on top of it – each piece of data is the opportunity for a new game mechanic. Let’s take an example.
In this instance, I’ve set the server boundary as the US, which helps me in case I want to segment player base by language. More importantly, it gives the players a familiar context to operate within. They may occupy a fantasy world, but it’s within a framework they can relate to.
After that I create a realm separation by real world region. Regions may have play mechanics associated with them such as Realm v. Realm battles or I may use it to aggregate players on day one. The kingdom may be a controllable asset depending on which guild has the most points within that particular area and I can create player warlords at the county level.
When it comes to the actual locations, I make them interchangeable assets (potentially with different attribute scores to encourage exploration) that a player may acquire for the purpose of gathering resources. I leverage the categorization data associated with locations to build a game layer. I’m assured of a relatively solid distribution of assets because real life is acting as a balancing factor.
I gain additional and interesting diversity because of the significant range of and types of information that may be derived from the location information. Maybe the Midwest realm has a modifier that grants bonuses to wheat production because of the presence of farms. Perhaps the West Coast gains on fish production with micro-bonuses on the Kingdom level (perhaps LA produces more entertainment). Locations next to high ways have a trade route modifier and coffee shops may produce different resources than tea shops.
The specifics don’t matter much at this point, but I want to get the idea across. The real world is a rich repository of information, and it is entirely possible to build a game layer on top of that information. Past games haven’t taken advantage of this information. They thought the value was in the name and GPS coordinates of a location, not in the numerous layers of information associated with that place. Who cares about the brand? As a gamer, I want to know what resources a location produces and how I may best make use of them. The real world provides depth; LBS games shouldn’t ignore it.
I’m a firm believer that the real world context is enough. You don’t need to confine people to their real world location in the virtual world. If a person wants to relocate in the game from Potato Farm, Idaho to Hippie Town, California, let them. Perhaps they always wanted to show those hippies how folks throw down in Idaho. It doesn’t matter. The world is the battleground, not a cage.
This means a few things. First, I think it is entirely permissible to unhinge a person from their present location and permit them to move freely through the broader game universe. You can certainly tie game mechanics to this process (a person may relocate their central city, but they cannot have assets more than 100 miles from that location), and hopefully those mechanics increase strategic play, not frustration.
I also think concepts of distance from the real world are meaningful. It’s fine to make it arduous for a person to create a merchant caravan and send it from SF (Realm X) to NYC (Realm Q) due to the distance involved. In any event, players will derive ample satisfaction from the feeling that they successfully embarked on a cross-country expedition even if they didn’t physically more any where. The perception of travel is what is important, not actual movement on the part of the user.
There is a lot more I can say here, but I’m gonna move on. 2,000 words in. Trololo.
There are some very clear benefits to be had in LBS. I’ll go through them quickly.
Clone Defense. Because of the technical and design complications, it’s very tough to crank our a replica over night.
Player Engagement. Players appreciate the opportunity to draw in the real world. It gives them a greater sense of accomplishment and a sense of ownership. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself why folks always seem to root for the teams they grew up near.
Innately Social. If designed well, LBS games should inherently foster more communication and drive more organic growth. In part because of greater depth and in part because of the sense of ownership described above.
Immediate Depth. If you go the location aware route and leverage location data effectively you can create an incredibly sophisticated game world on top of the universe around people. Highways become merchant trails. The car dealership becomes a tank production factory.
There’s so much more I want to say, but it’s just gilding on the lily. Still disagree? Leave a comment, because I’m spoiling for a fight.
JM: Someone else will have to pick that fight because I agree 100%. In fact, I already agreed at the May 2011 LOGIN Conference in my panel about the future of online games. I tongue-in-cheekily referred to this as the realification of games, keying off the gamification of reality, but I still firmly believe that the most successful online games five years from now will blend the real world into the play experience.