When will geo-games really work? Papaya's Oscar Clark remains lost on location
Need a new direction?
I've been interested in the idea of location-based games (LBS) for about a decade; dabbling with different people on several concepts which never saw the light of day for too many reasons to explain here.
The potential should be obvious; nearly every major smartphone now has an integrated GPS chip, electronic compass and accelerometers as well as online access to all the mapping data you could ever want.
So why, given this amazing potential hasn't the LBS taken over the world?
First question we have to ask is are we using the location to create context or to play a meaningful part in the gameplay itself.
Using your place and the direction you are facing is a great way to play. However, you need an audience who are willing to get up and walk around an open space with clear view of the sky and yet still with the right quality of 3G connection.
That's not easy; and it's not spontaneous. However, as I discovered a few years ago on the judging panel of the IMGA awards, it is great fun.
We had several of the judges running round a park in Barcelona competing against another group of players in a field in Holland, each trying to trap the other within large human triangles.
It was like something between paintballing and five-a-side football but unlikely to become a commercial success unless, perhaps, you can build it up as a niche sporting activity.
Of course you could create a game which needs fewer people to play, for example a proposal we submitted for the Matrix sequels was a chase game where players with players having to run back to their nearest telephone box to escape the 'Agents', like a real-world Temple Run.
Look around you
So if using where I am as the control method for my game is problematic, how about using it just for context for my game?
This has been a lot more successful. Games like Bunker Buster, Shadow Kingdom and Life is Crime use a real world map to provide the playing field but displayed in context with their game story.
You can interact with nearby buildings and fight for dominance with other players who have been there in the past.
Often they also allow you to do virtual geo-caching with in-game items, e.g. troop units or stolen contraband which affect the play of the next person who interacts with that building.
Some similar games skip the map. Please Stay Calm just presents you with a list of nearby locations filled with virtual zombies whilst My Town allows you to 'buy' buildings you pass into your town design.
However, for me these most of these games feel like a twist on Mafia-Wars-style spreadsheet-type games with the location just adding a bit of flavour.
Don't get me wrong, they are good games, but I personally want more.
I was more inspired by Fable 3: Kingmaker, a promotional Europe-only location game for the console game that put you into one of two factions and rewarded you with in-game money for your Fable character.
A great experiment, but one which was sadly never followed up.
The fourth dimension
There have been a couple of attempts to take location into a fourth dimension, layering virtual information onto our real-world.
I remember an experiment I saw using tools data in the Augmented Reality app Layar to create clues for players to follow in a treasure hunting game.
It was be highly engaging, but the way this was done required a lot of work for each game and an audience who were highly motivated and who expected the drain on their battery.
Making this commercial would require a lot of work and on top you would have to think about the many social and legal issues associated with designing games with the potential for strangers meeting in person.
Achieving critical mass
In the end, the key to success for mobile game seems to be a combination of a critical mass of players and gameplay which is attuned for the mode-of-use of the device.
The trouble for location games is that for most of the time we play games on our phones we are in locations where we are indoors and can't easily move around or more likely don't want to.
I can't think about running to the next cell area to avoid a virtual missile when I'm standing in a queue for the bus. I don't want to walk 100 yards down the road in the cold and wet just to pick up a bonus point for my game.
I believe we need forget location as a phenomena in itself and instead look at it as a way to enhance the level of engagement with a game.
To use it to allow even deeper engagement for the dedicated player as part of a larger experience. For this we need games which respond to our opportunities to play, which provide entertainment first and then use location meaningfully not just to provide colour.
Foursquare has shown that there is an element of collection or social capital associated with repeated 'check-in' to locations and I believe the current batch of location games are a good first step.
But just as the social freemium games have advanced from the Mafia Wars model towards more social 'harvesting' ideas, we will see the same for location games.
Games that encourage players to cultivate their most regularly visited spaces, allow them to benefit from the daily travel that they have to do anyway rather than forcing them to move around for our games.
I don't think we have yet seen the game which will provide a tipping point for location, and until we do perhaps we will all remain a little lost on what to do with it.
For more on PapayaMobile, you can visit the firm's website or follow Oscar on Twitter.