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Grey Area CEO Ville Vesterinen on building out the success of location-based Finnish hit Shadow Cities

From Helsinki to the world
Grey Area CEO Ville Vesterinen on building out the success of location-based Finnish hit Shadow Cities

There have been plenty of attempts to get location-based mobile gaming to work.

But from the early days of Botfighters in Sweden, to Japanese game Samurai Romanesque and Gizmondo's ill-fated and ambitious plans for GTA and Pokemon-style location games, it's proved difficult to hook efficiently into the necessary infrastructure, work out a viable business model, and attract a large enough concurrent user base.

The smartphone era has solved many of these issues however.

Apps such as Foursquare, MyTown and Gowalla have gained mainstream attention and VC funding, while games such as Fable III: Kingmaker, gpsAssassin, Parallel Kingdom and 1000: Find 'Em All! have demonstrated technical functionality, if not yet overwhelming commercial success.

Finnish outfit Grey Area seems to have solved the latter problem though; at least to the extent of knocking Angry Birds off the #1 top grossing spot on the Finnish App Store with its location-based MMORPG Shadow Cities.

"There's more to a city than checking into individual locations," explains CEO Ville Vesterinen.

"Neighbourhoods have their own culture, and people experience their location differently in terms of whether they are at work, at home, or out with friends. The social relationship of place is what we're looking to tap into with Shadow Cities."

Point of origin

Of course, Finland and the residents of its capital city Helsinki, are experienced in such practices thanks to the presence of giant mobile company Nokia, as well as a niche but dedicated real-life role-playing community.

Yet, the origins of Grey Area come from Ericsson, Nokia's one-time handset and teleco rival from neighbouring Sweden.

"The company was set up in 2008 by three guys, avid gamers, who worked on very technical stuff like cell nodes at Ericsson," Vesterinen says of Grey Area. "I joined them in the summer of 2009, and we really pushed the game forward from that point.

"I'm fascinated by the cityscape: the way location can initiate new social relationships."

Hit the ground running

Success in a small, highly educated and tight-knit country like Finland - or more specifically Helsinki, where most players are - isn't proof that a location-based game will be successful in much larger, diverse and important markets such as the UK and the US.

But, as a free game, funded by in-app purchases, Shadow Cities is well set up in terms of current market mores.

It also uses open source location data so, technically, can be rolled out anywhere immediately, although to ensure the best experience, per country editing is required in terms of adding game-specific items.

Still, despite the game only being available on the Finnish App Store, Finns who have downloaded the game are already playing Shadow Cities in locations such as New York and London, although they're not officially supported.

"It's one of the great things we hear from players, is that they've taken a different route to work, or even driven hundreds of kilometers to play the game," says Vesterinen.

People have even tweeted they're considering buying iPhones to play it.

Building out

Feeding into such viral promotion, Shadow Cities' gameplay is a complex mixture of a meta-rivalry between two self selecting teams - Architects and Animators - which runs on a weekly basis, and is combined with individual achievements and status, such as being the Shadow Lord of an area. 

"The dynamicism of densely populated locations obviously works well, but we've also found people happy to set up their bases in more sparse places, where they can't be easily destroyed, and then fight for control over central locations," Vesterinen says.

As for the wider issue of how Grey Area will roll out Shadow Cities into those all important larger markets, that's something sitting at the top of the CEO's inbox.

"Scaling up our company definitely poses its own challenges," Vesterinen explains; unsurprisingly Grey Area is currently recruiting fast.

It expects to launch in another small country (thought to be Sweden in December), and then tackle the key US and UK markets in very late 2010 or early 2011.

Then we'll gain a better view whether Shadow Cities is the real deal, or another pretender in a long line of location-based mobile games that haven't quite managed to connect with a global audience.