Interview

Check out of your half-way houses and embrace the 'brilliant' location scene, says Mobile Pie's Will Luton

The golden age is already here

Check out of your half-way houses and embrace the 'brilliant' location scene, says Mobile Pie's Will Luton
With so much of the hype around location-based apps focusing on what they could and should be capable of in the future, those already on the market often get left in the shade.

Like others working in the sector, Mobile Pie creative director Will Luton believes there's definitely much to look forward to – in particular, Luton believes upgrades in both phone hardware and location-focused middleware is already resulting in great leaps forward. 

Nonetheless, the Mobile Pie man is equally enthusiastic about what's already out there. Location-based games aren't without their faults, he admits, but the best way to further the cause is to jump into the deep end rather than wait on the sidelines.

We caught up with Will for his take on why now is a great time to get a lock on location.

Pocket Gamer: Do you think location-based games have the potential to be a significant part of the industry, and if so, why?

Will Luton: Totally. All the sensors in a modern smart phone, have defined the hit games. Angry Birds is all about dragging. Fruit Ninja swiping. Temple Run has it all going on: swipe, slide, tilt.

But they aren't a huge divergence from the last 30 years in terms of what we've been creating. We've just adapted, both to the mode of play - short burst - and the control method: touch and tilt replacing the mouse and the joystick.

But there isn't the history in location - it's completely new. So culturally and creatively we don't have the foundations, the building blocks, to make the bigger systems that function in a meaningful way. We don't full understand peoples modes of play or what creates the best results. So, the reaction is for the press and consumers to, largely, ignore them.

But there are people around the edges, like us at Mobile Pie, other studios and academics, that have been dabbling and working this shit out. Creating the basics. If location is going to be big - and I believe it will - we'll be the ones that come out on top, because we've built and failed so many times.

There's an awful lot of subtlety in location design that you just can't teach. We have big debates in the studio about all the fundamentals, because we can't simply go: what does Angry Birds do? Then work it back for there.

What are your views on balancing gameplay between single and multiplayer elements in location-based games?

You can go two routes with location: what I call 'active', or 'triggered'. The former is where the player opts to play a 'location game', maybe gather friends and go and do it. Look at Seek 'n' Spell.

The latter is that a player's location gives them game advantage and triggers their return. The Foursquare model.

We focus much more on triggered. Not necessarily because it's better, just more practical.

I played a game of Seek 'n' Spell with a youth theatre group we made a location game with - Hunter & Hunted - and it was really eye opening. The group had lots of fun. However, the space needed, the people, the devices and the technology problems, made it all really impractical.

That is not a usual mode of play, so it narrows the audience, and I'm doubtful we see any active location game hits.

Triggered, like we do with My Star, is much more nuanced. It gives the player a reason - usually a reward - to return to the game based on their location. Their routine and life offers them more reason to play.

This on its own is an okay driver, but when you combine that with a sense of ownership and territory, that's when it get awesome. To do that you need to have multiple players interacting, but totally asynchronously, on a zero sum reward.

Location offers the player in game advantage, but other players can claim that advantage for themselves if they're physically in that space. That's exciting. That gets players playing.

What are the biggest challenges that need to be solved in location-based games?

There are two: technology and context.

Location is improving all the time and iPhone and a lot of the high-end Android devices do it really well, but it still can be flakey and really inaccurate.

That's not so much a problem for the triggered-mode games - usually using check-in type mechanics - but for the active games it's not nice. I'm confident this will improve, because turn-by-turn navigation is selling a lot of Android devices right now.

Also, once you have that data, how do you interrupt it and make it meaningful for a player? A lat and long number means nothing. A map a little bit. But places and things players really care about.

We've used Facebook Places, which required a Facebook login. More recently we've used Foursquare API, but that has the problems of junk data and request limits.

So now we're looking at a white-label solution called SimpleGeo, which have recently been acquired by Urban Airship – and rightly so. All of this in less than a year. There are huge leaps going on.

What do you think gives your company a competitive advantage when it comes to location-based games?

We've been doing location-based games for four years now and completed more than five titles. We've put out own IP and worked with clients from a youth theatre group to one of the world's largest handset manufacturers, who we can't name.

We've made games that are for backfilled landfill sites, teaching kids about recycling and the environment.

In Top Trumps Collection, when two players are near each other it unlocks a deck - usually an in-app purchase for free - which drove incredible downloads. In My Star, players posted virtual posters at real world spots to promote their stars, which improved retention.

We've done lots of stuff and taken loads of approaches. It's very easy to go route one and put in check-ins or do something that's run and chase. We're unique in that we know how to use the advantages of location and do something that works for what you want to achieve.

Aside from your own titles, are there any other location-based games you enjoy playing?
Dream Owner at the moment. It's flawed, but you can learn a lot from it.

Do you think the inclusion of GPS and mobile-like social features in the PS Vita will help the market's growth?

I think that mobile is the better platform, because it's more ubiquitous. That is where it will grow, but that's tied more deeply to my general thoughts on the Vita.

What I think is more exciting - but isn't ever discussed as location - is Nintendo's Street Pass. Player proximity giving game advantage is awesome and I believe it's driving players to actively carry their device more often.

When's the last time you check-in with Foursquare?

Months ago. But this week in a game that uses its API.

In view of the eradication of much of its competition – the Gowalla team recently acquired by Facebook – where can check-in tools go next?

For me it's about the quality of the data. There's too much user junk. If an API offers clean, accurate and up to date data with a reliable service, we're there.

What plans can you take about in terms of your company's next steps in location-based games?

We're in preproduction for a new own IP game in which location is core. In most of what we've done so far location features have been modular. This a true location game. If location is off, you can't play.

That's was a scary decision to make. We're ready to say: no more half-way houses. Location is here and brilliant.
Thanks to Will for his time.

You can find out more about Mobile Pie on the studio's website.

You can read the rest of today's location-based interviews by clicking here.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.

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