We're rendering the real world in 3D, says Red Robot's Hawley

Fulfilling the potential of location-based gaming

We're rendering the real world in 3D, says Red Robot's Hawley
At the start of 2012, we ran a set of interviews with developers of location-based games.

Then, it was a nascent genre, albeit with localised successes, but with little evidence of mass gamer appeal.

Nine months on, we've re-interviewed developers who remain focused on location-based games to see how the market has changed and what they hope for the future.

Pete Hawley, chief product officer, at Red Robot Labs certainly has plenty to say.

Pocket Gamer: What's your view on how the location-based gaming market has developed during 2012?

Pete Hawley: It's been a great year: selfishly for Life is Crime we've seen the game grow and grow, with big support from Apple and Google. And most importantly, it's been supported by a highly engaged, international audience.

Looking more broadly, many of our friends and competitors have also been successful - Grey Area, Massive Damage etc. Even outside of core gaming Zombies! Run [Six To Start] has been a hit. It's great for our ecosystem. The more games, the better, and the less we have of the default 'location as utility' attitude

London as seen in Life is Crime

It's important that a gaming audience knows we're building these games for escapism and gameplay. I know most of these teams: we share a passion for location gaming and design and the passion grows stronger, not weaker.

What do you think has been the biggest news in location-based gaming during 2012?

Overall, it's been the growth and interest from an audience point of view. We're still waiting for a massive hit, but the biggest news for us (and me personally) is the increase in real interest from gamers and developers.

At Red Robot, we're funding three teams to make games on our technology, metrics and product knowledge. That amazingly talented teams are coming to us, and wanting to make location games, further legitimises what we're building. The biggest news is that we're certainly not alone.

Do you think location-based gaming is a good niche or does it have the potential to be truly mass market?

Given the current audience sizes, it could be described as niche. But it's all relative: it's like comparing Kixeye's audience to Zynga's by size alone. Smaller, core audiences are highly engaged and monetise well. In Asia, location as a factor of gameplay is more common and better understood. That market is a couple of years ahead of the west in terms of business models and gaming.

I think for a location game to hit true mass market, top grossing iOS standards, it would have to be a very simple, delightful game that removed any fears around revealing your location to publishers or other players. That day will come.

What do you think remain the key challenges?

A year ago, I would have talked about player suspicions around why our games ask to use their location. That used to be a friction point, but once you earn people's trust it gets easier and the sheer number of apps asking for this data has increased exponentially.

The key challenges remain technical and creative. We've invested a lot of time in solving this for ourselves and others, but all the available data for location is massive. If you think about it objectively - the planet is enormous, the data and databases are gigantic, dirty, cluttered and horrific to manage for optimised game experiences.

Match that technical challenge with the issue of getting to critical mass of audience and they remain very difficult problems. I think we've done a lot of great work in these areas, but it's still a challenge because if you have a contained audience in a more traditional iOS game, you can focus your creative and design energy more easily.

North America as labelled in Life is Magic

Other key challenges are the same as everyone else's in the business: you make a great title, now how are people going to find it and connect?

Can you briefly explain why you're creating your own global map data for your platform when plenty of commercial data is already available?

I could write a white paper here... but geo data is massive. Think for a second about the size of the global data you need to capture, filter, clean and render for gaming?

There's gigabytes of vector data for roads and coastline, gigabytes for topography, forests, parks, regions, boundaries and millions upon millions of points of interest (from coffee shops to landmarks). We capture and clean this data ourselves for a few very simple creative reasons and beliefs.

  • Gamers don't want games stuffed full of corporate attribution: if your game is full of Google, Yelp, Foursquare logos etc, they're going to think that you're either a) up to something b) you're a gamified utility. Both are big turn offs. Also, if you want to use these services you have to pay big bucks, For a small company, it just doesn't make financial sense, particularly because you can't capture and store gaming data on the back of using these services and they're all built for search, navigation, check ins etc. These are very different use cases.

  • We have a vision that many companies and studios will be interested in location gaming and location data - we signed up four this year and have more to come. Small studios with brilliant ideas want to focus on game creation, not the technology and scalable, server infrastructure that's required.

  • Having our own Points of Interest database is important because we build persistent MMOs. So as we grow our data, our locations store data about all the gameplay that happens there. So over time, buildings level up and as we add more and more games - we can look at the planet in an amazing way. We have two games using the systems, soon to be four. We can look at a map of the world and visualise all our data from all our games and adjust our games, events and content because of what we see, and learn from gamers not just because of what they play, but where and how. Analysing this data visually really helped in the design of our new game Life is Magic.

Given all the problems, why do you remain committed to location-based games?

There are two major reasons. Creatively, because personally, as a gamer and in my career, games have always been about escapism and engaging with other players to explore, discover and be rewarded. Location applies perfectly to this game design philosophy and the psychology of reward.

Players use maps all the time in standard games to locate themselves and to see where their next goals are and what lies around them for gameplay and adventure. It just so happens that the maps in our games are alternate versions of the real world, fantasies to escape to outside of your daily routine.

Screenshot from Life is Magic

Secondly, as our portfolio of games that we make and publish grows and grows, we capture and analyse data from players all over the world. This in itself isn't unique, but it is when you look at that data from a location perspective, it's a location-based gaming social graph. We can see where people play, what they do, where, why and who with.

Do you think developers need to take a more subtle approach to building location into their games, rather than it being the key feature and/or the game being very map oriented?

During my time as a console developer, it was pretty exciting to look at the new hardware you were given and brainstorm creatively around what was possible given the capabilities of all the sensors and hardware functions.

The best example was Burnout Paradise where we decided to use the PlayStation Eye camera to capture the Takedown moment and an opponent's face, then send it to you as they took you down in to a wall at 200 mph - hardware as emotional contributor to gameplay experience.

GPS in phones should be considered the same way: creatively, how can that add to the players' experience?

Some examples from the teams we work with: location-based leaderboards. I may be 126,000th in the world, but if I'm 4th on the leader board in Cambridge, that gives me something to aim for. We also create location-based regional events and challenges, where we can pit cities, colleges or teams against each other in a very tribal sense.

From this, you can escalate that to full bore location, custom maps, point of interest interactions etc. Location is scalable and creatively interesting from simple to complex. We help teams with all of these ideas. The worst thing you can do is retro fit or lever it in because you think it "might be cool". Players spot that kind of falsehood in a heartbeat.

How important is using location to create different 'tribes' of players as you've been attempting to do with your HK vs US challenges?

It's formed the future creative direction of Red Robot. People are naturally very tribal in life - where they're from, where they live, the social and sports groups and teams they are members of...

If you apply this to location-based events and in game competitive play, PVP etc. it's great for gameplay and design. The list is endless. country vs. country, college vs college, block v block, team v team, guild v guild. It's endless.

One of the games to use Red Robot's tech is Global Outbreak

There is an absolute sense of pride in terms of where players are from and the people they team up with. It drives all of their actions and the most important part of making any game: the emotional drive to come back and play again and again. It's the best form of discovery and ongoing engagement. You can acquire users with cash through ads, but you can't buy players' emotions.

How are you attempting to push the market in terms of the future games you're working on?

In our new game, we've rendered the real world in 3D; the whole planet - driven by planetary vector data. It's been a painful task, but we've been helped by our awesome team in London, Supermono. This allows us to do more in terms of AI, lighting, day, night, animations, movement... things that console, PC, RPG, MMO players are used to.

We're totally committed to allowing players to escape reality and indulge in a fantasy version of the world that surrounds them.

It's not just about your local town, home or places any more. We want people to travel internationally, meet UK players, travel (virtually) to Japan, meet players in Shibuya, buy Japanese magic and fight in the US with it. Travel to Russia and fight in the ice caves of Murmansk. These are some of the features we're working on in Life is Magic, our new game.

In 2013, we're creating new games around our 3D Planet Engine to bring crime to real cities, racing to real roads, war between real nations - all driven by location and the tribal desire to win.

All of these experiences made better depending on and because of where you live: all built and realised because of our passion for the geo-psychology of gaming.
Thanks to Pete for his time.
Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.