It isn’t every day that an up-and-coming mobile game developer gets the full support and helpful input of one of the most influential names across the entire gaming industry. But developer The Tap Lab and their latest location-based simulation game Tiny Tycoons have quite the story to tell about a working mentorship that most could only dream of.

I recently had a chance to conduct an email interview with Dave Bisceglia, the Co-Founder and CEO at The Tap Lab, where he was able to shed some light on all things from the evolution of Tiny Tycoons and its latest content update, to the benefits of finding and working with an industry expert to make the very most out of your own mobile game.

Bisceglia and his Tap Lab co-founder Ralph Shao first decided to get into games when the pair graduated from Boston University in 2009, at a time when location-based apps like Foursquare and Gowalla were steadily rising in popularity and garnering a wider public understanding. But like most visionaries with a good idea, Bisceglia and company thought they could take the basic setup that Foursquare was using and implement it better, by building the technology around the context of a gaming experience. With The Tap Lab’s first title, TapCity, the developer experimented with using a player’s current location as the basis of creating the game world around them, although this format certainly wasn’t without its own limitations. As Bisceglia remembers, “we found that being limited to your immediate surroundings became a sort of ball-and-chain for players that wanted to explore.”


newsThe Tap Lab’s Tiny Tycoons


So what does one do when they find themselves at an impasse such as this? Well for Bisceglia, that meant asking advice from one of the biggest pioneers in simulation gaming over the last dozen-plus years: Will Wright of SimCity and The Sims fame. After getting in touch with Wright at GamesBeat 2012, Bisceglia found that he and the acclaimed game designer shared a mutual interest in “games that parse reality,” which are apps like The Tap Lab’s own TapCity that strive to get people more engaged and interactive with their worldly surroundings. Like many others, Bisceglia and his team at The Tap Lab were all huge fans of Will Wright’s work, and grew up playing games like SimCity and The Sims before getting into the industry themselves. With their next game, Tiny Tycoons, Bisceglia wanted to use the insight of Wright’s years of experience to craft the most expansive and location-centric simulation experience that he could.

In the free-to-play Tiny Tycoons, players are challenged to own and manage a winning establishment from a number of business properties that reflect upon the actual real-world locations around them. Bisceglia was able to meet with Wright several times over the last year or so, where the gaming expert acted as a friendly advisor to The Tap Lab in helping to steer the direction of Tiny Tycoons, and to put changes in place that would open up the game world on a more real-life, global level. Wright’s main advice involved shifting Tiny Tycoons to a global playing field, while still keeping proximity relevant, which made travelling a large part of the gameplay. In addition to his advice on how to properly open up the game world of Tiny Tycoons while still keeping it tightly connected to a player’s real geological location, Wright was also a big influence on the new customization facets to be implemented into the game: which shouldn’t be that much of a surprise coming from the man behind The Sims that boasted such an immense offering of customizable features. Bisceglia tells me that Wright taught him how the key of any great customization in a game is that it “allow[s] players to leave a deeper footprint in a shared world.”


newsThe Tap Lab with Will Wright (far right)


As a result, The Tap Lab has just introduced a massive content update to Tiny Tycoons last week that reflects all of Will Wright’s mentorship and Bisceglia’s own new understandings of how to better utilize location-based technology in a mobile simulation game. In addition to improvements to the overall core gameplay, as well as new goals, quests, and achievements, Tiny Tycoons players can now expect to find a brand new inventory system in the game, which directly correlates to player-specific career unlocks and other bonuses as they work their way up the employment ladders in each respective chosen field, whether their aim is to become a “CEO, Mixologist, or Celebrity Chef.” But perhaps the coolest feature of the new update is described as “the first of a long series of major content releases with Restaurant Week,” which lets in-game restaurant owners customize the specialty of their property from Seafood Restaurants to Pizza Joints. Future updates already in the works will add new costumes like Robots and Superheroes, as well as introduce dozens of new real-world property categories.

Bisceglia is also hopeful that The Tap Lab’s working relationship with Wright will continue well beyond the latest update to Tiny Tycoons, as the two have already shared in a number of conversations that touch upon a deeper usage of “context-aware” applications, which include real-time adaptations based on things like time, weather, traffic, and lunar events that can affect a player’s personal surroundings (on which Bisceglia says that Wright is an expert). On a much broader spectrum outside the realm of Tiny Tycoons, Bisceglia states that “Will has shared invaluable insight on how players can become attached to in-game objects that they relate to on a personal level and how leveraging that attachment can drive engagement and monetization.”

But with new and emergent location-based technologies continuing to change and shape the industry each and every day, The Tap Lab has no plans to stop integrating these new and upcoming ideas into the Tiny Tycoons game world anytime soon. Currently, the game is built on a custom mapping engine that pulls real world map data from OpenStreetMap, and The Tap Lab is currently working with Foursquare to help populate it even further with over 50 million properties. Bisceglia doesn’t hold back on the potential for these new developing technologies and his team’s excitement on learning how to best implement them into their own applications: “We’re most excited about indoor positioning systems, augmented reality, and 3D mapping technology. The opportunities in this space are enormous!”


newsRestaurant Week in Tiny Tycoons


Working with an industry expert like Will Wright for your own mobile ventures couldn’t come more recommended from Bisceglia, but the bigger question still remains: with so many up-and-coming game developers out there these days, and the likely busy schedules of gaming visionaries like Wright, how exactly does one go about making these invaluable connections? Bisceglia offers up some advice of his own on this matter, and tells me that “one of the best ways to meet mentors is to go to industry events where they are speaking and to have a meaningful discussion with them there. Following up with them on that meaningful discussion is the key to building a relationship.” He goes on to add that you should “be sure to not only ask for help, but to find a way to provide value for them in return. As you build out your network, don’t be afraid to ask folks for warm intros to the people you’d like to meet. You’d be surprised how effective LinkedIn can be in finding mutual connections!”

So there you have it: the positive effects that can come from working with one of the industry’s finest, and the major strides that you can make towards becoming one of the industry’s finest yourself in the process. And at least for Tiny Tycoons and The Tap Lab, that kind of mentoring relationship seems to have been working very much in their favor. In Wright’s own words, “Tiny Tycoons is one of the most innovative games I’ve seen meshing the real world and gaming,” and I think it’s safe to say that a lot of us here at Gamezebo couldn’t agree more. Tiny Tycoons is currently being featured on the “New & Noteworthy Games” section of the iOS App Store, and can be downloaded for free with the new title update included by clicking right over here. The game’s Restaurant Week promotion will be ending later on today, but The Tap Lab will be announcing their next line of content updates in the very near future.