Being there is playing there: Checking in on the emergence of location-based games

It’s a darn exciting time to be making games. New technologies are opening up entirely new avenues for game play and interaction. The Wii’s magical Wiimote allows you to dance around your living room whacking virtual tennis balls. Facebook lets you play games with friends and strangers around the country—potentially all 300 million of them at the same time. Cellphones, the iPhone chief among them, put incredibly powerful computers and thus game systems right in your pocket.

Your phone’s with you everywhere you go, and the constant connectivity of cellphones makes them much more powerful than your average portable game system. These are devices that know where you are, who you know and that can connect you with other players. With GPS and constant data connections mobile phones enable new ways to play. The question is of course, “Are we ready to adopt these new technologies and all they might mean for how we play games?”

The answer to that question in regards to the Wii and Facebook is an overwhelming “Yes!” Riding its distinct brand of casual, family friendly play into living rooms around the world, the Wii has quickly become the market leader in the home console market. And the success of games like FarmVille with more than 80 million active users leave little doubt that people are interested in playing lightweight asynchronous social games online.

But while the iPhone has certainly seen a number of hit games, most are the type of casual games or ports of console titles that really could have been made for any platform. Few games take complete advantage of the phone’s capabilities. For every game like Doodle Jump that uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to create an amazingly addictive experience, there is a straight port like Bejeweled. And while it’s always nice to have Bejeweled close at hand for long subway rides, these games don’t explore the full potential of the phone as a device. What about games that change based on where you are? What about games that allow you to connect with your friends as well as new people, both online and in the real-world? Can we make games like that? And will they be fun?

A number of game designers have been dreaming about the potential of location-based games and social games for years. I should know. I run a festival called the Come Out & Play Festival that features all manner of street games and location-based games. Some involve technology, some are just about running around New York City. The common complaint has always been a lack of reliable technology. In the past few phones had GPS. No phone dominated the market enough to provide a large user base. If you happened to be playing one of the early location-based games—running around your block with a gigantic GPS device—you were probably playing alone and drawing some very odd looks from your neighbors. But the iPhone and iPod Touch have changed much of that. They provide GPS (or Skyhook in the case of the iPod Touch), Wi-fi and 3G technology combined with a gargantuan user base that designers needed to start making location-based games really possible.

So fine, we now have the technology and the density of users necessary to start making location-based games with interesting social interactions. The question remains will they be fun? Or would we rather just be lost in a good game of Bejeweled? What’s the value of the game changing based on where you are and who’s around? That’s a question I’m very interested in. And so I’ve spent the last several weeks religiously “checking in” everywhere I go, broadcasting to my friends every time I stop for a burrito or drop into the fruit stand for a fresh pineapple. Was this fun? Yes. And sometimes, no. But more on that in a second.


Check in at locations and earn points in Foursquare. Check in at the same location enough and become the Mayor.

I’ve been using two iPhone applications, Foursquare and MyTown. Foursquare is actually more of a social networking tool with game-like components. But often the application feels like a game, with points and badges I earn for each move. In Foursquare you sign up for an account. Then when you go out to restaurants, bars or heck even the grocery store, you open up the application and “check-in.” The application uses your location to give you a list of nearby businesses. You simply chose the bar where you’re currently enjoying a margarita. This tells all of your friends the name of the bar where you’re sipping this late afternoon drink. It also awards you points. As you perform combos like multiple check-ins in one evening the game awards collectible badges. Along with your check-in you can leave tips for others about what they should do at the location, which drinks to have, what type of cheese to have on their burger. But perhaps most addictively, if you check-in enough times at the same place you become the Mayor of that location. Whenever you check-in you see the name and photo of the current Mayor.


Check-in to locations and then buy properties to manage in MyTown.

MyTown is a game with social networking components. Like Foursquare, MyTown revolves around check-ins at local establishments. But MyTown extends the gameplay beyond check-ins to a casual Monopoly-like game about buying properties and collecting rent. After you visit a location you have the opportunity to buy it. After you buy it you collect rent on the property. The more rent you collect, the more properties you can buy and the more you can level up. MyTown offers similar opportunities to leave comments on a place, but focuses on them less. Instead the game really directs you to pay attention to how often other people are checking-in at different properties. The more check-ins a location has, the more rent you can earn from it. In MyTown it pays to have your finger on the pulse of your neighborhood.


Buy properties that you’ve visited and collect more rent.

In many ways both games are about showing off your knowledge of a locale and declaring that you are the expert on a particular neighborhood or establishment. Both offer ways to see popular establishments and through play get a feel for the social scene of a particular neighborhood—well, at least the social scene of iPhone-owing tech-savvy gamers. Through their points and reward systems they make explicit our desire to be in the know about the hippest spots around.

And it’s all actually quite addictive, that is once you develop the habit for it. That’s generally my problem with many of these check-in-based games. They require me to develop yet another habit. Now in addition to checking email constantly; in addition to keeping up with Twitter and blog posts on a daily basis; in addition to turning on RunKeeper or Nike+ whenever I go for a run; I now have to remember to open up the application and check-in every time I arrive somewhere. And while it doesn’t take long to check in, it can definitely feel a little awkward. When I’m out running errands alone: No problem. I’m not ignoring anyone. But when I’m out with friends, whipping out my phone and saying, “Hold on a sec, I just have to check-in here so I can earn some more points,” feels a little rude.

While both apps try to enrich your connection to your location by making evident the social scene around it, they can sometimes feel like they are disconnecting you from your actual physical companions. Foursquare mitigates this by trying to provide valuable tips and social information right up front. When my wife and I stopped at a restaurant called Sample last night we were able to pick out some tasty appetizers based on the recommendations of others. But when I then dived into collecting rent from all of my properties in MyTown, I definitely earned an eye-roll from Ginger who was left staring into space while I stared intently down into my iPhone’s glowing screen.

May players may initially feel a bit awkward with the game mechanics of broadcasting your location. To many people it seems a little exhibitionist or even creepy. But both applications have ways to safeguard your privacy. And like using Facebook to broadcast your status, checking in takes a little getting used to, but can become quite addictive too.

Yet this mixture of playful activity and location can be a powerful cocktail. Mixing a bit of reality and bit of competition gives people new ways to discover and interact with their surroundings. You notice a restaurant you never knew was there or find yourself introduced to a stranger playing the same game and share a beer. Once while using Foursquare to check in at a local dive called Canal Bar, I noticed the “mayor” was the cute dog nipping at my feet. I quickly learned the dog belonged to the bartender. She swore she never checked in while she worked, but was clearly happy to have been recognized in person for her domination of the locale. And I was happy to feel like a regular who knew the bartender.

Even the dean of video game design, Will Wright, the creator of The Sims and Spore has proclaimed that he thinks a big part of the future of games lies in what he called augmented reality games. At a talk he gave recently at New York University he described how games that give you more information about the world around you can change the way you interact with your surroundings.

The check-in model dominates the current crop of location-based games from Foursquare to MyTown to Loopt and Whrrl. And understandably so. Checking in is very casual and maps very easily to what people already do. We go places and then we call people to let them know where we are and encourage them to join us. It’s like the location-based game equivalent of matching three. It’s a very casual mechanic which you can learn instantaneously. The advantage of simply checking in is that it integrates well with your life. It’s similar to the way many Facebook games only demand interaction once a day—they realize people probably only check into Facebook for a short period once a day, so you need to be able to quickly do your business and be gone. But I do think checking in is just the tip of the iceberg. If other games want to combine play with the world around us, they’ll have to develop additional mechanics.


Gigaputt turns your neighborhood into a mini-golf course.

My company Gigantic Mechanic recently released a golf game called Gigaputt for the iPhone. The game uses the iPhone’s GPS and Google Maps to create a mini-golf course out of the world around you. Our game pushes location-based gaming beyond checking in. We’re certainly not the only ones exploring other mechanics. Retronyms has created the excellent game Seek ‘n Spell in which you play word game by running around and grabbing tiles using your GPS enabled phone. Untravel Media’s Walking Cinema: Murder on Beacon Hill offers rich location-based narrative experience.

These games are gaining traction, but they definitely ask more of the audience. To really enjoy the location element you have to walk around for 30 minutes and play golf or run about a field with firends. It becomes an event within your day. That’s a tall order for some people right now. We’re not the only ones doing this. With any new technology and pattern of behavior there is period of adoption and learning new habits. We’ll see how people adjust to the wide new world of gaming. Playing basketball is an event within your day. Playing Farmville is task within your day. There’s room for both, but players have to adopt the play patterns.


Run to grab letters and build them into words in Seek ‘n Spell.


Actually walk in the footsteps of the story in Walking Cinema: Murder on Beacon Hill

For now though apps Foursquare reveal some of the power and potential of location and play. They show how important our world is to us. Currently David C. is the mayor of my favorite burrito joint in Brooklyn, Calexico Carne Asada, but I swear by all that is holy to one day unseat him! I want that Mayorship! And that is perhaps the most interesting thing about the current crop of location-based games. It’s the way they encourage a very thin, yet palpable feeling of community while also giving you the chance to proudly display expertise and even “ownership” over the places you love.



Greg Trefry has designed everything from web-based MMOs to hit casual games to alternate reality games. Prior to co-founding the independent game studio Gigantic Mechanic, Greg was the Creative Director on Gamestar Mechanic, a web-based massively multiplayer game for tweens. Before that he was a Senior Game Designer at Gamelab where he created and led design on the hit franchise Jojo’s Fashion Show.

In 2006 he created the Come Out & Play Festival, a festival of street games that brings designers and players from around the world to New York City every summer for three days of play.

Greg has spoken about games at conferences around the world. He teaches game design and development at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and Parsons The New School for Design.

His book Casual Game Design: Designing Play for the Gamer in All of Us was published in February 2010 by Morgan Kaufmann. (View the book on Amazon).

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