When Four Square came out, many people called it the beginning of location-based gaming. You may not think of Four Square as a game, but if you think about, it’s about visiting locations, rising in ranks based on your check-ins and “unlocking” special benefits according to your rank. You can also compete with other people for higher ranks.
Four Square may be a location-based game, but it’s not very social. Of course, you can compare your rank with others, but the game itself doesn’t facilitate a lot of interactivity with other players. Some newer games, however, are trying to do just that, by integrating interactivity with other players into the game… and since these games are location-based, you may just end up meeting that other player face to face.
Most of these location-based games are built on top of real maps. You travel around on the map of where you are located (thanks to the GPS device on your mobile device) with the options to go to other places, and you can see who is logged it at which location, creating a potential for you to interact with other people face-to-face. Some examples of these games include Geo Hunters (a role-playing game where you have to slay monsters and then keep them as “pets”) Shadow Cities (similar to Geo Hunters but with a more modern graphic interface) and Fleck (more cute, cartoon-type graphics with emphasis on real estate and beautification).
These games bringing in a real-time MMO-esque component to very traditional location-based games, such as geocaching. Geocaching is single-player (unless you decide to do it as a group activity) but the communication with other people you don’t know is mainly asynchronous– either through message boards or through the cache (the hidden object that you have to find). These new mobile location-based games, however, synchronously show who else is on your grid.
But do the games really facilitate interaction? Not really. At least, I don’t think we should assume that location-based games are going to start making people social. Especially if you are an introverted person, what are the chances of someone walking up to a complete stranger and asking ‘Hey, are you Pretygurl39?” It’s awkward, even if you’ve talked to them a couple times online, and if you are in a place where there is more than one person, it’s hard to tell who is the person in the game (Given that so many people are on mobile devices).
One way to encourage real FTF (face-to-face) interaction would be to incentivize FTF interaction. For example, getting double points if you connect with someone offline, kind of like Pokens, where you touch the devices together to link with each other. If certain functions, such as swapping limited-edition items, could only take place offline, that could be an incentive for people to connect FTF.
Another opportunity would be to work with local businesses who could create mini “events” that require a certain number of people to get together to work on a task collaboratively at the same time…kind of like Portal 2. This presents a lot of marketing opportunities for both local businesses and the game developer, but it doesn’t have to be money-driven. Similar to geocaching, players could perhaps make their own events or “plant” their own questions, such as taking a macro picture and having people hunt for the specific spot where that picture was taken. I guess it all depends on how “open” the game developer wants to make the platform. Are you going to let people make a game within a game?
In that sense, Google has a really good opportunity to rise as a “host” of location-based game applications given that its maps feature is fairly well-established. In fact, why not get users to update the maps as a game? If Google maps can be a game portal, it could host any number of “games”, starting from more practical ones like GroupOn and Craiglist, to fantasy ones like Shadow Cities and user-initiated flash “mobs/events.” And these components don’t even have to be mutually exclusive.
Hopefully location-based games will encourage people who are not very social to be more social FTF. Indeed, I think mobile games in itself carries a lot of potential, even without the location component. Last time I was at the airport, I saw a man who was sitting next to a woman playing Angry Birds strike up a conversation by making a comment about the game, which opened up the door to a whole new conversation. I guess you could find common ground and initiate a conversation with basically anything if you really wanted to be social, but think how neat it would be if the game facilitated more social interaction both inside the game and out. [Disclaimer: the author of this post is not very social and avoids conversations with other people in public as much as possible, thus needs games to “force” some sociability into her life.]
I think Nintendo DS had the infrastructure for that but the problem was that not everyone has a Nintendo DS, and most of the owners are young children. But a lot of people have mobile devices; especially if you’re in an environment where you’re killing time (commuting on a subway; waiting in an airport; et.c) location-based mobile games may be a good way to connect with others.