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Where Are the Great Location Based Games?

Every major mobile platform has the hardware for location based software, but the dearth of actual compelling games is disheartening.

While sitting in on this week’s Game Developers Conference panel on Location-Based Games, I couldn’t help but wonder why we haven’t seen many great games taking advantage of all of the location data we’re pumping out into the airwaves.

The potential is clearly present in the hardware. Every iPhone since the 3GS has come with a GPS and an internal compass. The new Sony Playstation Vita packs a GPS, and if I were to list every Android phone with these features (and more) we’d be here all day. Yet this proliferation of location aware hardware hasn’t brought with it a flood of great location based games. The closest thing the genre has to a breakout hit is Foursquare -- which many would argue isn’t even a game.

At GDC this week Markus Montola of game studio Grey Area spoke about their location based massively multiplayer role-playing game Shadow Cities, and the future of location based games. Much of the talk centered around their game, but he also discussed some of the difficulties location based game designers face when creating a game that ostensibly takes place in the real world.

Shadow Cities is an iOS game that splits players into two factions to conquer their city, and hopefully extend their team’s influence to playable areas all over the world. Montola waxed poetic about the advantages of a game that let you invisibly battle for control of the real world, but he was also refreshingly honest about the problems Grey Area and other location based designers face.

To start, Montola spent part of his talk discussing the shortcomings of the iPhone platform for location based gaming. The iPhone’s location tracking isn’t all that precise -- only accurate to within 25 meters or so, at best. And the GPS drains a great deal of the battery whenever it’s in use. While Montola has a point about the limitations of the iPhone’s hardware, that doesn’t seem to be the real limiting factor in here.

Arguably the best location based game experience right now is the Nintendo 3DS’ Street Pass system. It allows players to meet and play against other 3DS owners while simply toting their device around.

The 3DS is the only major mobile platform that lacks a GPS for location tracking. But using only it’s motion sensor and Wi-Fi capabilities, it has managed to create a game mechanic that gives you a more engaging sense of place than any other location based game I know. There are constraints to the hardware, but if Nintendo can bake a great location based game right into their hardware, game developers with a wealth of tools at their disposal should be able to.

Another hurdle that location based games face is that many game players don’t actually want to be play their games on the go. Montola shared an interesting statistic: the game offers real advantages to players that get out and move around in the world, but 74% of Shadow Cities players tend to fire up the app exclusively at home or at work.

The Shadow Cities team have attempted to get around this problem by catering to a sedentary play style as much as possible. But that approach runs the risk of making the location part of your location game irrelevant -- a problem most game designers seem to be content to ignore. Location based games tend to treat location tracking as a gimmick to graft onto other game mechanics, instead of a central principle. Most aren’t truly dependent on where you're located at all.

The cracks in that approach are showing. Montola discussed the difficulties his team had in balancing a game that is set in the real world, remarking that “the real world isn’t fair.” Any in-game resource you place on a map will inherently be unbalanced -- some players live closer to or farther from that location, which limits their access unless they’re willing to roam. And in that sense he’s absolutely correct. But that view also assumes that location based games are constrained by traditional game mechanics.

As long as game makers continue to think of location based games as traditional games grafted on top of the real world, the games will be unfair. That keeps players who don’t want to cross the city to get a shot at some nebulous virtual bauble rooted to their couch. It’s impossible to balance MMO concepts like resources on a real world map. So why are developers clinging so desperately to mechanics from other genres, even after realizing they aren’t working?

I don’t want to pick on Shadow Cities. It’s a well-designed game, with plenty of interesting mechanics. In fact, it does a better job of managing the inherent contradiction between location based games and sedentary players than any game on the market. But the most striking thing about it is how much better it would play if it weren’t a location based game. The battle for control of the real world is a part of the game’s narrative, but not the game's mechanics. The game uses touch screen gestures to cast spells, and the exotic and mysterious map interface would work just as well with a fictional world as the real one. It would certainly have been much easier to develop, too.

If location based games are going to have a breakout hit, they’re going to need to stop using the real world as a setting, and start making it a vital part of gameplay. While Foursquare isn’t much of a game, it does at least make going places a vital part of the Foursquare experience. I just hope a game designer can come up with a more engaging reason for me to leave my house than to become mayor of my favorite sushi restaurant.

Designers are afraid to force users to get out and play because they think the audience won’t be willing to (literally) come with them on the journey. But I think that Foursquare and Street Pass has shown that if interesting, location-centric mechanics are there, then gamers are willing to make these games a part of their daily travels. Making location just another gimmick that gamers can ignore is the safer choice for developers. But it’s also a paradoxical one; if you’re not going to make where you play an important part of the game, then why even bother calling it location based?

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