Location-based games 'creeping' into prominence

Location features for real-time gameplay starting to emerge in mobile social games but success requires developers to engineer new experience, not simply dress up existing games, note industry watchers.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

Social games are currently limited to friends on individuals' social graphs but this is slowly changing as more game developers explore the possibilities of including location-based features into the gameplay for real-time engagement with people physically near them, industry watchers noted.

Shalini Verma, principal analyst at research firm Gartner, said location and context will "creep" into social game apps on mobile devices as users get used to the idea of playing a game with other gamers present in the vicinity. This is the next step beyond people playing games with friends on their social graphs, she added.

The location feature, however, must provide additional value on top of the current social games experience, she noted. Currently social games are more about "asynchronous collaborative play" but she expects location-based games to be largely real-time competitive play with more complex game mechanics.

Peter Vesterbacka, chief marketing officer (CMO) at Finnish game developer Rovio, publisher of the popular Angry Birds game, agreed with Verma in that the location-based games field is "still in its early stages".

"We've seen a few early examples but we've yet to see a major mainstream service. So while we've seen a bit of what is possible, there's still a lot of room for expansion and innovation," said Vesterbacka in his e-mail.

Rovio had in April partnered Finnish handset maker Nokia to develop a version of Angry Birds that leverages on near-field communications (NFC) and location features. According to an earlier report, users will have to find other Nokia C7 device owners to "tap" their devices together to unlock certain levels of the game.

Creating buzz around location
He went to point out that the location-based experience has to be "fun" and "shouldn't feel tacked on" in that the feature should be an integrated and valuable part of the game.

To achieve this, Vesterbacka said: "We have to make sure we deliver something that is truly tailored around the experience of interacting with locations and understand what players want to achieve in those places."

Allison Luong, managing director of Pearl Research, also pointed out that the mass market user might not be familiar with such gameplay.

She said in an e-mail that besides having to search for location-based games, which can be a "content discovery" headache that could be "overwhelming" for users, these games can also be time-consuming for gamers as they have to make an effort to check into as many locations as possible to earn rewards.

"Overall, while location-based games have been popular with tech-savvy users, it still has very limited appeal for mass-market consumers," Luong surmised.

Vesterbacka agreed that it is important to deliver a "compelling experience" in order to draw users on to such games platform. "This will be new for many people, so we have to both introduce the concept and wow them with the experience," he said.

Asked how the entrance of big-name game developers such as Rovio entering the location-based arena, Harri Myllyla, CEO of social games operator Star Arcade, said their entrance helps in bringing casual games "very much into the mainstream".

He added in his e-mail that "engaging gameplay as well as the opportunity to engage friends and new acquaintances" will be the main draw for people to embrace location-based games.

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