Guest Post: Resurrecting Location-Based Games

geo1Today’s guest post comes to us from David Bisceglia, Founder and CEO of  The Tap Lab, a mobile game studio focusing on location-based titles. His article focuses on what developers of these types of games can learn from previous titles in the genre.

Many of us grew up playing classic backyard games like Capture the Flag, Pickle and Marco Polo. The digital variant of these games are known as location-based games, a genre that has been around for over a decade.

A Brief History of Location-Based Games

In 1999, the first mobile phones with GPS hit the market. This set the course for the pioneers of location-based games. Dodgeball, one of the first location-based social networks, and a GPS-driven scavenger hunt called Geocaching both came to market in 2000. The major map data providers, Google Maps and Open Street Maps, were established by 2005 and the launch of iPhone and Android phones with GPS soon followed. From 2009-2010, venue data providers including Google Places, Foursquare and Factual placed the final piece of the puzzle for the mobile games we see today.


Multiple location-based games have hit the market in recent years. Yet, none of them have really caught on. The genre’s lack of a runaway success can be attributed to early mistakes made by developers of these games:

1.)  Relying on the check-in as a core game mechanic

2.)  Only letting players interact with their immediate surroundings

3.)  Forcing a game on top of existing map interfaces

To be clear, we’re not talking about social utilities like Foursquare or local deal finders such as Shopkick. These apps successfully leveraged the check-in as an engagement mechanic. However, they are not games at their core.

Lessons learned from Early Location-Based Games

While developing our newest title, Tiny Tycoons, our team focused on mechanics with greater depth than the check-in, gameplay that invites players to explore beyond their immediate surroundings and a game world that looks and feels like a social game. These efforts were based on the lessons we learned from playing and developing early location-based games.

Many game developers made a big bet on the check-in as a core mechanic. It turns out that the check-in was a ball and chain. As a game mechanic, it got stale quickly and forced game designers to think in terms of proximity. Accordingly, players had to physically travel to get access to more gameplay, significantly decreasing the approachable market as well as engagement for people in less populated areas.

geo3Ultimately, games that relied on the check-in as a core mechanic struggled since there were roughly ten times as many people playing mobile games as there were people actively checking in via Foursquare and Facebook places.

It turned out that most mobile gamers don’t want to broadcast their location; they just want to play a fun game.

Source: Charles Hudson’s Weblog

The next generation of location-based gaming is often referred to as “geo gaming.” Unlike their predecessors, these games focus on letting players explore beyond their immediate surroundings.

The Geo Gaming Ecosystem

Geo games face the unique challenge of working within the limitations of pre-existing data. At The Tap Lab, we set out to build a geo game engine and mapping system to give us more control over our game world, as did a few other game developers. Fortunately, we have many resources at our disposal. The geo gaming ecosystem consists of Map Data Providers, Places Databases, and Game Developers.


In making a geo game you need a Map Data Provider for drawing geography (streets, bodies of water, etc.). In addition, if your game lets players interact with real world places you will need a Venue Data Provider that can give you venue details, including latitude and longitude.

Map Data Providers

In terms of the actual data, the two leading solutions are Google Maps or Open Street Maps (OSM). Google Maps is the easier to use but more restrictive option. You’re only able to use it via the official Google SDKs, which significantly limits some of the aesthetics that are important to a game. OSM, on the other hand, is more flexible but harder to get running. OSM is available via a much less restrictive attribution and share-alike license. A simple example of the difference between the two:

  •  Using Google Maps, you can very easily add basic annotations and overlays, as its nature is a routing app. You can also, using the Styled Map Wizard, customize colors, visibility, etc. of a number of map elements. Beyond these two basic features, you run into a brick wall as you’re only allowed to access the data using public Google SDKs. Trying to re-skin the ground using a grass texture? No can do.
  •  Using OSM, the closest thing to an official provider is CloudMade. The data is available as both image and vector tiles. The hard part is to get a renderer up and running to your specifications, but once everything’s working, you can style things however you like.

Place Data Providers

The decision here comes down to what type of game you’re trying to create. For example, a restaurant game might be better served using the Yelp API. In terms of general places databases though, the three leading options are Google, Foursquare, and Factual, each with pros and cons:

  • Google Places - Well maintained, but more restrictive terms of use. Did you pick OSM for your map data provider? Too bad ­– you can’t display Google places on a non-Google map. Is your game not free-to-play? Also no good.
  • Foursquare – Their data is typically more exhaustive, but user-generated content is user-generated content. You’ll occasionally see results like “Awesome Party” and “Two Girls and a Cat.”
  • Factual – Better data quality, but more expensive. Their free cap is only 10,000 calls per day. With a game that allows travel away from your current location, you could easily hit this with a few hundred active users.

With the proliferation of smartphones and 4G devices, the ability to quickly download map and venue data has improved dramatically. At the same time, we are leveraging our years of experience in this area to continually optimize our systems and pull down the right amount of information quickly to deliver a smooth gameplay experience.

Geo games present a familiar challenge for developers: lack of control over the world. Often enough players will travel to highly dense and competitive areas or conversely, to the middle of nowhere with nothing to interact with. As a result, it is much more difficult to balance gameplay and to define starter zones in these games than in purely virtual worlds.

It’s also important for players to be able to get their bearings in these games. During playtests it helps to ask players to describe their surroundings in the game. If the game is well designed, a player should be able to easily detect where they are in the world at any given time.

Playing With The World

Armed with a decade of lessons learned and a deep understanding of the geo gaming ecosystem, today’s developers are equipped to craft a new type of game. Rather than asking players to check-in at local places, players are invited to explore locations around the world. That world now looks much more like a game as developers continue to create their own mapping systems, giving them more control over how their games look and function.

Emerging technologies like indoor positioning, 3D mapping, and augmented reality present exciting opportunities for geo game developers. There are brilliant people around the world working on these games and there’s bound to be a runaway success among them.

What would you like to see in the geo games of the future?

Illustrations by Carrie Witt

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