What’s On the Horizon for Location-Based Gaming

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When Geocaching launched in 2000 – arguably the first location-based “game” – it set a precedent for how a GPS could be used as more than a navigational tool. But with the ubiquity of Google Maps, Open Street Maps and Foursquare since 2005, developers have become increasingly creative with how they take advantage of improvements in GPS technology. With an ever-more accurate Google Maps, for example, developers have begun to take advantage of the Styled Maps Wizard as a means of understanding what can be done to repurpose the otherwise plain Google Maps interface for gaming.

Geocaching - location-based-gaming

In short, location-based gaming is a complicated cocktail of databases like Google Maps and Google Places – a slowly-growing game genre that relies almost entirely upon pre-existing location information. This genre is referred to simply as “geo gaming.”

“Shadow Cities,” released in 2011 as what the New York Times dubbed the future of mobile games, is perhaps the most fully-realized example to date of how a location-based game can rethink how – and where – we play Android, iPhone, and iPad games.

The game attempts to transform city blocks into magic-filled battlegrounds. Turning the corner on your street welcomes new items to collect and people to battle, and neighborhoods are referred to as “gateways” that you and a team of others are challenged with conquering and controlling through a player-versus-player system. Truly, it blends together the best elements of a standard “World of Warcraft”-esque MMORPG while implementing real-world locales as the game map.

Or, in other words, it’s the definition of the contemporary geo-game.

“The planet is our playground,” said “Shadow Cities’ designer Markus Montola at a GDC 2012 summit. “Our vision is a global game layer that could extend to other media.”

But however ambitious, the obstacles are apparent for a game like “Shadow Cities.” Massively-multiplayer games tend to involve hours-long game sessions, making the short battery life of most smartphones the pink elephant in the room for game designers like Montola. And though “Shadow Cities” is debatably itself the most well thought-out mobile location-based game, it begs the question of how much a person is willing to travel solely for the experience of playing the game in other neighborhoods – especially in low-density areas. (There’s also the perennial dilemma of making users feel comfortable sharing their current location.)

Still, the geo-gaming genre has come a long way since its first introduction, transitioning from check-in-based games to real-time, GPS games like “Shadow Cities” and, more recently, “Tiny Tycoons,” which is a sort of Monopoly for the real world.

Technologies like 3-D mapping and augmented reality (a technology featured in most new mobile phones as well as in Nintendo’s 3DS and Sony’s PlayStation Vita) stand to open the doors for new innovations in the geo genre. AR in particular has been experimented with through a title called “Time Treasure,” a story-oriented mobile game that has users playing detective and peeling away 10 layers of time in an urban environment to unlock new pieces of a narrative.

But just what do these on-the-horizon innovations hold for the long-term future of location-based gaming?

You may have to “check in” another decade from now to find out.

This is a guest post by Brandon Baker who is a caffeine-addicted, cat-loving, Philadelphia-based journalist with a passion for narrative writing, the perfect cup of joe, and all things Grammar Girl.

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