Lately I have started to become really enamored of location based games (LBGs*). For example, Pokémon Go is one LBG that you are almost certainly familiar with. However that is but one of many games in this emerging category. What they all have in common, apart from being phone games, is that they use GIS to figure out where you are physically located and to determine which objects in the imaginary world of the game you can interact with. There will generally be a few things in or near any random spot where you happen to be. But to get to new objects and really make progress, you often have to walk or drive to new locations. They also usually incorporate real world elements, such as streets and buildings around you.
|Pokémon Go is one of the few LBGs I think I can safely assume most readers are familiar with.|
I find the potential of this genre really intriguing. For example earlier this year I speculated that they could form a major stepping stone between PC and Console based MMORPGs (e.g., Everquest, WoW) and the true 3D virtual worlds we have been reading about in sci-fi for ages (e.g., the Multiverse). What I didn't realize when I wrote that post is that there are so many of them out already, and how many MMO design elements these games are already experimenting with. There are always interactions with other players, generally some mechanical RPG elements (stats, levels, equipment to collect), and they are also all online by definition.
|However the LBG genre is really exploding right now. Shown here is Walking Dead: Our World which I will be posting about after Pokémon Go. |
Like MMOs, they have a shared world that can only be seen and interacted with by you and other players of the game. They also very often contain digital objects you can interact with and alter, changes that will be seen by other players whether you happen to be online or not. In fact these asynchronous interactions with other players, even if still generally somewhat limited, are a hallmark of LBGs. That and walking, lots of walking!
I also find that very few location based games are being covered by bloggers or news sites that I follow. It's a bit surprising to me, because these games by-and-large do play like some sort of stripped down experimental MMO. It's also really hard to figure out which ones are worth trying from the limited coverage that I can find for most of them.
To try and kick start a conversation about this budding genre, I am going start posting impressions of random LBGs that I try. In all of my posts I will use a standard format, with the goal of the series slowly becoming a proper guide over time. I will be focused on answering a series of questions that I hope will help readers decide if they might like a game, and that I also find very interesting from a design perspective.
What do you do? What is the basic gameplay loop and / or goal of the game? All of the ones I have tried so far involve walking around and either collecting stuff and/ or getting into some kinds of battles. However I have read about some where exploration appears to be the entire point of the game.
What is the world like? What kind of world does the game create for you to walk around in? Most of these games seem to be powered by Google Maps. However Niantic and a few other companies seem to have have developed their proprietary maps of the world. For example, Pokemon Go, Ingress and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite are all published by Niantic and consequently have buildings to interact with (or lack them entirely) in exactly the same spots because of it. Regardless of how they generate the base map, the games vary a lot in terms of what fantasy elements they layer on top of it.
Asynchronous interactions? One thing that all these games seem to have in common is some way to interact with other players whether you happen to be online at the same time and place or not. If finding other players to hang out with in a MMO can sometimes be challenging, in a LBG, where the gaming space you are sharing is literally the size of a 1-to-1 scale planet, it can sometimes be all but impossible. Because of that, these games generally allow for you to affect the world in some way. If other players happen to visit a location you have interacted with they can see whatever changes you have made, and sometimes try to undo them. These persistent shared elements are probably the aspect of this new genre I find the most interesting.
How do you interact with other players? When you are on at the same time as other players how can you interact with them? What can you do with players anywhere, vs players that happen to be in the same spot as you? Many of these games have interactions you can only engage in if you happen to be in the same general location at the same time (e.g., think walking up to a dungeon or grouping up for a raid in a MMO and you won't be far off). At the same time, most of them also have pretty typical matchmaking, in one form or another, that can hook you up with players anywhere for a short interaction like a PvP match.
Is it good exercise? Another thing that I really like about these games is that they often encourage you to walk. A LBG can be a very fun way to get a bit of exercise. For example my wife and I got to be in very good shape, at least in that we could easily walk for hours non-stop without tiring, from playing Pokémon Go when we lived in town. The only other game I have played that does a better job of gamifying exercise is Ring Fit Adventures on the Switch, and tricking you into exercise is literally the entire design goal of that game. That said, some of these games making walking a lot more fun and rewarding than others.
I am going to leave this up for 24 hours, so that at least a few people will read it, and officially kick off the series tomorrow with an overview of Pokémon Go. I expect most readers to be familiar with it, and so I think it will serve as a useful point of comparison. From there I will be moving in to Walking Dead: Our World, and then Orna. Regardless of whether my interest in this project waxes or wains after my initial posts, I am going to be very interested to see where this genre goes in the next few years. This really feels like the emergence of something well and truly new to me.
*LBG: I considered LBMG (location based multiplayer games) to avoid potential confusion with commentary on LGB and LGBT games and social issues, but decided I was probably being paranoid. However if you have a strong opinion about it let me know in a comment.