The mysterious trend of location-based mobile games

Why are Pokemons, Tamagotchis and Zombies invading your augmented reality neighborhood 

Over the last week I have received a bunch of press releases announcing iOS-centric games that use the device's GPS capabilities to allow users to interact with the real world. I would normally avoid writing about free, freemium games and those Mafia-type front end clients. The abnormal surge in review requests that I get through the contact form has got me thinking and I maybe it's time to address it.

The recently launched Mobbles is a perfect example of the new generation of location-based apps. The theme and the mechanics already draw a lot of similarities from  very popular games in the last two decades: Pokemon and Tamagotchi. The so-called Mobbles are virtual monsters that live in the real world but can only be spotted in the wild by trainers with coached eyes — with the Mobbles app installed on their iPhone or Android devices. 

The objective is to capture the Mobbles within your vicinity and eventually plan some longer trips to get those not so close to your home or school. As living virtual things, they move around during the day and can be spotted at different locations. Once you catch a Mobble with your smartphone it will be removed from the map and it will be up to you to take care of it like a pet in a Tamagotchi style. The social component comes with the monster trading aspect.

We haven't heard of these game mechanics on the platform until we saw the App Store crowds going for Hatchi by Portable Pixel. A quick look at the iTunes user reviews shows there's demand from nostalgic grown ups.

From an outsider point of view, this trend to have geo-location games could only be a response to several premises. In the Mobbles example, add-ons and cosmetic downloadable content is available using in-game currency or by simply using real world money. Who would be developing and paying the associated costs without any real gain?

Plan X by Extrafeet takes the competitive elements of heck-in services such as Foursquare to a gaming dimension. The gameplay here is justified by becoming the mastermind of an evil empire with hopes of world domination. The twist here comes in the vein of card games, since you can recruit monsters and destruction weapons for your purposes the same way you build your deck of cards.

In Plan X, real-world locations are the battleground for your megalomanic dreams, where you fight other twisted minds — your friends and players in your area. Of course, the whole thing is truffled with in-app purchases, meaning that the evil lords with deeper pockets will have more and better resources at hand. 

This is idea is also pursued by Mafia Planet by Crowdplayce. In this case, the parallel world of crime and traffic of influences is the perfect scenario for the viral mobile gaming experiment. There is an strategic element too, where you can associate with other players to take over the properties of stronger gangsters and expand your territory. It's all about unlocking buildings based on a real-world map, scavenge valuable items and leveling up your character.

Another title that pulls some inspiration from arcades is Spherie by Peter Druska, where the streets in the city are used to play a location-based version of PacMan. The maps are renewed every two weeks and the objective is to gain points eating the yellow spheres. The game is very basic right now but I can predict a lot of fun uses this summer using it to compete riding bikes with a group of friends, treasure hunts and so on.

On that competitive fitness note, I've also heard of Running Club by Southdowns Interactive. Similar to RunKeeper's street teams and Nike+ community the app uses the GPS capabilities on your iPhone to track your runs. The social twist here is allowing you to compete with friends running live virtual races and comparing your progress in real time. Having your friends your run in different locations in the world at the same time could be a new way to get people exercising, so I'm all for it. The app provides a leaderboard, maps and a chat to get the motivation — and rivalry — going.

Without that social element but still on the fitness side is the Kickstarter project Zombies Run by Six to Start. This immersive storytelling experience mixes location based goals, running with a carefully crafted story to make your work out a mission of survival in a zombie apocalypse scenario. This London studio has crossed disciplines in a way that simply works and that make something as usual these days as tracking your run with an iPhone app something part of a fictional world. The game is packed with different missions, all narrated, which are mixed with your own workout playlists. 

The examples mentioned above seem to be the peak of the iceberg of a trend that has been gaining popularity on the App Store. They all appear to be tapping on the same idea and resources. Just going through their descriptions I can find very similar patterns.

Generally easy to produce

As opposed to more traditional games that run on a more or less sophisticated engine — all the way from  Cocos 2D to Unity or Unreal — geo-location games tend to use the basic structure of an app using the built-in Google Maps integration. I'm not a developer myself, but I reckon they follow the same cookie-cutter pattern. Once you have a working prototype you have a dozen of potentially successful apps that you can theme to target an specific market. With this I don't imply that the creators are lazy, not at all, I'm criticising that the game mechanic will be conditioned by the original prototype and what it's possible.

Capitalise on popular culture

Call it zombie hordes, mafia gangs or virtual monsters. They're dressed in different ways but the skeleton behind them remains very similar. Once players are hooked to one of this, cross-pollination to others is just a matter of time and seasonality. 

Appeal to the masses

In a world where teenagers are shifting from Blackberries to Android and iOS smartphones, the potential for these mobile MMOs can't be underestimated. Distributing free games where having local players conditions the final experience and ultimately the fun should be a reason enough to trigger the word of mouth factor. Nobody wants to have a multiplayer game with no friends, right? Teasing your neighbourhood friends with its local appeal and virtual recognition can motivate their viral success.

Mobile essence

Pretty much like the way I understand Twitter, geo-location apps are engineered to be enjoyed at short bursts during the day. Unlike more traditional games where you sit down and get more invested, the nature of these free games encourage you to check in during the day to know what's happening in your network. I see that playing with real locations also involves playing in realtime.