Phone-based GPS-based Games: Missing Pieces?

By Adena Schutzberg

A press release (pdf) this week touts two location-based phone-based games on offer in the United States.I'd heard about Swordfish when it was launched in Canada.It involves fishing for virtual creatures around your location.Maps are provided to help locate the schools, and players need a bit of strategy to safely reel in the catch.The second game is Torpedo Bay, which involves keeping your ship healthy while hitting and hopefully sinking enemy ships in the area.Both are from a company called Blister Entertainment.

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Swordfish lets you catch "virual creatures" around your location.
Source: Blister Entertainment.Used with permission.
Torpedo Bay is a ship battle game.
Source: Blister Entertainment.Used with permission.

I confess that I'm trying to figure out the phone-based location-based games concept.I certainly understand GPS-enabled games like geocaching, or the real world version of Pac Man.The first is a twist on hide and seek and the latter, a twist on tag.Hide and seek and tag are popular location-based among kids worldwide, in part because they involve nothing more than other kids.Geocaching need not involve other people, though someone at one time does need to do the hiding part. Further, one of the most interesting parts for adult geocachers is reading the notes left by other finders, a connection to other people, even if they are not present.

The Blister games are not expensive, just $6 for the first 30 days and $3 for renewal.And, there is a fee each time you "scan for fish." That's less than a movie ticket these days.Now, I know I'm not the target demographic, but hear me out.These games, while they sound clever, don't pull me up out of my seat to play.Why? No other people. (To be fair, it seems Blister has licensed technology from its parent company to allow users from multiple carriers and networks to play together, but there is no indication this is yet implemented.)

I learned as a child that it's far more fun to play games (even games you don't really enjoy) with other kids (even kids you don't like that much) than to play by yourself.In time you actually learn to like the games and even befriend the kids.It's all about connecting to others. (And of course, if you are under 16 1⁄2, and have no car, those kids are your neighbors: location-based friends!) Even as adults we play our games with others, be they tennis, running, bowling, etc.It's no fun alone.

Perhaps these first few phone-based location-based games are basic because the company is testing the waters (no pun intended) by starting small.To my mind, offering a game on a phone that makes no use whatsoever of the phone (communication=connection to people) defeats the purpose.Why not sell it for a GPS-enabled PDA? Or for a GPS?

The answer in part, I'll offer, is that people carry phones everywhere. True.But how often are they walking down the street and have the urge to kill some time by playing a GPS-enabled game? Right now I suspect the answer is not often, but perhaps that will change.On the other hand, how often are people stuck on airplanes or online waiting at the bank when a non-GPS-enabled game might keep them amused? Far more often.

This first attempt simply reinforces the idea that just having location is not enough for a killer application.As Joe Astroth notes in his article, below, it's enabling technology, not an end in itself.Vendors like Blister are still learning how to best use it for compelling entertainment.

Published Thursday, August 18th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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