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Analysis: 'Socially Awkward' - Location, Location, Location

Continuing his eccentric series on social games, game designer Patrick Dugan explains that nobody actually cares about location in gaming -- but they do care about locations.
[Continuing his eccentric series on social games, game designer Patrick Dugan explains that nobody actually cares about location in gaming -- but they do care about locations. Here's "Socially Awkward VII".] Why... why? Why is it that all the people sharing their locations are the sort of people you wouldn't want to run into in the first place? Is this a coincidence or some kind of structural thing? I've seen enough Tableau reports to know that there's no such thing as coincidence, only correlations of varying degrees of reliability, so that leaves me to conclude that everyone using location in games is getting everything precisely backwards. Nobody really wants to put themselves at a disadvantage. Since the '90s, when Bill Clinton taught us that knowledge is power and blowjobs don't count, we should know better than to voluntarily check-mark our private data away to faceless corporations -- who are legally people, too. But when I try to play one of these MoSoLo games (Mobile-Social-Local, or as I like to call it, SLoMo) my initial Uuuuuser experience is having a block of text ask me to give away my location at all times. What a turn-off. If most people aren't going to agree to your permissions, you're not going to have the liquidity to get enough player-generated content, even in the form of banal check-ins, which are still a step up from gift requests (and if you request it, it's not really a gift is it? More like a tariff.). If you don't have liquidity, you don't get a good re-targeting rate, and then your retention is going to suck like a location-based vacuum cleaner. It Vacuums At Locations!(tm) Looking back on the history of mobile data services since 2001, back when AAPL was trading for $5 a share and Japan was again, briefly, the promised land of technology, we see a long history of relative failure when it comes to location-based services. Sure, apps that would SMS somebody about jobs within range of their home did a lot of revenue, but that's really a job board using location as a supplemental query filter. In a decade that saw SMS revenues explode to over $100 billion, MMS to over $32 billion (more than Hollywood, music and and console games), and general data services utilizing those platforms garner tens of billions in gross revenues, location-based services did something like tens of millions. Once I was at a location. I've been to many locations in fact. I feel comfortable sharing my past locations because the past is over and the statutes of limitations on all felonies I've committed have expired. It's safe social storytelling, I'm not at threat because I'm not there now (now I'm on a publicly subsidized bus going to visit my daughter, but not by the time you read this). I also feel comfortable sharing my sexual history, entrepreneurship history, and emotional history, but I think I'm three standard deviations out from the average in that sense. I think the average person, mythical as a unicorn checking into a grove, is cool with some of their past locations, just maybe not the retail franchise where they're currently wasting time and money. So, I was once at a location some call the Art Institute in San Francisco, sitting in on a seminar about location-based gaming. I came in on Caltrain from Burlingame, and after I went to my Fallen Angel investor friend's loft space, and then we went to this bomb Mexican restaurant on 18th and Mission with shrimp ceviche on a tortilla saucer. While walking, I sent some emails using pirated 3G access, and my flip-flop broke for the second time in a day. Why do I keep getting distracted? Oh hey just now I passed a park! The games discussed at the meet-up utilized check-ins to mark territory in the game -- you go to the nearby subway or hotel, and then you stake out a corresponding asset in the game. They're still hinging on the mechanic that Foursquare dominated and gaming it up. Those that game it up more don't depend as much on people intentionally leaving the house to acquire locations, but ultimately, as with earlier examples of non-game mobile services, the location element can quickly become a hindrance to engagement rather than this tremendous leveraging tool the way social network invites have been. The reason why is simple: Nobody cares about location. What people care about are locations. If you can make a product that allows me to aggregate a selective history of where I've been, implying to some extent what I've done, and I can get huge social proof from that, you will win. If you make a product that allows me to prostrate myself before the Starbucks franchise, and then triangulate to the other two franchises in a four block radius, you're living in the past, culturally speaking. I invite you to a present where you can give people a lens for them to celebrate the past, and live in a counter-factual future where they finally belong. The GPS data resonating from a mobile device can be used to tag, it can be used to filter, it can be used to contextualize other meta-data and thereby give that data new gameplay attributes. But nobody really wants you to broadcast it. And then you can chain locations, you can chain them by frequency, you can chain them by temporal (i.e. "narrative") sequence, you can chain them by overlaps between people on a social graph. You can cluster these collections of inter-related data to get extremely useful business intelligence out of what would, using brute-force analysis, be an order of magnitude more difficult to process. If we could organize people's behavior based on data about supply and demand, we could further facilitate an already ongoing infrastructure revolution. Currently the world is on the verge of a new infrastructure revolution on scope with the rise of the internet, global shipping, and industrialization, through sustainably organizing use of land, energy and buildings. There is a lot of impact to be made in leveraging the existing infrastructure of hundreds of millions of computers sitting in people's pockets. Just like Google gained a $200 billion market cap off off aggregating and utilizing information about what people look for on the web, and Facebook is pushing a $100 billion market cap for doing the same with data on social activity, someone is going to get ridiculously wealthy aggregating data on locations, creating the PageRank or FBConnect for physical reality.
If that utility existed, here is one example of how I would use it. I want to make a permacultural farming game called The Green Dream, and in addition to making it a radial, vector-driven, holistically minded farm sim that sells virtual goods and power-ups for profit, I want to enable people to invest in sustainable agriculture and do e-commerce for co-op subscriptions and eco-friendly goods. Here, relative data between locations would inform where investment should flow to get the best chance of a big impact, or conversely, where there is an under supply of good chickens, or chalets, or kumquats. People could tag their actual farms and virtually represent their business to the world. Simulation data on terrain and weather, as well as Customer-Relationship-Management data on local demand for real food, it all rests in the cornucopia of location-based data. Meanwhile we've got people checking into their local bowling alley in order to gain a few points of attack power in a turf war against people they'll never meet. Location is another dimension besides social interaction and systematic complexity. We've had decades of computer games exploring the latter dimension, centuries of classical multi-player games, but if you think about it we've had millennia, the entire history of civilization, to see how location played out. Hint: it worked out well for the share-holders. The internet used to be made of boats. Everyone taking a Google-esque approach to aggregating location data comes off as a bit unfriendly, like, say, the U.S. Government's MAIN CORE program, which uses cell phone signals to simulate war-game scenarios involving civil unrest, terrorism, and Black Friday sales gone bad. There's no Facebook for location data, and I think people are going to have difficulty in building one. After all, both Facebook and Google are trying it, with limited traction. It just isn't cool. In order to achieve that, you have to take an application approach that's fun, poppy, speaks to people's associations with locations, and with their social context. Pull that off, and you'll end up with a meta-infrastructure.
In the same way that people grope at social data in a feeble attempt to know love, so too do we grope at location. How often have you walked down that street, remembering the time you pee'd on Patrick Henry College (not to be confused with the University), the restaurant where you met your child's parent on that first date, or all the long walks made in quiet desperation while you life didn't turn out the way you planned? Did you checked-in each time you made that stroll? Memory lane is a literal place, it is our psycho-geography. Maybe one day we'll walk around our neighborhood and remember when we began getting organized, when the economy collapsed into a new formation, and we played with our familiar everyday until it became a well-worked garden that our grandchildren could grow up in. This mobile device is not a space ship, it's a time machine. It lets us travel the way a child does, around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved. [You can also read the rest of Dugan's series about Metal Gear Solid 2 predicting Facebook, the industry's Wall Street envy, the joy of vector meme, peripheral visions and dreams, metrics, and F***book.]

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