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Location Awareness in Mobile Games: Uses & Advantages

In this article, Will Luton, creative director of UK iOS game studio Mobile Pie, which developed the location-aware My Star, describes how this technology helps bring players back for microtransaction monetization opportunities.

Will Luton

June 9, 2011

11 Min Read

In 1977 Mattel released the crude handheld Auto Racer. It was peerless due only to being the first mobile electronic game, allowing experiences the player normally found in the living room or the arcade wherever they were.

Over 30 years later mobile devices and their games are ubiquitous and delivering a console-like experience on them no longer exceptional. However a new design forefront has opened up which utilizes an often ignored advantage of mobile. Location awareness. Using it well can create an experience which is compelling, changing and personal, but how to do so is only just emerging.

Location-based services are rising in popularity, with an estimated 33.2 million Americans using them in 2010 alone, up from 12.3 million the previous year. Although most location usage is navigational, apps such as Foursquare, SCVNGR and Gowalla use checkins, which register a user's presence at a location, to create new social services incentivized with trendy gamification mechanics.

Checkins have proven advantages and offer game makers great new potential which have being realized in tiles such as Booyah's My Town, Chillingo's Merchant Kingdom and Mobile Pie's very own My Star.

This article will describe player retention basics, from compulsion loops in Super Mario Bros. and FarmVille, to their importance in social gaming and how location can be applied as a new player return trigger. I will also explain my experience and the application of location to My Star, whilst looking at the additional, less obvious, benefits location brings.

Compulsion Loops

Compulsion loops are nothing new and are recognized as the model for almost all continued human engagement with media. Understanding and applying them makes for great design and fun games.

A compulsion loop is a mechanic in which something provides someone with a reward for accomplishing a goal, then sets them a new goal, creating a loop of process and reward. This process keeps the audience or user engaged until such time that they feel the process of accomplishment outweighs the reward or the goals simply run out.

In linear narrative, such as books or TV, the compulsion to stay engaged is the revelation of plot; keep paying attention to a story and plot points will be resolved, offering a satisfying sense of closure. When an audience is disinterested in a narrative, it is often because the compulsion loop has failed; the urge to discover resolution is not strong enough in the audience's mind to outlay the mental energy of paying attention.

Compulsion loops are also found in all video games. In Super Mario Bros., for example, the reward is reaching the next level, and the method of reaching it is completing the current level. When a player's skill in the game is below the threshold required to complete the level, they become frustrated and feel the outlay to achieve the goal is too high, and are lost. Conversely when the outlay is very low the goal is devalued, which can also lead to disengagement.

What many successful social games do well is keep a player regularly engaged over long periods of time, months or years, by having short, regular play sessions spaced out by compulsion loops which use time as a return trigger. In FarmVille a player plants a crop, which will take two hours to grow. They know they can return between two hours and, say, a day, to collect their reward: currency which can be spent on other items or more crops.

Here the player is rewarded for their commitment with options for customization and embellishment; virtual currency that can be spent on clothing, furniture or ornaments. It is offering achievable, appealing rewards to casual gamers deterred by core titles which reward skill and dexterity with more challenge, creating a hugely mass-appeal proposition.

Having constant regular engagement is very important for a free-to-play title. Firstly a repeat user can be served lots of adverts or product placement, but secondly they are more likely to see worth in their activity, because of the time investment, and thus complete a microtransaction.

To this end time-triggered compulsion loops are very powerful and important. Yet they have a weakness in that they commonly augment a user's daily routine; that is to say that the player sets tasks that are available to collect when they are available to play, which can lead to stagnant play patterns and quick churn (time between first and last play).

A Case for Location

In 2006 a group of British academics wrote a paper called Interweaving Mobile Games with Everyday Life [pdf link]. In it they identified that a location mechanic in game they had created called Feeding Yoshi had the power to disrupt a player's routine and draw them back to play:

"The [disruptive] mode was to change one's patterns of everyday life by deliberately setting aside time for special, often relatively prolonged, game sessions, for example during the evening or weekends."

In Feeding Yoshi, as with most location games, being in a new or different place offered a return trigger alternative to time. This means there could be multiple rewards offering points of return because of a player's non-game real world activities:

  • Fixed routine. Commute from home to work and back

  • Unplanned travel. Popping to the shops

  • Game travel. Travel for advantage and reward

Offering game advantage based on location has great application in retention for free-to-play mobile beyond the immediate return. It encourages a cognitive link between a player's movement or future activity and the potential in-game benefit that could offer them. A user thinking about a game is more likely to play it again, tell a friend about it, or make an in-game purchase.

However, no matter how much advantage location mechanics can add to a game in terms of profitability they must be fun. The implementation of location is very much in its infancy, but with emerging APIs such as Foursquare or Facebook Places, context from place names opens up innovative and fun possibilities.

My Star & Applying Location

My Star is a free-to-play social game we at Mobile Pie have created in partnership with the European network operator Orange. In it, players pilot a tiny square-headed wannabe music star from absolute zero to musical hero. They can dress the star in rock, pop and rap-like attire, personalize their star's home with furniture and other decor, practice instruments, jam and record songs with friends and post virtual posters at real world locations.

All the location functionality is self-contained within the Poster feature; the player promotes their star at nearby landmarks or businesses by virtual flyposting. Posting at spot gives the player an in-game reward of virtual currency, but also notoriety as other players can view their posters, poster over them and send friend requests through them.

My Star, along with our virtual crop growing stealthucation title Blossom Bristol, is amongst the first games to use Facebook Places. It acts as a great resource of place names created both from existing databases and the community, which can give context to a Facebook connected player's surrounding.

When a player taps the Poster icon in a My Star session Facebook checks for a user, before the game queries the device for a location. This is then passed to Facebook Places via a URL, which return five places with IDs, ordered by increasing distance. The game then uses these IDs to find any current posters at the location stored on the server. If any location hasn't before been discovered the server creates a new entry.

The collated data of locations and posters are returned and displayed as walls for the user to browse through. The user can select a poster design, opt in or out of friending and post a poster, which is then passed back to the server. The player is rewarded with virtual currency based on the spot's popularity and returned back to the wall.

The launch of Facebook Places was serendipitous to our release schedule. At the beginning of the project it did not exist and reverse geocoding (the process of getting location details from coordinates) solutions were clunky, restrictive and had poor coverage.

However, Facebook Places has drawbacks in that it requires the player to be logged-in with a Facebook account and, because places can be user generated, the system is open to incorrect or abusive entries. There are a number of other solutions worth considering, including:

Beyond Retention: Other Benefits

My Star's Poster mechanic was designed from a thematic, rather than business, view. The aim is for the user to feel like they are promoting their avatar in the real world, as they might a real star. The business benefits of this became clear later.

However adding location is about more than stickiness; it brings with it the ability to make a game a better proposition, allowing for friend discovery and, perhaps most importantly, creating new revenue streams.

In convincing a player to download your game to their device you must make a good value proposition to them, even for free-to-play. The poster feature was about giving users a new reason to play our game over a comparable one. The new use of location is a clear innovation and one on which My Star is sold.

Another benefit is that location can ease problems in discovering friends on the platform, a key component for any social game: an app on a mobile device is an additional layer away from a social network, for people to communicate through it meaningfully they must be on the same social network, both own a compatible device, have the app installed and tie their social network account to the app. This is common, but high-friction use case.

In many social location apps, users can discover others based on geographical means. Foursquare users can discover Mayors of a location or those that have recently checked-in or left tips. From their they can request a friendship. In My Star any player posting a poster can opt-in to allow other players to send them friendship requests.

Human interaction through a game offers lots of benefits which in free-to-play increases retainment and revenue. This includes:

  • Social proof. Encouraging through actions other to do as you do, normalizing in-game behavior.

  • Competition. The will to obtain more than others, leading to greater play.

  • Gifting. To offer another user a virtual item. This may cost the sender or simply encourage the recipient to return the gesture or continue playing.

  • Commitment contracts. The reliance one user has on another to do something to help them gain in-game benefit, such as in We Rule when fulfilling a friend's order at your shop.

Another advantage of location, as observed in the disruptive mode of Feeding Yoshi play, is that it can encourage players to go to places for game advantage. This is incredibly appealing for brands, as has been seen with Gap offering a free pair of jeans to users who checkin to a store via Facebook Places.

It is this, I predict, which will become a sizable revenue stream for games, because they are able create a compelling argument, much more than other social apps, with in-game and real world rewards for a checkin.

For example: A My Star player posts a poster at Walmart; this unlocks an exclusive Walmart furniture set for their star's home, but also pops-up an on-screen barcode, which when scanned at a Walmart checkout gives the player a 25 percent discount on all chart CD purchases.

The brand gets an engaged user in their store and the player gets game reward and shop discount, meanwhile the game developers charges the brand for the checkin.

However, for this to happen on a large scale a good third-party solution, similar to Tapjoy for incentivized downloads, needs to emerge, as overheads for small-to-medium studios to facilitate anything more than a handful of deals is too big.


With location aware devices and software able to change coordinates in to meaning in the hands of millions of people, now is time for location to emerge as mechanic creating new experiences.

It has already been put to use as a tool of retention, finding friends and a way of attracting people to a physical space, yet considering the rapid and the constantly unexpected evolution of games, it is safe to say this is only the beginning.

In the next 30 years new location mechanics will be born and reinvented, becoming an input method as ubiquitous as the accelerometer and touch screen, with big players such as Zynga and EA offering location in known and new franchises in social and core games, whilst a big provider offers brand checkins.

Mobile Pie's future will push the boundaries of location, as well as defining what social gaming means on mobile, with new gameplay and technology that does more than imitate social network successes.

But today location is an advantage for your game. Make use of it.

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About the Author(s)

Will Luton


Will Luton is a consultant in design, retention, marketing and monetisation for mobile and free-to-play videogames. He is also former creative director at Mobile Pie, an award winning mobile game developer based in Bristol, UK, working with clients such as BBC, EA's Chillingo, Aardman Animation and Spil Games. He writes a monthly column for Develop Magazine and his first book is due out in early 2013. He has also written feature pieces for Edge, Gamasutra, GamesIndustry.biz, PocketGamer.biz, GamesBrief and the New Statesman. He holds a BA (Hons) Computer Games Design and production credits for AAA titles including Space Siege and The Incredible Hulk whilst at SEGA Europe. He tweets on @will_luton and can be contacted at will-luton.co.uk

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