With the always increasing diffusion of GPS-enabled smartphones, there are a lot of games trying to connect the real world with a gaming world. The basic idea is to put a layer on the real world depicting an alternate reality, or something like that. I’m starting to think all these products are maybe missing the point, and they are ignoring the only added value of a locative based game: a better connection with the space you live in.
The Risk approach
This is the most obvious. You have a real space, so what’s best for a game than territory control and conquest? A lot of locative games, like GoWar are applying concepts coming from Risk and other strategy games to the real world. The idea is simple: you can claim the places you visit and reinforce them with military units. The more territory you control, the more game money you earn, the more units you can keep up.
All this games are not really working, because they aren’t taking in account a fundamental issue: scalability. Take Risk, for example. The ratio between the number of players, the average number of units you can have in-game and the number of territories you can conquer is carefully balanced to always grant an exciting game (and yet, the game is quite flawed by a rich gets richer problem). There are games that have tried to break this balance to give the players a different kind of experience: this is the case of Smallworld, which deliberately narrows the space to force the players to change strategy (and even kind of units throughout the game). Now, Smallworld is interesting, because, unlike Risk, it offers a different map depending on the number of players in-game. This demonstrates that the players/space ratio is really important to grant fun in a territory control game.
Now, the Risk approach in massive locative games like GoWar is not the best one, just because you haven’t got a real way to control this ratio. Some areas could have too many players to be funny, some others will be too deserted to be of any interest. Only a few places could have the sweet ratio spot that makes the game fun. And even there the risk of having one player ruining the game to all its neighbors just because he has much more resources than the others is really high.
The Alternate Reality approach
The alternate reality approach is not alternative to the Risk approach and it has to do more with theme than with game mechanics. A pretty good example of this is Shadow Cities, a game in which players take the roles of mages fighting to control real territories. Wizards can teleport in different locations (as long as a friendly portal is opened) and take part in multiplayer battles to conquer the various areas. Everything in this game is heavily themed. The idea is to create an alternate world built directly on the real one; some sort of layer with its rules and its history. In Shadow Cities this concept is so extreme that you don’t really know where you are in the world when you pass through a portal. Sure, you can tell looking at the name of the streets, but in general the sense of the real place is completely erased by the alternate reality layer.
Now, the problem with this kind of approach is that you somewhat lose the sense of the place you are playing in. If the layer destroys the history, the features and the meaning of the environment, what is the point of having a locative game in first place? You could have the same experience with a fantasy map.
Global vs. Local
When dealing with locative games, maybe is worth to ask ourselves some questions about scale. Do global scale really matter? I think that, while the massive multiplayer idea is alway seducing, maybe looking at a world scale locative game is not the most efficient way to go.
The real added value of locative games stands in the local area the player is roaming, in the features and the history of a particular area. So, why not focusing in enable the player to live the city in a different way? Thinking this way we need to take a look and learn from urban games. Six interesting examples of games dealing with urban spaces are in this post by Kars Alfrink, and I may add Tiny Games by Hide & Seek, a series of mini game stickers the guys have placed in Southbank London. Each sticker proposes a game which could only be played in that specific place, due to its inherent characteristics.
By playing in a local scale you can even leverage the power of groups of people playing together and use real-world interaction between players.
Even if I always look with curiosity the work people is doing with massive locative games, I guess we are just at the start of an idea that could grow a lot. The current approaches are only scratching the surface of the possibilities GPS enabled-devices are giving us.
I think we must move past the Risk-like games and start asking ourselves how we can improve or change the way people are living their social spaces.
And maybe there could even be the space for changing the use of some locations and the meaning of others.