It’s a golden age of geolocation gaming and digital interactive experiences, thanks mostly to ubiquitousness of smartphones. For years I found the idea of geocaching to be fascinating but was convinced it couldn’t possibly be accessible to the likes of me; surely geocaching was only for mountain climbers and wilderness explorers with fancy GPS systems. One day after hearing about an interesting (and now largely defunct) phone game called CodeRunner it finally all clicked for me: oh yeah, there’s a GPS in my phone!
Since then, I can confidently say I’ve explored as many, if not more geolocation games than anyone. I continue to be in love with how these experiences meld the real world with the digital. You can search for treasure, battle monsters or other players, experience a thrilling story and more, all while walking around your own neighborhood. They’re also a great way to get to know a new area. Whenever I’m heading out of town I use these games as my tour guide as they surely guide me to places that are actually interesting.
I’ve become obsessed with some, frustrated by others. I’ve now played enough of these games that I’ve accidentally come up with a loose categorization system. When I was last on the GeoGearHeads Podcast (who we’re visiting this Thursday, October 12; see the end of this post for details) and while writing an outline for what I wanted to talk about on the show, I realized a sorting system was possible. Sure, there will be plenty of genre blending and some exceptional cases will defy definition, but I do love the idea that there are now enough geolocation games out there to allow for sorting.
It comes down to direction. Does the game have you going somewhere specific, somewhere randomly selected, or do you pick your own direction and the game plays along? Geocaching, Munzee, Pokémon Go, Ingress and more; while each have their flaws, they largely succeed because they’re designed to lead you to interesting places chosen by the users. I’ve discovered a ton of fascinating places close to home that I never would have known about if say, an Ingress portal hadn’t been placed there. Success is difficult for this kind of an app, however, because it’s so dependent on user input and a swell of support. The App Store graveyard is filled with more failures than successes, with apps that asked users to create pins for their maps but never got those user contributions growing at the needed exponential rate to spawn further engagement. Take The Silent History, which had an awesome premise but asked a lot of users by requiring submissions to meet a multi page style guide. Shoot, even Pokémon Go wouldn’t have been the worldwide phenomenon if it didn’t have Ingress’ database to borrow at its launch.
The next group, geolocative experiences that randomly select locations for you to travel to, isn’t well regarded by me. It’s very rare that someone gets this kind of game right. This type of game plops your targets down wherever: construction sites, highways, in the middle of rivers, etc. That’s an exaggeration (mostly) but I’ve found the lack of curation makes for an empty experience. For these games it’s less the destination, or really even the journey, but a hope that their overarching mechanic is what’s attractive. Usually that means a scoring or rewards system, tallied by whatever currency they’re having you chase in the real world. Two such games I played recently, Seek and Garfield Go, are good examples of bad design. I go into a bit more depth in a series of posts here, but briefly, both strew coins randomly across the map and the work to access those locations makes me feel like I’m on a giant hamster wheel.
There’s one game where I’ve seen the random placement mechanic done well and it’s the aforementioned CodeRunner. Some of the game’s story missions will have you chasing after a target randomly placed on the real world map. The interesting hook is that you can turn and face a different direction, hit a reset button, and the location will be reassigned. While that target spot still won’t have real life significance, at least I can make it part of my errand to fetch groceries or whatever. That, and I’m not being forced to walk onto a high security military facility to continue the game (true story).
My final category consists of games where location is irrelevant. You’re asked to walk and the app uses your phone’s GPS to keep track of your steps, unlocking the next part based on how far you’ve gone. The hook of these location-agnostic games is that they fit into your regular routine fairly well, depending on telling an interesting story to motivate you into unlocking more of their content instead of going to a location dictated by the game. I’ve been slowly making my way through a game called Silent Streets, a sort of detective story where you’re actually walking between story points. My day job has me glued to my desk so I haven’t been able to take many lunchtime walks, but with Silent Streets my walk to my bus stop and other quick errands have been enough to advance the game. Other games like Zombies, Run take the fitness element of this category far more seriously with an excellent radio-play story that’s about running around a post-apocalyptic world, dodging the undead and other unsavory characters. For me, being immersed in an interesting story is great motivation for an early morning run, even if I desperately prefer to be a lazy lump and sleep some more.
Where does Traipse fit into all this? For starters, like that first category, Traipse is entirely about bringing you to great places. We’ve gone out and personally explored each of the areas we’re currently operating in and we work with local tourism boards and businesses to build interesting Tours for you to explore. Each stop is designed to highlight fascinating local history and cool, small businesses that you’d not find anywhere else (and maybe even throwing a discount your way!). Most importantly, we design a fun puzzle for you to solve at each stop. While the best part of the job for us is building those puzzles we’re excited that a future version of the app will allow for user submissions and grow the Traipse experience even further. The personal curation we provide means that Traipse isn’t like that second category of geolocation gaming, you’re guaranteed to not be randomly led to sketchy experiences. We’re also thrilled to be launching some story-driven Tours, where you’re still exploring local historic sites and more, but they’re tied together in a riveting narrative fashion. It’s going to be so very cool.
P.S. Darren and I will be visiting the GeoGearHeads Podcast to discuss Traipse on Thursday, October 12. You can catch the livestream at 9 p.m. (EST) or subscribe to their podcast feed and listen to it the next day. Tune in!