Your MMO guild members may be good friends but they’re scattered all across the world. Your mobile games steal your attention away from talking to people. Your social game hassles you to bug your friends for gifts, but otherwise you play alone. Your co-op sessions of Portal 2 tend to be played with mute strangers.
Most innovations in digital gaming tend to produce solitary experiences. This is fine most of the the time, but players don’t always want to be solitary. They like to gather to play, to participate and hang out. Social contact is healthy, and games have always had an important role in helping to bind communities together.
Video games have not really tapped into that spirit yet, but it feels to me like that’s the next wave. Local games are coming.
What is a Local Game?
Players have always self-organised. A roleplaying campaign of Call of Cthulhu is not a one-time affair, and if you spend the time to learn how to play Dominion, you’ll likely want to play it again. Local Bridge clubs have gathered and played for decades, while casinos are home to plenty of regulars at the Poker table. Soccer fans assemble in their thousands and many play in their own Sunday leagues.
Historically, however, video games have shied away from game designs that required social organisation. The industry has long believed that organisation of people in that way doesn’t scale, and that while its fine for sessional games like a Wii Sports party, it just gets too complicated to keep a long term game going for most players to bother.
The impediments were financial and technological. Fifteen years ago, a LAN party needed everyone to bring a PC and set up miles of network cable in someone’s living room. The age-old idea of paper-and-diceless Dungeons and Dragons always butted up against the cost involved and the flakiness of communication between laptops. Even mobile phones didn’t help. They had poor connectivity, large compatibility issues and their software distribution was wrapped up in portal politics.
So when it came to long term play, analogue games were simply much better. Like the book remaining popular while the e-book struggled, it was simpler, cheaper and more fun to play the physical game than mess around with computers. Developers, for the most part, agreed.
However the impediments have mostly dissolved. Tablets are much more portable than laptops, and pretty cheap to boot. Smartphones are often given away to customers. Both have sophisticated GPS, app stores, connectivity and so forth. They can talk to each other with WiFi, 3G, Push, Bluetooth and soon even Near Field Communication (NFC). They can take photos, stream data and are capable of a great many touch-based interactions that mimic physical actions.
I think a golden opportunity is forming for digital games that bring players together in real world places. In some cases that means digital substitutes for analogue games. In others, it’s Foursquare or flash mobs combined with gameplay. It’s pub quizzes on steroids, Friday night gaming without the hassle of pieces and dice and persistent roleplaying games that connect to the real world.
It’s digital, but local at the same time.
10 Characteristics of Local Games
1. Persistence. Like a massive multiplayer game or a social game, you will be building and creating something that lasts, such as a character or a fictional business, in a local game.
2. Clans. The social mechanisms of grouping to form clans or gangs will play a significant part in how local games play. Think of local football clubs, Bridge clubs and the like.
3. Interest graphs. When some friends invite you to go to a pub quiz, the quiz is both the reason to gather and the lubricant of social contact. In social network speak, this is called an interest graph. Rather than finding the requirement of assembly onerous, local games are something that the interested will choose to assemble for and find a community through assembling.
4. Synchrony. Local games may not require players to all be on the same page at once. Many local games will replicate real world clubs that are synchronous (such as Chess clubs) but many will not (such as a continuous LARP).
5. Temporany. While Foursquare doesn’t need players to be present in a location at the same time, the point of local games is that they do. Clubs can’t form without members who show up.
6. Physical. The attraction of games played in locations is the formation of social groups. This means that they are probably city-based, or at least figure out ways for players to gather (conventions etc). Video conferencing may help overcome this in some cases.
7. Locations. Without the pub to go to, there is no pub quiz. However this is the digital age, the age of flash mobs, tweetups and unconferences. So local games don’t need sanctioned locations.
8. Old. Local games speak to interests that players already have. Dungeons and Dragons played with iPads, Bridge clubs, Chess nights, pub quizzes and board game nights are some examples.
9. And New. Local games are a blue ocean allowing for significant novelty. So forget FarmVille with check-ins. Think instead of location-dependent game dynamics (see below) at the heart of the game.
10. Connected. Local games connect to the cloud to save game states and are capable of operating on multiple devices. You’ll save and recover your game character as required.
Local Game Dynamics
Some proto-games such as Foursquare already use location, but they are the gaming equivalent of heads-or-tails. Other games like Shadow Cities or Life is Crime are beginning to push beyond those simple roots into more interesting territory. Here are some examples of game dynamics that might make local games shine:
Check-Ins: The Foursquare-style check-in announces your presence, and compares you to others who have done likewise. A very simple dynamic of competition between players to win badges and mayoralty is the result. It does get old pretty quickly though.
Trading: Why would people meet? How about trading? With technologies like NFC, the idea that players would trade, bid, bet or otherwise engage in transactions is pretty interesting. Player markets, player auctions, even whole local economies is a fascinating area.
Spontaneous Gathering: It’s the age of flash mobs, London riots and Middle East revolutions. What all of these have in common is the ability of mobile devices to assist in assembling crowds. There are also game uses for this technology. With a local game you could create treasure hunts, instant live action roleplaying games or ‘speed gaming’ (like speed dating) perhaps?
Additive: Dungeons and Dragons sessions that don’t need the paper or dice will use local games instead. Services that store your characters and compute rules are finally within reach. Other additive uses will be score trackers for your local bowling league, darts competitions, sports events and more.
Collection: Game-assigned items, quests and achievements throughout your locality encourage exploration. Augmented reality (where the smartphone imposes images over reality) has significant possible uses here.
Politics: Status never worked in social games because nobody cared about your solitary achievements. Status in a local game setting can be everything. As clans gather there is power and prestige in status, and game benefits as a part of that.
Strategy: This is the first dynamic that everyone thinks of when it comes to building local games. Using your city as some form of giant boardgame, capturing city blocks or streets in a territorial war seems cool. And why not. It is cool.
Loyalty: Loyalty means more than gamification. Loyalty as a game dynamic is local and social obligation, alliances, treaties and so forth. And yes, possibly repeat shopping too.
Personal Development: Keas, SuperBetter and several other startups turn fitness into a game. Nike Air, Run Keeper and Wii Fit track your exercise plan. Daily Burn and a number of other sites monitor your calories. Add local gaming to that mix and maybe you could disrupt Weight Watchers.
As is increasingly the case with all software, inserting a retail barrier means that the number of downloads geometrically shrinks. For local games that would be a disaster because it would directly harm their ability to reach critical mass. Local games, more even than social games, are very dependent on Metcalfe’s Law.
So the preferred business model will use virtual good and other freemium economics for monetisation. In-app purchase, trading fees (see above) and other increasingly-normal financial transactions will form a significant part of how many local games play. Subscription will make up the rest. Anything else would be suicidal.
Local games also have huge marketing potential. ARGs and gamification have explored the idea of game-based marketing, but so far have proved limited because they lack depth. They tend to be dedicated games created specifically for a promotion, which always results in thin design. That’s why they fall apart.
Local games, on the other hand, behave like clubs. The club already exists and plays the game, and the brand arranges a promotion to run inside the game in your local city. That could be as simple as free Starbucks on a special day for players of a trading game, or long running like preferred membership benefits to a particular set of gyms for players of an exercise game.
The Next Wave
New waves in the game market seem to emerge every two or three years and reignite enthusiasm for play all over again.
The massive multiplayer, casual, virtual world, mobile and social waves have each become red oceans as the number of competitors multiplied. Tablets will probably be the next battleground, but so far tablet games have looked a lot like blown-up mobile games or shrunk-down PC games. They’re not really a wave yet.
I think that local games will brings tablets into their own because they have the right mix of usability and portability and they are geographically aware. It’s still very early to say exactly what form local games will take (My business partner is currently developing a vampires-themed roleplaying game using location technology, for example) but something is beginning to stir.
It just needs the right games. Maybe yours could be one of them.