alternate reality games computer games conferences games design GDC 2008

GDC08: Lessons Learned in Location-based gaming


Speaker: Jeremy Irish, Groundspeak

Entertaining, with a lot of very small anecdotes, but nothing non-obvious in this talk. Everything he gave as advice you’d probably work out for yourself within your first project without losing time from doing so.


You are unable to control many of the environmental factors (e.g. weather (!)) in location-based game-design.

[Adam: …then he explained GeoCaching for newbies, not going to re-hash it here…]

The reward for people doing the hiding was the logging aspect: seeing people visit your cache.

Seeding a critical-mass of locations AND players to interact with seems to be a very good way to get a game running early on.

Multi-caches and puzzle caches: used a sequence of caches that you have to go to one to find the address of the next, etc. Or puzzles to give you intermediary co-ordinates.

[Adam: like TreasureHunt, or PerplexCity‘s use of puzzles/interactions (those as very distinct types!) to allow web to become a more interesting game. Lots of common-ground with Alternate Reality Games here; not q required part of ARGs, but something that several of them have done in the past, like I Love Bees using GPS locations of payphones for players to find and answer]

Waymarking, as a differnt kind of geocaching: mark something interesting or valuable in real life which isn’t a cache, but instead is something interesting in the world.


Using polygons to map areas of real world to places in the game

[Adam: like an HTML image-map?]


Zork shows the value of “location” as a tool in game-design

You become a lot more reliant on the game-logic to provide the gameplay experienece [it’s the only thing you really control, in fact]

Avoid relying too much on the visual aspect (e.g. of the in-hand game-client)

Can’t control player movements, can’t control time flow, etc

Embrace the chaos

Uncontrollable, unpredictable factors:
– weather
– time (roads, shops open and closed at certain times)
– detours and barriers (often unexpected / unknown in advance by designer)
– other people (obstructing the gameplay accidentally)
[Also deliberately, if your game becomes popular!]
– environmental disasters
[this should include political instability in regions, etc]

Motivation is key

– reward the player often to keep them moving, to keep them bothering to go outside
– eing lost takes n the original meaning – player cannot just “eject” the game and be back home, they may really be stuck in the middle of nowhere

“Junkyard Wars” game-design

– pick elements of the physical location to guide your game-design; use what’s available
– blend physical themes with your game-design ot help suspend disbelief

Keep games short

– 2 hours was way too long for a gameplay experience
– 15 minutes is about ideal, it seems
– Serialize your game into 15-minute chapters if you want long games; gives players convenient stopping points
[Adam: the save-point equivalent for an LBG]
– simplify at all costs
[Adam: good advice for an ARG, actually…]

Use local-environment/physical elements

– Combine with virtual items
– use codes from placed or existing items [Adam: e.g. text on a plaque as part of puzzle solution]
– Interact with real-world people, not just objects
[Adam: That’s just standard ARG event stuff]

Make players look up
– i.e. get players to look where they’re walking, i.e. straight-ahead, not literally “up”
– Use vibration and sound as notification tools
[Adam: – Too easy to walk around staring at your palm, where your device is]

Reward and punish users

– Making people walk back / backtrack physically is the nastiest punishment of all
– Grading, giving a score based on time-to-complete is a more gentle punishment / risk/reward item

Create real-world timers
– Game can’t stop because the real world doesn’t start
– Players will happily pause / exit the app, to then cheat
– But also powerful for plot advancement, and for increasing the sense of a “world” taking place in-game


– some GPS phones require cell phone signal for GPS to function (argh)
– GPS signal-bounce can make the client suddenly report instantaneous massive jumps – must be careful not to dump them out of interaction by taking the reported signal literally
– Bugs can include e.g. infinite loop that had players run back and forth between two spots. They weren’t impressed
– physical game-pieces can be moved unexpectedly: even massive statues get moved
– geocaching after 9/11 met lots of societal problems
– Marketing campaign for Aqua Teen Hunger Force caused fears of bombs

Alternatives to GPS
– Wi-fi positioning
– cell towers
– [+ a bunch of others that weren’t worth mentioning really]


– NMEA output faking
– Physically moving Wi-Fi hotspots
– “Dark” areas
– …some of these may be UNintentional
[Adam: you need to recognize early on that the player has primary power, you do NOT: the player may choose at any time not to play, and anything you do to try and prevent that is doomed to failure and also a really bad idea from game design perspective. c.f. Majestic and some of the scathing criticism]

[Adam: very powerful for selling the increased footfalls to e.g. a particular shopping mall]