Gbanga's Chris Solarski on why location-based games are ready for a web 2.0 style revolution

Apps need to make use of extended capabilities

Gbanga's Chris Solarski on why location-based games are ready for a web 2.0 style revolution
| Gbanga

Location-based games haven't stalled – they're simply waiting for the next step to emerge.

That's the view of Gbanga's creative director Chris Solarski, who believes developers working on location-based titles are on the verge of unearthing the next big thing, if only they can work out how to better embed the information mobile technology provides into their apps.

The customers are there, the brands are starting to come on board, but location-based apps aren't yet the finished article.

We caught up with Chris to find out how Gbanga plans to better connect players and platforms alike with the real world.

Pocket Gamer: Why do you think location-based games have the potential to be a significant part of the industry? Chris Solarski: Location services such as GPS are a ubiquitous feature of smartphones, allowing developers to easily adjust the game experience to each player's unique lifestyle and location.

We believe that location-based games will continue to increase in popularity because of this adaptability, particularly once big-name brands realise the full potential of engaging audiences at a local level through a mix of gameplay and locations-specific services.

Andrew Wilson – EA's senior VP of worldwide development – stressed the importance of brands having a pervasive presence across all platforms at a time when customers are empowered to choose when, where and how they want to consume at the Develop 2011 conference.

It's not only Andrew's vision that we see as encouraging, but also the willingness of non-gaming brands such as Nike with who are also coming on board.

It's a certainty that most games will have location-based features one day. This trend is comparable to internet-connectivity and multiplayer functions that were widely introduced in 2000, and which have become a standard in games today.

Beyond core location mechanics, Gbanga focuses on building appealing gameplay explicitly built for location-based features that are available on modern mobile devices. We call these games 'mixed-reality' because they blend together reality, fiction and gameplay.

What are your views on balancing gameplay between single and multiplayer elements?

Location-based games need not necessarily include multiplayer features. A straightforward example would be an arcade action game that allows players to unlock content and levels based on their current location.

However, we strongly believe in the added value of multiplayer games to offer ad-hoc tournaments and real-time gameplay with nearby players.

From the player’s perspective, location-based games offer an increased sense of community over traditional console games. In the case of our flagship Mafia game, Gbanga Famiglia, players experience a stronger connection with team members and friendly rivals who walk the same city streets and battle over the same real-world locations, even though they may never meet in person.

We appreciate that players don't always want to engage in multiplayer games and that's why Gbanga Famiglia is a non committal form of multiplayer: you can either play and discover the mixed-reality spaces on your own, aware that other players are around. Or you can collaborate with others in your city or anywhere in the world.

Gbanga Famiglia was designed as a sandbox mixed-reality world from the outset - supported by our open source API - so players can customise their gaming experience.

Our in-game features allow players to connect, build and share experiences with each other, with plenty of opportunities for incidental gameplay stories to occur when their real-world pathways inadvertently overlap.

Mixed-reality certainly unlocks some very interesting concepts, enabling new forms of gameplay, and richer connections between friends and players, but it's entirely up to the player to define their own experiences.

What are your views on a/synchronous play with respect to multiplayer features?

From our experience, synchronous gameplay with respect to multiplayer features is very tricky to engineer. Players can choose when and where to play, and the majority prefer to fit the game to their lifestyle rather than adapt their lifestyle to fit the game.

Gbanga is free to play, which also lowers the level of investment.

We, therefore, design all our multiplayer gameplay around asynchronous features, allowing players to contribute to team challenges at their own pace wherever they are in the world.

What are the biggest challenges that need to be solved in location-based games?

Mobile data-connectivity in general is a problem. So is the latency of wireless connections.

For the range of playable locations we’re looking to encompass in-door locations by making location-based gaming cross-platform and accessible in every situation.

What do you think gives Gbanga a competitive advantage?

We're proud that our games successfully translate gameplay mechanics from our favourite console game franchises, such Mario and Grand Theft Auto.

We try to create the engaging emotional experiences of these games on our location-based platform, putting players in the starring roles so they can act out said games in real-world environments.

We're very much inspired by the film The Game (1997), starring Michael Douglas, in the way it blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction, only our games don't feature any life-threatening drama.

We've successfully managed to incorporate elements of such engaging gameplay to topics with a more serious aspect, such as our collaboration with Zurich Zoo, which turned the city of Zurich into a virtual savannah that players explored with their mobile phones in search of endangered animals.

What makes this adaptability possible are highly flexible tools and development pipeline that makes it possible to create games quickly and localise them anywhere in the world.

Aside from your own titles, are there any other location-based games you enjoy playing?

Definitely – Dimensions. It's not purely a game, but more of a mixed-reality audio experience with collect-to-unlock elements. Players explore a dreamy soundscape that feeds elements from your real-world environment into the game.

An aspect of Dimensions that we particularly like is that the game can be played very passively, as it notifies you when special events occur, so you can enjoy the audio experience without having to worry about missing out on important in-game events.

It's by far the most innovative app we've seen in 2011.

Do you think the inclusion of GPS and mobile-like social features in the PS Vita will help the market's growth?

It's great that a major console manufacturer and publisher has recognised the importance of player context and location-based experiences.

This will certainly increase the player’s acceptance for this technology and promote the development of games in this area.

Ultimately the question of whether this will increase the market share of the PS Vita depends on Sony's ability to deliver games that effectively take advantage of these features.

When's the last time you check-in with Foursquare?

This morning when I had breakfast with a friend.

However, I’m still unsure if I'll continue to do check-ins as a self-contained action. I think the concept of check-ins needs to evolve a stronger connection with reality to add value.

Where do check-in tools go next?

Check-in tools are currently at the same level as websites were before the dotcom bubble: transferring existing content to the web without transforming it to fit the new medium.

The next step for location-based games is to develop new location 2.0 metaphors and applications on top of the raw technology, in the same way that web 2.0 turned simple HTML websites into interactive experiences that use the extended capabilities of the web.

What's next for Gbanga?

We've recently secured significant funding for an unannounced game that will deliver innovative answers to some location 2.0 questions.

We've been working on these answers - having formulated many of the questions - for the past four years and are looking forward to showcasing our solutions.

If you're interested in testing an early version of the game, tweet us with #Location2.0 and we'll get in touch.

Thanks to Chris for his time.

You can find out more about Gbanga on the firm's website.

Keith Andrew
Keith Andrew
With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font. He's also Pocket Gamer's resident football gaming expert and, thanks to his work on, monitors the market share of all mobile OSes on a daily basis.