Two highly-anticipated, location-based, IRL-style “games” for iPhone were launched at South By Southwest Interactive this year, and I thought I’d take a few moments to report on my experiences with each one.
First up is Foursquare, a sequel of sorts to the popular Dodgeball mobile tool, which was purchased by Google a few years ago and then killed very recently. The second new iPhone game is Gowalla, and it comes from my good friends at Alamofire. The two have a lot in common, but as you might expect, it’s their differences that are interesting. Let’s get into it…
If you’ve used Brightkite, Foursquare will be pretty familiar to you. It works much the same way: you arrive at a location (a bar, a restaurant, a park, a point of interest — anywhere, really), you hit the “Check-in” button, the app uses the iPhone’s location APIs to find you, it presents you with a list of places it thinks you may be at, you choose one, and you’re checked in.
So what’s the point of checking in? Well, like Brightkite, and Dodgeball before it, one of the main goals here is to let your friends know where you are. In the Foursquare app, you can add your friends. Doing so will let them know where you’ve checked in, and also allow you to see where they’ve checked in — just like Brightkite.
But Foursquare brings a new twist, as well: it’s a game, of sorts. For each check-in, you get points. “Interesting” check-ins get you “badges,” which are fun little icons. For example, during SXSW, there was a badge called “Porky” that you received if you went to a BBQ restaurant — and one called “Slut” that you received if you checked-in at more than three hotels. Also, an individual can be declared the “mayor” of a location, if they’re the most frequent visitor to that spot.
Compared to Dodgeball and Brightkite, these incentives for telling the app where you are encourage more frequent check-ins. I’ve seen complaints on Twitter from past Dodgeball users to the effect of, “You never checked into your house when you used Dodgeball, so don’t do it on Foursquare, either.” But the game encourages this, by offering you points for those check-ins. I’m not sure which side of this fence I’m on. One on hand, knowing someone is asleep in their bed is fairly useless. On the other hand, if it gets people in the habit of checking in more regularly, I’ll be more likely to know when they’re someplace interesting.
Insofar as I can tell, there’s no “security” built into the app to prevent you from checking in at a place you’re not really at. This means it’s potentially easy to cheat at the “game.” If I really wanted that “Slut” badge, I could have checked in at four hotels, even though I only ever made my way to three.
Foursquare only works in 12 cities (for the moment — more cities are coming soon). This seems a bit inexplicable to me. I understand the Foursquare crew probably couldn’t create unique badges for every city in the world, but they could still let people check-in and find their friends (after all, Brightkite does it). This seems like a pretty big downside to Foursquare, to me.
The iPhone app itself is friendly, but a bit on the ugly side. It’s good from a usability perspective, I just wish they’d put a little more time into it’s look and feel.
In general, I found Foursquare to be fun, easy-to-use, and useful for finding my friends. And finding my friends is really what I want, more than anything else. The game is cute, but the social part of Foursquare is what I really care about. If you don’t care much about the game aspect, and just want to locate your friends, I’d stick with Brightkite — it works everywhere, and is a lot prettier to look at. But if you like the idea of trying to collect badges and become the mayor of your favorite spots, Foursquare is definitely fun.
At a glance, Gowalla is similar to Foursquare. But when you start to actually use it, you realize that it’s a very different beast. Gowalla doesn’t really have a social component — there are no “friends.” Gowalla is all about the game.
So what’s the game? Basically, it’s a geocaching scavenger hunt. You run around your city, checking in at various locations, receiving points and collecting “stamps,” “icons,” and “pins of glory.” A stamp is received when you check in a certain places. Think of them like stamps in your passport. Alamofire is the company that came out of Firewheel Design, which for years produced some of the most beautiful icons on the planet — so you can imagine just how wonderfully-designed these stamps are. They actually represent the bar, restaurant, or point of interest you’ve checked-in at. Very cool. In your “pack,” you collect icons. At each spot you check in, icons may be available. For example, when I checked in at the Gingerman during our 97 Bottles Happy Hour, I “picked up” a 97 Bottles button icon. Pins of Glory are, presumably (I don’t have any yet), icons that represent some significant achievements in the game, as well as completing “trips”.
“Trips” are built-in to-do lists of places to check-in, with fun themes. For South By Southwest, Gowalla had a trip called “Austin Stairs of Doom,” which required you to find several of Austin’s infamous staircases and check in at each one. More predictable, there was also an “Austin Bar Hop” trip, which asked you to hit several of Austin’s best night spots. The places you can check in are not always obvious. Sometimes they’re fun things you need to track down, like “Sketchy ATM.”
Unlike Foursquare, Gowalla requires that you actually be at the place in order to check-in there. In fact, it’s very, very precise. I was at Stubbs BBQ and tried to check in from my table, but was unable to do so. Why? Because the spot I needed to be at to check-in was “2 meters northwest” of my table. This furthers Gowalla’s goal of being a geocaching game. If you’re used to Brightkite or Foursquare, it’s frustrating at first. You just want to scream, “Dammit, I’m at Stubbs, I swear — now just let me check in!” But, when you take a step back, and stop trying to compare Gowalla to Foursquare or Brightkite, you realize it makes perfect sense. This is not a social, tell-your-friends-where-you-are app. It’s a digital, real-life scavenger hunt. So get off your ass, move the two meters, and check in. That’s the point.
Gowalla is stunningly beautiful. It looks amazing, and you can tell a great deal of work has gone into crafting icons for all these individual places. Enough can not be said about Alamofire’s design work, here.
Gowalla is launching in seven cites. Although it still sucks it’s limited, it makes much, much more sense, here, than it does in Foursquare. In order to launch in a city, Alamofire has to create tons of icons specific to a city’s hotspots, and also concoct “trips” for that city.
Once I stopped wanting to throw my phone out the window because Gowalla wouldn’t let me check in at a place I knew I was at, I really started to enjoy the game. It’s a clever and beautifully designed app, and from what I could tell in Austin, the icons and trips are thoughtfully designed.
Both of these games are fun, easy-to-use, and relevant. But perhaps even bigger than that, they really ring in a new era of possibilities for gaming that doesn’t shackle you to that computer in your Mom’s basement. These games are fun, social, and get you out in the real world, where you’re bound to meet real people. Kudos to both teams on the launches. Both apps have a few issues to overcome, but they’re well on their way to being great additions to anyone’s iPhone (well, as long as you live in the supported cities).