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Building Better Worlds

Red Robot Labs is kickstarting the market for location-based gaming

When Mike Ouye and Peter Hawley founded Red Robot Labs, the enormous popularity of Google Maps and Foursquare seemed to highlight a new direction for social games. With most social developers and publishers in agreement that smartphones were the future of the space, a gap was opening for products that incorporated the unique features of the devices.

In this interview, Ouye and Hawley talk about the studio's debut release Life Is Crime, the benefits of choosing Android over iOS, and finally putting the 'social' into social gaming.

GamesIndustry.biz Mobile is still an emerging platform to some extent and location-based games are an emerging field within it. How did it come to be your focus?
Peter Hawley

Mike and I worked together at CrowdStar. We ran the studio there: Mike ran the business side, I ran the products and people side. Mike's background was over at Playdom, and mine was four years at EA, and before that PlayStation. We had sort of got tired of Facebook gaming, and both went out one night and started talking about what we felt was really awesome and exciting - the next big thing in games, y'know.

Google Maps had proved to be pretty awesome as a service, and the Foursquare app had got traction with 10 million people. We just had this really creative itch that there was more to going to places for the sake of gameplay; in terms of doing something cool, but also persistent and engaging over long periods of time.

GamesIndustry.biz Why wasn't social gaming scratching that creative itch for you?
Mike Ouye

I think there's going to be a big shift in social games in general over the next two or three years to mobile, and I think a big part of that is going to be location. It's really going to be a macro change, and we saw that coming working from the inside of the social industry. I think it's going to be the next generation of gaming.

There's a lot of pulling games off Facebook and putting them on mobile right now, which always happens when a new platform opens up. But we're different because we're trying to innovate on location.

The real reason that we got so excited about it is because it's the right time in smartphone adoption; people just understand how to check-in. There's a lot of social utility in letting people know your location, but I don't think there's a lot of social gaming around your location. We think it's a soft spot in a market of great opportunity.

Peter Hawley

First and foremost we're a game studio. My background is console, and when you look at Xbox Live as a platform and you look at the core, competition-based gameplay on there, and how aggressive it is, and how that drives engagement... We just felt that audience was pretty horribly under-served. Okay, this month's pretty awesome with Battlefield 3 and all the other stuff coming out, but generally console hits are pretty sparse, and Facebook games are generally pretty light, and apps tend to be fairly casual and puzzle-based.

We're actually really passionate in our feeling that the 18 to 35 male audience was under-served if you walk around with a phone in your pocket. And what better way to serve that need than to build a game that's all about competition based on location, and build a parallel crime theme around it.

I think there's going to be a big shift in social games in general over the next two or three years to mobile, and I think a big part of that is going to be location

Mike Ouye, CEO, Red Robot Labs
GamesIndustry.biz The audience you're talking about has played crime-themed games before. Does the location aspect give Life Is Crime enough of an edge?
Peter Hawley

I think so. Well, we know so now. When we were working on the initial ideas...we made a lot of assumptions. I had no idea whether people would be bothered to play a game based on location, and Mike had no idea whether we could make any money from it. So we set off on a real creative endeavour. There was nothing sinister about it.

Crime, as a theme, has been very over-played, but the reason why we chose it is that it plays perfectly to location. If you're going to ask your players to compete for buildings and real estate, you don't have to explain that to them. It's well understood, so we could spend most of our effort on building the map and the location pieces.

When it comes to the virtual goods side, we really wanted to innovate there. We wanted to ask players to move virtual goods around the world: pick stuff up, drop it off at locations, search buildings for interesting things that other players leave behind... It's really social, because it's people in and around where you live.

GamesIndustry.biz You're talking about the mechanics there, and for many that's where the great mystery of location-based gaming lies. I've used Google Maps, of course, but the systems necessary to turn that into compelling gameplay seem fairly obscure.
Mike Ouye

We really wanted to build a game world on top of the real world. That's one of the main premises for the game, is building a game layer, and then building that geo-game index behind it. The second is taking some of the strong elements from Foursquare and some of the strong elements from Mafia Wars and combining them to build something that had a really strong basis around location.

There are location games out there that have tried to crack it, but haven't been able to because location isn't core to the game. In Life Is Crime it's everything. It matters. Only one person can own a particular place or a particular location, and that's really important.

Peter Hawley

One of the first things we said when we raised out angel round, we made a creative promise that it wasn't going to be Google Maps with some shitty icons - we're going to make a game out of it. It's still map tiles, and it's familiar to people, but it looks very different. It should feel like escapism when you look at it.

GamesIndustry.biz Is this kind of project more of a creative challenge or a technical challenge? When you talk about competitors, we're really only dealing with a handful of games that have even made an honest attempt at this, so there's very little to crib from in terms of creating an experience that's just functional.
Peter Hawley

The first question we asked was, 'How can I have fun playing this game in Winnipeg?' We didn't want to launch one metro at a time, because it's not good for our business, it's not good for our players. There's a liquidity problem: if you've got 700,000 locations and 1000 players it's going to be crap. So, year, creatively it was very difficult.

On the geo-indexing side, if you look at most databases there's about 16,000 categories of places and locations for navigation - all kinds of weird stuff. So we just chose the things that would matter to players, like coffee shops, stores, restaurants, bars, train stations. We built the world sensibly, and then added our own landmarks to make the game stand out.

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Matthew Handrahan


Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.