Location-based social networks are gaining more and more popularity with classic examples such as Foursqaure, Gowalla or Aka Aki. Widely accepted in the US, these services are still met with skepticism or even fear by most European users. We talked to Gbanga founder Matthias Sala about possible threats, the future of location-based services and limitless user creativity.
SocialGamesObserver: Can you provide a little background on Gbanga?
Matthias Sala: Gbanga is a mixed-reality social game where the boundary between reality and fiction is blurred. With Gbanga, we want to tell interactive stories that are more relevant to the players than simple static mini games. We include location and proximity to friends and contextual information such as buildings nearby like bars, museums, zoos and shops.
SGO: How did the idea evolve?
Matthias Sala: During our studies co-founder Julio and I noticed that location-based services and ubiquitous computing – the vision to connect all sorts of devices with each other – were hot topics. However, the applications were very boring like supply-chain management and pallet tracking or very questionable -why would the dish washer want to communicate with my clothes washer?! We then found that the games we played in the eighties were pretty much high-tech and cutting-edge, using hardware and software techniques, others would use in the nineties for the first time. The game industry had a hard time to be really innovative since that time. So we think it’s time to change that: we want to investigate the possibilities of ubiquitous computing in our game Gbanga!
SGO: What are major differences between Gbanga and other location-based social networks like Gowalla or Foursquare?
Matthias Sala: Gowalla and Foursquare focus on check-ins and visualize this as lists of friends, lists of venues and information dialogs. Gbanga is different, more applied to games and less technical. Players automatically check in to small regions without selecting an entry from a list. They then can see an imaginative virtual counter-part of their current position- what we call Cells. Real-world buildings are party included, differently visualized and augmented with fancy virtual items and inhabitants, named Gbangoos. Gbangoos are the socializing in-game characters that interact with players to ask questions, tell quest objectives and so on.
SGO: Can you elaborate a bit on the mafia elements?
Matthias Sala: In Gbanga Famiglia, the mafia themed game, the players have to stroll through town to take-over as many real-world establishments such as bars, restaurants, clubs, garages, etc. to become the supreme Mafioso. The delicate thing is that participants cannot be everywhere at the same time to defend their territory. So, arch-enemy players can take back Establishments while the owners are absent. There are two ways to manage this odd situation: firstly, you can improve your chance to successfully defend or take-over your establishments by increasing the number of friends in your Famiglia. The higher this number, the higher the chance to win. Secondly, you can collect precious items while visiting new places. The more items you trade with your Famiglia, the higher the chance to win. Collecting is another great feature in Gbanga. You collect and trade items with other players right within the game.
SGO: Having just recently launched, are you already able to tell who the average user is?
Matthias Sala: We were first surprised in 2009 when we were recruiting scouts to play test our Gbanga Zooh game at that time. They loved it. However, once we rolled it out in Zurich, our average users were between 20 and 30 years old – they were probably not active scouts anymore. With Gbanga Famiglia, the age again increased so that our average player is between 20 and 45. We don’t have numbers for gender. We also found that players are using Gbanga in urban settings and also in rural areas. In some cases users are playing while commuting, in other cases users are actively hunting for locations by bike or motorbike.
SGO: What can you tell us about innovative user strategies to gain territory?
Matthias Sala: Yeah, our users are pretty enthusiastic. From talking to our users, we learnt that players work in teams that do not cover the same area. So co-workers that live in different places with different commuting routes seem to be more successful. One user also told us that he focuses only on country-side roads. He keeps his phone in his front pocket with Gbanga activated. Each time, there is a virtual item available, the phone vibrates, so he could pull off the road to briefly collect or take over an establishment. Another user, an under-grad student, just waits in the lecture room with the Gbanga app open to see what virtual creatures are walking by. She then can pick up the virtual items in a convenient manner.
SGO: Why are location-based apps so fascinating for you?
Matthias Sala: I think that location adds a whole lot more to the complexity to find a great strategy to win. It’s what traditional games tried with “Fog of War” where remote parts of the map are covered with black fog. Virtual games are kind of repetitive, because you analyze the terrain of the game board and then you know a good strategy. It’s trickier when you have your regular daily life with all its constraints like getting up in the morning and get to work on time. Not showing up at work to protect your home location from unfriendly take-over is an option, but certainly not going to be your choice… Location is also only the first step to incorporating the user’s context. More is to follow. In academia, it’s called sensor fusion where all sorts of sensors create a computer’s view of the user’s current context. Games could then fathom this data to increase immersion. Keeping in mind immersion is the major reason why we play games.
SGO: Do you see threats of location-based apps in general?
Matthias Sala: I think there is no threat for gaming but people are scared by the possibilities of the technology. Currently, everyone is concerned about Google Street View and about location-based promotional social networks services such as Facebook, Twitter, Gowalla and Foursquare. “Please Rob Me“ was a polemic attempt to show the danger of location-based information that gets shared world-wide. In Gbanga we found an answer to that: we dilute and weaken the technically very precise data and only share random parts with your friends over time – to make it hard for the robber and mainly for the opponent player. This way it’s more fun to play anyway.
SGO: What do you think is the next thing Gbanga and the LBS industry have to prove?
Matthias Sala: Well, the major question is: where is the money? The industry is great in delivering free-to-use software. And advertising seems to be an option. But I think privacy and advertising are kind of contradictory. At Gbanga, we believe that advertising is not appreciated by our players. They want to have fun without banner ads and pop-ups. It’s why we’re going to have great virtual items you can buy and trade with your friends. In a few days, we’re going to release some cool precious items that help you influence the course of play and that improve your chance to win temporarily.