Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Go Forth and Gowalla? Maybe not yet...

I like to give each new technology the benefit of the doubt and often have faith in a technical solution before (or after) it is common wisdom. What I mean is that I sometimes grip on to something at first sight (like Google Wave or Sun's ZFS) and just don't want to see it go--I won't let go. (Some of you are like that about Unix, or cursive handwriting.)

So the idea of location-based games, especially those that marketers want to use to give me free goodies, that is an example of the sort of thing I'd love.  If the folks at Gowalla tell me that checking in three times at Whole Foods will get me a free bag of rice, I won't go to the place just to get the rice, but if I'm already going there, I'll be sure to punch in.

But that's really an oversimplified glimpse of what is possible with location-based games. There are some more amazing, and some more chilling implications.

So immediately, your mind may go to privacy when I speak of chilling implications, and that will chill you however much it does... but that's not what I'm talking about.

But first, what becomes possible when location-based games become attractive and supported by participation? For marketers, we can see benefits immediately, but what about for me, as the consumer? Without my vigorous participation, the marketplace is quiet.

Being known by my marketplace partners (ie. the people who sell me things) is actually something I very much want. The reason I prefer to have Bill on the corner cut my hair, and Sam at the town hardware shop help me find the right electrical fixture ... these people know me. They know what I need, and they are there to listen if things don't go right.

In the marketplace I want to be known, and I want to be heard.

That's what opens up when marketers engage with me through location-based games and systems.  You see, as the pattern of my published actions emerges to help form a map -- a map of all the players' published behaviors. That aggregate map has value to me and to the marketer.

But think about this. If I were a homemaker with kids to deliver, provisions to find, appointments to keep, logistics to handle...a pattern of my motion over a couple of months would teach me something useful. I could begin to see how to rearrange things to save gas, or how to cut out the one extraordinary trip I make each week by having something delivered...the implications are positive for me.

The individual data has value as well, but it rightly should be available solely at the discretion of the individual. The aggregate data however, is actually more valuable to a marketer.

So, location games...will I participate?

What would matter to me about location-based games would be these things. 
  • First, is it fun? 
  • Second, does it consume an unacceptable amount of my time? 
  • Third, are there any negative implications that I should consider.
I've only experience Gowalla, so I will not attempt to compare it to other systems. (An earlier blog post here links to an article that examines the matter.) But for the moment, I must say these things.

The Gowalla client on the Palm Pre is unacceptably slow and laggy. It is frustrating enough to make me howl in public places on repeated occasion.  The location technology used by Sprint and Palm doesn't seem to get very good results from the Gowalla server.  At one point, I created a location that already existed and had hundreds of previous checkins.  The location technology could not locate the existing entry.  I hope that the client works better on iPhone and Android.  I'll be asking colleagues of ours and let you know what I discover.

Gowalla needs to do something to rationalize erroneously created locations, and moderate some of the data for accuracy.  It would not be hard to raise a "top players army" who would eagerly do this as community service.  Also stimulates passionate players to continue participation and magnetize new players.

Gowalla has a system of item exchange.  It's like virtual geo-caching.  But they seem to only wake up to it for real when they have a specific promotion to float on it.  They need to create a culture of item exchange for its own good and have people adding to the story of the items vigorously.

Two simple additions would vitalize the item exchange culture and increase participation (measured in transactions per player). The first would be to allow players to embed messages into an item before passing it on. Concerns about possible vandalism or abuse can be addressed by considering that players are fully identified with their true identity, and a system for flagging abusive content for moderation would close the door.

The second thing would be to allow players to accumulate status when their items are picked up somewhere else and when they are dropped.  Status could accumulate to result in the acquisition of pins or additional items.

Okay... I didn't mean for this to be my redesign of the Gowalla system, but now that I said this stuff, I am at peace. Perhaps I can stop talking about it.

If you're someone who's actually read all of this, I have this to give you for your patience.

Gowalla is a lot of fun to play with. It's a little bit like a cross between Yelp! and Twitter, with a treasure hunt thrown in. On the Pre, it's painfully slow and you'll really have to want to play bad to participate. I hope that the other platforms have better client apps.  If they get it together, this could turn out to be a lot of fun.