Getting Gamers off the Couch: Red Robot Tests the Limits of Location-Based Gaming

Over the past year, Red Robot Labs has discovered one major limitation in making games based on the real world: Laziness.

Red Robot’s Co-Founders Pete Hawley (left) and Mike Ouye (right) standing in front of the company’s booth at PAX.

“Gamers are lazy,” said Pete Hawley, Red Robot Labs’ co-founder and chief product officer. “You can’t expect them to get off the couch.”

A year ago, the Mountain View, Calif., company attended the Penny Arcade Expo (a.k.a. PAX) in Seattle to launch its first game, Life is Crime. That weekend, three Red Robot employees hustled to make the convention a virtual game board, getting attendees to virtually commit more than 20,000 “crimes,” in addition to hospitalizing more than 1,000 people and stealing $35 million from real places.

The company is back at PAX this weekend with a much larger presence — 15 employees. It also secured a very small kiosk, which you practically need a map to find, given its far corner location behind Sony’s massive PlayStation booth.

But despite the company’s larger presence on the show floor, location-based gaming is still in its infancy, with many of today’s concepts still centered around checking into locations, like Foursquare. But Red Robot co-founder and CEO Mike Ouye said the company believes that there will be a much larger opportunity in the future for what they call “playing the planet.”

This year, Red Robot is here to show off its new fantasy game, Life is Magic, which will be launching soon for free on Android and iOS. In the fantasy land, players pan around a map of the U.S. to discover dungeons, where they must fight monsters. To purchase armor or new weapons, they virtually visit shops that exist in the real world, even if the stores — say, Best Buy or a candy shop — wouldn’t normally sell those items.

Given what Red Robot has learned over the past year, the game has two elements that the company believes are very important.

The first is to make it appear as if the player is in an actual fantasy land, while using real-world geographic data. Red Robot Labs does not use Google Maps. Rather, it has taken some of the underlying data found on maps, like lakes, rivers and mountains, and then places a fantasy-land overlay over that. Players may still feels like they are in Seattle because of the geographic layout, but also like they have escaped to a different land.

The second important aspect of the game is solving for gamer laziness.

In Life is Magic, players can travel to anywhere in the U.S. — without actually getting on a plane, taking a bus, or walking. Even if they aren’t really at the Starbucks on the corner, they can still interact with other players there. But the farther away the player goes from their real-world location, the more energy points they will need to conduct a task (those energy points can either be earned or purchased).

“It’s less about where you are, and more about where you can go,” Hawley said, given that 50 percent of mobile gaming happens in the home.

Ouye added that Red Robot is also licensing its technology to other game developers, including its maps, 3-D rendering capabilities, and points-of-interest database. Ultimately, he envisions having enough data from those games to make a “location interest graph.” A location interest graph would be able to reveal such data as the most popular app or the best gamers for a given area.

Three companies are currently licensing Red Robot’s technology, and the company has two internal games in the pipeline that will launch by the end of the year, including Life is Magic.

Red Robot has raised $15.5 million in capital from an impressive list of investors, including Benchmark Capital, Shasta Ventures, Rick Thompson, co-founder of Playdom, and Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus