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There’s got to be more to location-based mobile games than checking in. That was the thinking behind the game startup Red Robot Labs and its first game, Life is Crime.
The game debuted on the Android Market yesterday, and it’s one example of the growing number of game developers who are targeting Google’s mobile operating system first before launching an iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) app. Life is Crime uses what Red Robot believes is going to be its critical asset: the R2 Gaming Network platform for making location games.
“From our view, nobody has cracked location gaming yet,” said Mike Ouye, chief executive and co-founder of Red Robot, in an interview.
A special version of the free-to-play game will be playable at the Penny Arcade Expo starting today in Seattle. The game can automatically put a layer on top of the map that looks and feels like a game (see picture). All of the major locations and landmarks are automatically identified. The map is persistent and it turns everyday places into contested criminal territory.
To perform missions, you have to be within range of about 500 meters or so of the location in question. Then the user can take over the building, rob it, leave loot, or search it for information or health packs. You can also gamble and win virtual currency at a location.
The players can add locations to the map. Users can operate in small gangs and build their reputation, energy, and other stats. You can customize your avatar, or virtual character, by buying clothes. You can level up your character and build your criminal reputation. Ultimately, the top player can become the Don of San Francisco or some other major area. Once you own pieces of territory, those places can generate “protection” money for you.
Ex-Playdom veteran Ouye (pictured left) and Pete Hawley (pictured right), a veteran game developer at Electronic Arts and Sony, started the company earlier this year to focus on making games for hardcore gamers on Android mobile devices. They believe that’s an untapped market.
“I’ve made console games for 15 years and I’ve been frustrated that there isn’t more to do on mobile games,” said Hawley, chief product officer. “We’re trying to drive people to meet new friends and play games with them. It’s active game play, not checking in.”
The company has grown quite fast. In January, Red Robot raised $2 million in funding from Rick Thompson, the former chairman of Playdom, and Chamath Palihapitiya, a former board member at Playdom. Red Robot already has 18 people. Ouye hopes to grow the team to about 50 people this year.
Rick Thompson, co-founder of Playdom, said, “The proliferation of smartphones is the most exciting opportunity in gaming today – always on, location aware and socially connected. Red Robot Labs is among the first to tap into the full potential of this new platform; and they have nailed it with Life Is Crime.”
Life is Crime is a mafia-style game where you can enlist people into your crew and incorporate real world locations into the landscape of the game. You can take over a location, as you can location apps such as Foursquare or Gowalla. But you can also do a lot more. If you meet another player, you can fight, send a gift, or friend them. You can take out other players or watch news feeds for the activity of your friends. You can drop off contraband for someone else to pick up. At the Penny Arcade event, there will be a special leaderboard for players at the show.
Although the game targets hardcore gamers, the actions you take in the game can be done in 30 seconds or so. In that way, the game competes with apps such as Foursquare while the user is waiting in a line for coffee. In tests with members of Google’s Android team, players played the game about eight sessions a day for about 45 seconds each.
Ouye says an iOS version of Life is Crime will likely come out in around 45 days or so. Rivals include Mafia Wars from Zynga and Mobsters from Disney Playdom. Other check-in style rivals include Booyah’s MyTown as well as Foursquare, Gowalla and Shadow Cities. Ouye hopes to launch two more games this year.
“All of the other games take a different approach,” Hawley said. “We’re hanging our hat on location and a real game.”