Mobile gaming start-up Red Robot Labs believes that the potential for location-based play can go much further than the check-in, and some big backers support its ideas. The studio just raised $8.5 million for its first game, Android-based Life is Crime -- and Red Robot's founders have more plans.
"We felt that creatively, location was really interesting and hadn't been cracked yet," co-founder Mike Ouye tells Gamasutra.
Like a mix of Mafia Wars and FourSquare, the game sees players committing virtual crimes at real-life locations, such as selling contraband and fighting other players to own a particular location.
And the company believes the time is right to "crack" location-based gameplay, now that check-ins are an increasingly common part of social media, not just with popular tools like FourSquare, which has around 10 million users, but as a feature of Facebook too, to name just the obvious example.
"The marketshare is growing every day, and it felt like people knew how to check in, so let's give them a real game rather than just a bunch of leaderboards," Ouye said, of the theory that led to Red Robot's founding.
Part of evolving the check-in behavior to an actual game involves lessons from the AAA space, says co-founder Pete Hawley, who's worked with Sony, Lionhead and Criterion, to name a few. "I've been making console games for 15 years," he says.
"I'm used to games being all about being able to escape. So I really didn't want to enter this and just give people Google Maps, which they're used to navigating with," Hawley continues. A primary goal for Life Is Crime has been to make it feel more like a game than like a GPS app.
"We spent a lot of time investing in the map, to look and feel like a game world, but also to be very recognizable. If you're in London, you can recognize the rivers and the buildings and the places, but it looks like a game," he explains.
Over the past six months the studio has been focusing much of its time on building its backend and infrastructure, its population of destinations, its engine for sorting them, and the database for its game. In particular, the idea of combining a theme of crime with real-world locations seems like it would create a lot of misunderstandings, but the team says it's a natural choice -- mafia games were some of the earliest paradigms on social networks, too, because the fit is sensible.
"Working with Playdom on the Mobsters stuff, we had a deep understanding of what works in those games," Hawley says. "Then, on the creative side, if you're going to ask people to compete for locations in cities and regions, and you can organize people into groups, it's just a very natural application for location."
"You can say it's been overdone a little... generally it's a heavily-done theme," Hawley adds. "But it's never been applied well, in our minds, to location, and I think crime and the idea of being a kingpin is a very natural thing for people when you look at a city or a street."
In the game, players can not only earn dominance over locations and increase their criminal reputation, but they can fight one another, purchase weapons upgrades (the game lets players earn in-game currency or purchase it with real money) and can traffic, pick up and drop off virtual goods for one another at locations. There are currently over 200 user customization and weapon choices available in the game's item store.
"The game can be played for free, but if you pay real money you get a premium experience," says Ouye. "You're making money from the distribution of virtual goods, which is a very social, viral thing to do. We have a newsfeed that tells people where lots of cool stuff is, so you're making money and you're buying better things to get back in the fight."
Beyond developing its own location-based games, Red Robot also wants to license out its R2 Gaming Network, the platform into which it's placed its technology investment. "That's the main reason we raised this series A, was to really double down on the technology and build it out," he explains.
"There's a huge opportunity in being a game-maker for location, but also, we want to accelerate the whole space for location, and we can save a lot of people a lot of time and a lot of the heartache of building what we did," Ouye continues.
"We built it out as a service, and we're going to continue to refine it for our own use -- and eventually open it up for third parties as soon as the end of this year."
In the meantime, the company will invest on what a "next-generation" location gameplay map will look like: Potentially isometric, built with vectors, and able to turn any local map into an exciting visual of another world, while maintaining its relevance to actual local spots. "You get into this awesome cross between the real world and the true fantasy world," imagines Hawley.
And Life is Crime will be getting an iOS version "by mid to late October," says Ouye. "It'll be a shared backend, and you'll be able to play with the Android folks."
"We have some interesting ideas on how to have those two userbases play together," he laughs.