Feature: The game begins

Feature: The game begins

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The old traditional system of console gaming is giving way to new geo enabled games. Using lifelike imagery, exact geographic coordinates and emerging technologies, the new age of gaming is all set to begin a new game altogether.

Most of us have grown up playing classic backyard games like Hide and Seek and Marco Polo. Then, with the advent of technology, came the age of Pac-Man and Mario. Now, the whole gaming landscape is changing drastically with the evolution of virtual and location-based gaming. Our emotional connection with ‘location’ is being exploited by game developers to produce games like MyTown, Life is Crime and Shadow Cities. Even the popular Angry Birds has introduced location-based elements, allowing players to compete with one another on a unique leader board tied to location.

As a result, conventional gaming industry is losing its popularity. “People want immersive games as the decade-developold shooting and puzzle games don’t interest them anymore. However, that shooting game can be made more interesting if one has to hunt and shoot Osama Bin Laden. The magic is further enhanced if the chase in such game is set against the backdrop of busy markets of a war-torn Iraq or arid regions of Afghanistan,” says a gaming industry insider on condition of anonymity.

Agrees Satyen Sarhad, Founder and CEO, Earthling Technology, developer of Geoception, which uses Google Earth imagery to present lifelike combat situations. “The industry is in a fl ux — quality is improving and fat is being cut out. Facebook/Zynga games are losing their popularity. People want something more,” he adds.

Th is ‘more’ can only come by decadeblurring the lines between the real and virtual worlds by presenting life-like environment to the gamers. As a result, the stereotypical market of video games has moved beyond plain entertainment and is now off ering a plethora of technological and business opportunities.

“A wide variety of games are using geospatial imagery, from large, triple-A titles like Tom Clancy’s HAWX by Ubisoft, to smaller mobile games like Unit 9’s MiniMaps,” says Sarhad. As a result we have highly polished, geospatially-accurate 3D worlds at one end of the spectrum, and simple image sprites of zombies layered on top of Google Maps at the other end.

Technology tid-bits
A combination of map data providers, places databases and game developers is resulting in geo-enabled games in which people can play in real-time locations. According to Dave Bisceglia, Founder and CEO of The Tap Lab, a mobile game studio focusing on location-based titles, map data providers are needed for drawing geography (streets, water bodies etc) while venue data providers are needed to provide venue details, including latitude and longitude.

Google Maps and Open Street Maps can be used for map data. Google Maps is available via the official Google SDKs. One can also use the Styled Map Wizard, customise colours, visibility etc of a number of map elements. Open Street Maps, on the other hand, is available via a much less restrictive attribution. Selecting a place data provider depends upon what type of game a developer is trying to create. For general places databases, the leading options are Google, Foursquare, and Factual. Lastly, a developer integrates all this to produce an engrossing game.

Location-based games typically use Wi-Fi, GPS, and Cell-ID to get the best results in terms of a player’s location. Th is combination of positioning systems could be extended by using a Bluetooth server in certain locations where high accuracy is required.

The proliferation of smartphones and 4G devices has enhanced our ability to download maps and venue data. Smartphones are getting cheaper and better, with operating systems that support downloading of games. Add to it the growing broadband networks and the built-in GPS sensors available in all smartphones, and we have a perfect technological environment for location-based games. According to the iTunes charts for the best selling paid apps for 2009, the most sold games that year were ported versions of popular video games like the SIMS 3. Since then, the mobile gaming marker has not looked back. A market report by Newzoo says the annual growth of mobile games is at 32% and the revenue this industry generated in the US alone increased 16% year-on-year in 2012.

Jordan L. Howard, Founder & CEO, Reloaded In-Game Advertising, identifi es mobile gaming to be one of the most significant trends to have emerged in the gaming industry. “With the overall smartphone market growing and improving, mobile games have grown as well,” he says, while identifying improvements around motion sensing input devices (ie Kinect) to be the new trends in the console gaming market.

 

Not just a child’s play
The global video gaming industry is predicted to record 9% yearly growth through 2013, to exceed $76 billion, says Business Insights. One has to look at the staggering growth of online games in the recent times to appreciate the possibilities for online location-based games.

Further, augmented reality (AR) mobile apps market is expected to generate $300-mn revenue in 2013, as per Juniper Research report. Around 2.5-bn AR apps are expected to be downloaded to smartphones and tablets per year by 2017. Out of the total AR apps downloaded, games will account for the largest share.

Sensing the potential of the gaming industry, Internet giant Google is also gearing up to exploit the potential of this space. Its subdivision Niantic Labs debuted in the gaming space with Ingress, a multi-player augmented reality game which uses a real-life location to determine what happens in the virtual world. The game, played on an Android phone, uses augmented reality and GPS data, which enable players to see on their screens the invisible portals and other virtual structures and artifacts “overlaid” on the real world (as seen through the phone’s camera lens). Users can even send photos of locations they think should be included in the game as a portal to Google, but there are no guarantees they will be added. Ingress is a runaway hit even though it has not been commercially launched yet and is available only in beta version.

Interestingly, with Ingress, Google is able to utilise location data which it has collected in an augmented reality game.

PerBlue’s Parallel Kingdom, which uses GPS location to place the player in a virtual world on top of the real world, has been a success ever since its launch in 2008. Last year, PerBlue’s founder and CEO Justin Beck said the game was generating $0.40 to $0.50 per day per daily active user. The numbers are only continuing to climb.

Another geo-enabled game which has taken the gaming industry by storm is Geocaching. The game combines location, social networking, treasure hunting, GPS navigation, and outdoor recreation. It is a treasure hunt game in which players follow GPS directions to search for “geocaches” hidden by other players. Today, there are 2,017,957 active geocaches and over 5 million geocachers worldwide.

Booyah, the creator of MyTown, which uses the real world as a Monopoly game board, launched a second version in 2011 after the first version saw 4.5-mn downloads. Players visit real-world locations to earn rewards, which can include virtual money. They can exchange their virtual credit to earn discount coupons and other promotions from real-life vendors. Shadow Cities, an award winning iOS game from Finish developers Grey Area, which splits players into two factions to conquer their city, is another fine example. As of last year, its user base surpassed 1 million worldwide.

Geoception by Earthling Technology utilises the Google Earth API to provide a web browser-based combat UAV simulator that can be played anywhere in the world. The game allows the player to pick any location in the world, and the game AI logic scans the area and intelligently generates targets for the player to locate and destroy. “For example, as your UAV circles Paris, your mission dispatch console will alert you that an anti-aircraft cannon has been detected on a rooftop near the Eiff el Tower,” says its founder Sarhad. One must locate it visually by controlling the UAV’s on board camera and then destroy the target using the aircraft’s on-board weapon systems.

Games like Ingress, Parallel Kingdom, MyTown and such others use imagery and maps which are leveraged from real world models, which reduce the artificiality of the game play and increases user participation. Here, integration of GIS and gaming is beneficial to both — the game developers and geospatial industry. “GIS applications would gain from the styling, special eff ects and rich animation expertise from the video game development world, while the game developers could gain much from a reduced eff ort on artificial map-engineering, leaving more time for designing interesting scenario-driven game play,” says Sarhad.

Miles to go
Location-based games, however, are yet to take the mass market by storm. “There have been a limited number of released titles that employ geospatial imagery thus far,” says Sarhad, at the same time pointing to the popular commercial successes. “Some free games enjoy global popularity, as well, such as Xavier Tassin’s Google Earth Flight Simulator Online,” he says, while hoping that increasing exposure will drive the consumers demand for more geo-realism in games.

Most location based games are free and here lies the real disadvantage for big companies. Unlike console games, the real profit reaped on such games is difficult to estimate. As a result, mostly start-ups and amateur companies have been investing in this space. Even big players like Sony and Microsoft, which have introduced new types of game experiences to their handheld devices, have not yet ventured in this market. A company like Sony, with its new GPS-embedded PS Vita, could further unleash a new life to the gaming sector by investing in location-based gaming.

Even gaming giant Nintendo has not yet ventured into mainstream geo-enabled games. The closest it has reached this market is with its 3DS’ Street Pass System. Will Louton, CEO of game developer Mobile Pie, thinks Nintendo’s Street Pass is exciting but is not ever discussed as location. Imagine what if Nintendo can integrate a great location-based game right into their hardware!

So what is stalling the growth of commercial location-based games? Experts see technical challenges arising from the diversity of mobile client devices (laptops, tablet PCs, PDAs, mobile phones), which complicates client software development. The level of accuracy of low-cost GPS means unfiltered data can lead to game errors. Further, designing an exciting multi-player game is a complex process and the location element makes it all the more complicated. Integrating spatial technologies such as GIS and GPS with non-spatial technologies like wireless communication and mobile devices for nextgeneration, real-time location-based games is a difficult task for developers and not yet commercially viable for big companies.

More than games
Traditional video games existed purely for entertainment. While the evolution of geo-enabled games was still based on entertainment, the location and real-time elements lends these virtual games some aspects that can be used in some unique ways in the real world too.

Data collection: Geo-enabled mobile gaming can help capture crowdsourced data about the real world to create more accurate and detailed maps. IT giant Microsoft has even filed a patent for a game which will improve its mapping database. The system describes an AR game where users will take photos and post information of a place thereby improving the location information.

The location-based mobile game CityExplorer, inspired by the awardwinning board game Carcassonne, is the first location-based mobile game explicitly designed to collect geospatial data. The main goal of CityExplorer is to seize real-world locations in the game area by placing virtual markers to them. Another similar game is FIASCO in which players compose a short scene out of pictures similar to improvisational theatre and the aim is to build a new kind of map by publishing the scenes.

The trend has caught up so much that it was identified as one of the emerging trends of geospatial information management by the Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (GGIM) in October 2011. The committee had specifically mentioned that “gaming may inspire new developments as opposed to traditional geospatial information.”

Urban planning: The innovative synthesis of mapping technology and video game engineering is arming urban planners with tools to create future cities. Design software with roots in game engineering has been incorporated with geospatial technology to drive a new era of urban planning.

Terry Bennett, Senior Industry Manager, Civil Engineering & Construction, Autodesk, agrees such games are getting appreciation for presenting the complex issues which engineers and planners face to keep the cities going. “In future such games will become much more involved and can help players in planning, designing and building their cities,” he adds.

Ergon Energy, a Queensland utility, is experimenting with open source gaming engines and physics models to capitalise on a massive geospatial dataset from its laser-mapping project. Ergon hopes to create a comprehensive map that would function like the game SimCity, in which players built cityscapes and micromanage a range of factors to change outcomes.

Esri Australia’s 3D geospatial specialist Leonard Olyott is of the view that tools like Esri CityEngine, when populated with geographical data – such as building and road locations – can model the impact of natural and man-made phenomenon on urban infrastructure. “They enable planners to simulate how natural disasters such as fl ooding, fire or earthquakes could aff ect a city and create designs that minimise impacts and produce safer urban environments,” he had pointed out at a symposium in Brisbane recently.

However, Bennett warns that while for a game the actual information doesn’t have to be geospatially correct and just close enough to make it look good, real-life projects need absolute data accuracy. “For a subway system or highway system in middle of the city, where you talk about inches and millimetres of co-relevance, data integrity is essential, which doesn’t matter in a gaming environment.” he says. “You might have design software in civil infrastructure community that uses gaming-like user interfaces but we don’t directly take game engines and their mocked up data and put them into the real world.”

Gaming is also exposing a whole new generation to concepts of city and urban design. It is helping people understand their cities and its context. “I hope that it does drive people’s awareness and explain that it takes a lot of insight to make cities work cost eff ectively, to make cost eff ective decisions and to participate more in the process,” adds Bennett.

Local civil authorities such as police, emergency medical personnel, or firefighters can also use this technology in much the same manner as defence forces would, for planning, training, and simulation purposes, suggests Sarhad. While many businesses and services could benefit from improved fl eet tracking applications (taxis, buses, trains etc), city administrations could plan a parade route and run 3D simulations of diff erent re-route contingencies.

Defence forces: Virtual reality games are also playing a major role in defence and security. GIS-based electronic warfare simulator, which brings the realistic warlike scenario to the classroom, can be used to train soldiers. “Armed forces around the world are investing in it heavily for it makes more sense to sweat more in peace than bleed in war,” says Brig SC Sharma, President – Mil Aero, Axis Aerospace & Technologies. Axis has even developed a GIS-based electronic warfare simulator that can be of immense value to the armed forces. The simulator brings the realistic war-like scenario to the classroom where soldiers can create air situational scenarios and train. GIS-enabled war gaming simulators are helping field commanders in taking smart decisions. Again, Brig Sharma warns that warfare simulators are more advanced and sophisticated.

Ad-ding a twist
The gaming industry has opened up new and innovative ad opportunities for businesses and the trend of location-based advertising is catching up fast. Businesses can advertise their banners depending on the location of the player. Also, locationbased advertising could infl uence the customers’ real world movement. For instance, a game which is set inside a shopping mall could allow players to collect some tokens or vouchers which can be encashed at the ‘real’ mall. Th is could help the mall in boosting its sales and displaying their latest off ers to the players.

“One of the reasons that in-game advertising has become so popular lately, is that companies realise how infl uential and large-scale the gaming industry has become. As long as the gaming industry continues to attract millions of teenagers and young adults, advertisers will continue to fl ock to video games as a ‘go-to’ advertising channel,” says Howard.

But what is great about video games is that the technology allows for engaging levels of ad integration, believes Howard, whose Reloaded In-Game Advertising complements location-based games by taking the form of billboard ads throughout virtual urban environments. Dynamic In-Game Advertising also allows companies to geo-target their ads to certain countries or cities.“The Dreyer’s Fruit Bars campaign is a great example of in-game advertising. We get requests for this sort of advertising quite often, as mobile and social games seem to be increasing in popularity amongst advertisers,” he says. Businesses can incorporate their logos and products into the gaming environment through barcode scanning, image recognition or GPS.

Conclusion
Emerging technologies like indoor positioning, 3D mapping, and augmented reality present exciting opportunities for geo game developers. The augmented reality games can be transformed to a different level by gadgets like Google’s smartglasses or virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift. These glasses are wearable smartphone devices which overlays the reality of your normal vision with digital information that augments what you see.

“Apart from making gaming environments more interactive and more real, such headsets could also help civil engineers in making more informed decisions during planning. Virtual reality has been used in some aspects of engineering. Twenty years ago, Sun Microsystems had a very large 3D visualiser which you put on a helmet and walked into a piping plant. New technology like Oculus may push us towards more geospatial based environments,” notes Bennett. Such gaming environments could add a whole new dimension to geospatial research.

“Overall, the gaming industry is on the up-and-up. We will see an increase in game sales across the industry, now that the eighth generation consoles have recently been introduced,” says Howard.

The global gaming industry has witnessed a tremendous increase in consumer demand which is supported by social networking, technological innovation that favours mobile gaming, and the popularity of cyber communities that promote online gaming. Going ahead, technology integration and increased role of mapping giants like Google and gaming leaders like Sony can make miracles happen.