In the spirit of getting back into the habit of writing for the blog, I figured I’d start with something easy. I’ve been playing a lot of Four Square lately. On the surface it is an incredibly simple game. When you visit a place (usually a business but could be a park or some other place of note), you run the Four Square application on your phone. This lets you “Check In” at that location.
In some ways, it mimics ideas from Dodgeball ( a social networking experiment that was acquired by Google and then shuttered). Namely, that you can see how else is playing where you are at, and you can get messages when your friends check in at new locations. That isn’t all that surprising since I was told several Dodgeball founders are involved.
If it stuck to its Dodgeball roots, it wouldn’t be that interesting. By turning it into a game, they’ve added an interesting element. You get points for each check in. The number of points is determined by how many times you been there before (You get the most for checking in the first time and much less after that) and the number of check ins you’ve done that day. As you check in, you can also earn badges. For example I earned a Jet Setter badge because I checked in at 5 different airports (heavy conference schedule this month).
There is one more twist on the check in process. If you check in the most at a location you become it’s mayor. That means that every player who shows up sees you on the list as the mayor of the location. If no one is the mayor when you get to a venue, you only need to check in one more time to get the title. After that, you just have to check in the most times. I’m sure there are mayor battles in larger cities. The game aspect of it makes it fun. I’ve actually been really surprised at how quickly people get into the game once they are exposed to it.
There are two things that I find really interesting about the game as a whole. The first is the location data. I’ve been pitched for investments by a number of location based startups. A real hurdle is getting all the location data. Getting a set of data is not that bad, but they cost of updates can be a real burden to a startup that doesn’t have a way to monetize quickly. Four Square solved that problem by rewarding you with more points for entering a new location. They sell it as encouraging you to “explore your city”. When I was in Chicago, I had a hard time finding locations that hadn’t already been entered by local players. I love the idea that they solved a tangible economic problem (the high price of location data) by organizing the game rules to reward players for doing something that would otherwise be a flaw (why isn’t this restaurant on the map?).
I don’t think they are in the money making phase of the project yet, but it seems like they are already experimenting with solutions beyond just sell ad words. I’ve read that some places in New York (where it started) give you special offers if you are a mayor. While I was in Chicago, I got a notice that a coffee shop near my hotel was offering a discount if you checked in there. I suppose it was their way of trying to lure me away from the burnt coffee at the Starbucks. Is this enough to fund the company, frankly I have no idea, but it will be interesting to see what else they try.
Bottom line: This is a really interesting demonstration of how a location based system can work when done right. They’re building up all this data about where people go and how often. I think it is funny that I’m willingly giving a company info that I would be in the streets protesting over if the government was doing the same thing. For the game to work, you need a smartphone with GPS. I believe you’ll see more things like this as that kind of hardware becomes more standard.
Idea to pursue: A friend of mine has Celiac’s Disease (an allergy to gluten). This is especially problematic because gluten sneaks its way into things so she has to work with the chief anywhere she goes. She has downloaded several apps for her phone to try to help her, but they are always out of date. What she needs is a Four Square like system -that lets her tag her comments as “Gluten Allergy”. I think you could probably add on other food things like vegan, vegetarian, lactose intolerant, or diabetic. That way the other people with your condition could log places that offered good stuff (that they ate without problem) and you could easily go there. There are millions of people with food allergies. They gain a benefit by having a place to store all this accumulated knowledge, and thanks to the Four Square model – you can skip paying for all of the restaurants – and rely on users to add in the updates.