Augmented Reality RPG

Last week, for the first time, I had some time to play some of the games I had been buying over the past months on my iPad. The one that made most of and impression was Aralon, a role-playing game (RPG). I spent several hours running around in its virtual world, shooting bad guys with my bow.

I’m not much of a gamer. Generally I find it somewhat of a waste of time. Yet, millions of people do not seem to agree. Online RPGs such as World of Warcraft have tens, if not hundreds of thousands of players. They spend hours a day walking around in a virtual world, completing virtual quests, collecting virtual items and fighting virtual enemies. I always wondered why people would do this. Is the interesting angle the social component? It’s kind of cool that you’re not alone exploring this world, there are others as well that you can interact with, team up with and trade with.

I found the whole Aralon experience oddly satisfying. You kill bad guys, help people with their problems, earn money with which you can buy weapons and these thing. You get more experienced and learn new skills along the way. It’s almost like leading a small second life, except more quantifiable and more fast paced.

Still, I find a bit of a shame that you have to sit inside behind a computer screen to play this. I’m aware of LARPs (Life-Action Role-Playing Games), but I find those a bit extreme. Not everybody wants te dress up as a warlord of some kind. I definitely don’t want to.

What if we could turn this into a casual, augmented reality, location-based game, played on our mobile phones?

Rather than virtually running around in a virtual world, you physically run around in the real world. Your neighborhood, your city, other cities, other countries even when on holiday. Based on your actual location you would receive virtual quests on your phone. “You see a boy crying on X street, he lost his dog. Can you find it for him?” Accept. Walking around the block you see on your phone the dog is nearby. You pick it up (virtually of course, you don’t know where the creep has been), return to the boy’s location, return it to him and get some reward in return.

You “see” a runner nearby, challenging you to a run around the block. You accept, win and earn some more money. Using these rewards you can go to the (virtual) merchant around the corner to get a cool looking t-shirt that other players can see on their phone when they’re nearby. Or a set of electric binoculars to temporarily see farther away (allowing you to see, and pick up items that are farther away from you). Quests could involve nearby players involving actual real-life interaction.

The advantage over pure-virtual RPGs? You actually get exercise walking around your town. You actually meet real people. Real stores and restaurants could offer real discounts in exchange for some quest. It can be used for education as well. For instance, a zoo may develop quests to teach players actual things about actual animals requiring them to walk around the zoo, observing animal behavior, answering multiple-choice questions, earning them a special “animal observer level 1 achievement” that every other nearby players and friends can see. Companies may hand out virtual stickers you can make part of your virtual image. Cities and towns can develop tour guides as bots and quests. Virtual items may be traded with other players.

I think such a game may be a very interesting competitor to many location-based services like foursquare, where you check-in and earn badges — and that’s it. Actually turning it into a real game would be much more engaging I would think.

Technically such a game is not very difficult to develop. The server maintains a database of players, their items, ongoing quests and their locations; bots and some representation of their quests and instances of those bots all over the world; items that lie around, with associated value and uses. It’s essentially just a big database of locatable things and some algorithms to ensure there is something to do wherever there are players. A mobile client then simply asks “give me a list of nearby things” and enables the interaction with those things.

The big challenge would be the development of content. Virtual worlds are large, but the actual world is a lot larger. How do you augment the entire world with items and quests? Initially, an approach could be to develop a large collection of generic quests that can be instantiated on demand in different locations. Boys can lose their dogs all around the world, can they not? People can ask you to deliver messages and runners can challenge you to a duel no matter where you are in the world. Technically, if you log on to the game such quests could be instantiated dynamically if others are not available.

Subsequently, for major cities, companies, sights, zoos and museums, custom quests can gradually be developed. Potentially by these companies, sights and cities themselves.

Maybe it would be possible to crowd-source the writing of quests, run it as an open source project of some kind. Although one would have to come up with a sparse way of giving out rewards to avoid “push this button to earn $10,000.” Another way could be to let players act as quest-givers, letting other players perform real-life quests for them where rewards are taken from the quest-giver’s personal “account”.

It surely would be an interesting experiment, would it not? Has this never been tried?