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foursquare is a game, not a location app – and that’s why it works

foursquare_logo_boy I’ve been using foursquare since March and I have to say that I really like it. Having played with lots of other location-based friend finder applications in the past, I never really found one that worked for me. I lost interest in most of them for the same 3 reasons:

1. Most LBS friend-finder applications don’t offer much value if your friends don’t use them.
2. The primary, and perhaps sole, use case for most location-based friend finders is to track and locate your friends. This is not a use case that I really have.
3. Location acquisition was a slow, painful process on every phone I’ve owned except for my iPhone

I don’t actually think of or use foursquare as a friend-finder / location application. I play it like a casual iPhone game and I think that’s part of the beauty of the application and why I find it so fun and compelling. It’s clear to me that they’ve succeeded in making a location-based game that has good incentives for regular engagement. Below are some thoughts about what I like about the game:

Strong single player mode – foursquare is fun regardless of whether your friends use it or not. The game has some simple single player mechanics that I really enjoy. The process of “checking in” and logging your location is really easy – just click a button and you’re done. The weekly cumulative check in / point system is a game in and of itself – I’m always looking to see how many valid check ins I can get in one week and how that compares to other weeks.

The game is social without requiring my “friends” to play – One of the really nice things about foursquare is that it is social without requiring you to bring in your entire social graph, spam your address book, or otherwise pull in your group of real-world friends. I think the foursquare team was smart to introduce dual leaderboards – one for your city and one for your group of friends. If you don’t want to invite your friends but still want to have a sense for what the foursquare community is doing, you can just check out the public leaderboards. Layering in friends makes for an interesting game-within-a-game of trying to compete with your friends on check ins.

There are also some other clever social game hacks that I think work really well in foursquare. First of all, the leaderboards reset on a regular (weekly) basis. For new users, this is a big deal – no matter when you installed the game and started playing, you still have a chance to rise to the top of a leaderboard in any given week. It also keeps the pressure on top players to continue checking in to maintain a leadership position – you can’t just go big for a week or two and then coast if being a leader is important to you.

The other thing I really like about foursquare is that it is a passive way to keep up with where my friends like to go and hang out without feeling like you’re using a Big Brother type of application. If you don’t want people to know where you are, you don’t have to check in – that makes check ins more meaningful to me as it’s a clear indication that the person checking in actually wants you to know where he or she is. By focusing on self-reported check ins, foursquare gets around the somewhat awkward experience I had using other applications.

Good achievement system: Badges and Mayors – I also think foursquare has done a good job with its achievement system. On the one hand, you have badges, which are what I think of as permanent achievements – once you’ve earned them, they’re yours for as long as you’re a player. And there’s enough variety of badges that it’s hard to imagine collecting them all in a short period of time. Many of the badges are long-term achievements, too – you have to persist at some activity for some period of time (go out x number of nights in a row, check in at y number of places, etc) to earn them. It’s a good medium-to-long term engagement mechanism.

The mayor concept is almost the opposite. It’s a very transient way to reward people for frequency and regularity. But with the mayor concept, you’re only the mayor so long as you are on top in terms of check-ins. I have yet to achieve mayor status anywhere, but I can imagine that I would want to defend my position as mayor for as long as I could once I earned it. Again, I think this is a clever way in which to reward users who engage with the game regularly and it replicates a very common real-world behavior; showing up at a bar, coffee shop, etc enough times until the staff considers you a regular. I have to believe that’s part of what makes it work.

So there you have it. I think foursquare has done a good job of making a really compelling social game based on location check ins. Do you like foursquare? Feel free to leave some comments below.