Location Based Games are Hard and Check-Ins Aren’t the Answer

I’ve been chatting with a lot of people who are working on mobile games with a strong location component. Almost all of them are trying to do some mashup of a game plus check-in data to do something interesting. At its core, the concept sounds intriguing. To date, I don’t think anyone has really cracked the market for true games with a strong location component. I am explicitly excluding foursquare from this analysis as I think they’ve de-emphasized the game elements of the service of late and focused more on the community elements (out with leaderboards and an emphasis on points, in with comments and photos – that’s a subject for a post of its own).

If you stop and think about it, building a mobile game that is heavily reliant on people checking in is a tough challenge. I don’t have access to anyone’s proprietary data, but my hypothesis is that there are millions of people ACTIVELY checking in on a regular basis and tens of millions of people playing games on mobile devices. Games that focus on check-ins as a core activity are up against a core challenge in that there are 10x (roughly) as many people playing games as there are checking in.


I want to be really clear about what I mean by ACTIVELY checking in. People who ACTIVELY check-in are those who do check-ins of their own on at least a monthly basis. The one thing I want to make sure I highlight is that I am certain Facebook Places has many more people who have checked-in than foursquare simply because 1 person on Facebook can check-in multiple people. So it’s entirely possible that there are people who have been checked in on Facebook Places who are not themselves active users of check-in products. So I think you need to apply some discount to the FB Places check-ins if you’re trying to figure out how large the active audience of checking-in people is.

Whenever I look at this stylized image, it’s clear to me that trying to get location-based games to work for a large audience, relying on check-ins won’t work today. There simply aren’t enough people engaging in check-ins today to build a game based solely on that mechanic as you’ll only get the overlap of people who like games and actively check-in.

What will work? I have no idea. There are lots of smart people working on this. But I am a bit skeptical as to whether or not a check-in centric location based game can get really big today. Check-ins are the future, but location based game developers need a solution today.