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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.

Comments (18) on "foursquare is a game, not a location app – and that’s why it works"

  1. Great analysis – I've been enjoying FourSquare too, for exactly these reasons. It's really well designed, and creates a just-right lightweight “ambient gaming” experience that fits into my mobile habits.

    I just got back from a day-trip to SF and gained WAY more points that day 'cause I was “on the move” in an urban area, with small amounts of “waiting” time built into my sched.

  2. The risk of such overt game mechanics is they get old — if you look at your typical casual game life-cycle it doesn't last (though who am I to tell YOU about casual games ;). That's one reason the successful casual game companies keep pumping out new games in a “Studio” model rather than banking on any one property. Will people still want to be the mayor of a location a year into using foursquare? Can foursquare continue to introduce new game elements to keep it fresh?

    The other issue with a “game” is it creates a fairly specific audience — those who want to “play a game”. When I first started using foursquare that seemed immediately limiting to me – I knew large portions of my friends/network would not want to engage given the explicit gaming nature of it. I suppose, though, that makes for a more passionate user base which could compensate for the smaller overall footprint.

    Based on the rankings I see in the app it seems there is a small, though dedicated, group using it in San Francisco (measured in 4 figures near as I can discern). Will be interesting to see if it can break out to the mainstream.

    Do you think it has both staying power and broad appeal?

  3. It has taken me a while to realize that the title of this post really is true, I've been resisting the limitation (as I see it). But I hope things do evolve.

    My big usage case where i see huge value is that I like to run around and tag my favorite restos, bars, stores, etc, review and make notes on them, and also tie these into places my friends recommend. I can then later just say “where's a good cheap lunch spot near where I am?”, or, “I have a date wed night in Hell's Kitchen– where the hell should I take her?” Maybe I already knew a place but forgot, or maybe a friend has tagged something cool and useful. This would be just the beginning of something that adds enormous value to my life.

    Sort of a Yelp, but a much more social media-oriented and location-based one. Foursquare isn't quite set up that way (yet?)

  4. Nathan,

    I think you're right – games are limiting. But no more limiting than any other media genre like books, movies, or music. I think these guys are managing to achieve something that most other LBS applications have not – a use case that makes sense to me. Also, I'd argue that casual games can have a really long shelf life – look at things like Bejeweled, Tetris, Desktop Tower Defense, or any of the big hidden object games. Good games with simple mechanics can remain fun for a very long time, so long as there is something fun and evergreen about the experience.

    I have a lot of friends, including some of the folks who've commented here, who don't play foursquare competitively (they're not trying to get to the top of any leaderboard) and really would like to use it more as a tracker / recorder of their own movements and places they go. The current version of foursquare doesn't really speak to that use case.

    Right now, the audience is limited to the devices they support and the subset of people who use the application. I think foursquare has the potential to be the most popular application in its category – it's too early to say whether or not the category itself is large and interesting.

  5. Ken,

    I actually use the Yelp iPhone app for the use case you mention above, especially when I'm traveling. It does a good job of telling me what's nearby and what's highly rated. I think of Yelp on the iPhone as being low on entertainment value but high on utility.

    Right now, foursquare is high on entertainment but low on utility for me – it doesn't help me find places to go or stuff to do. And my hunch is that the smart thing for foursquare to do is to focus on doing entertainment than utility. For example, they've recently started telling you how many other foursquare users are at a given place. I can see some fun challenges / badges / quests around getting 10 foursquare people in some bar at the same time, finding the coffee shop in SF where the most foursquare users check in, etc. That could surface some of the same information but in a less explicit way.

  6. It's both a game and location-app giving it more widespread appeal. Of course I think of google and SEO as a game as well. =)

  7. It’s both a game and location-app giving it more widespread appeal. Of course I think of google and SEO as a game as well. =)

  8. Thank you so much for this amazing article. I loved to read that post. It was very interesting and informative. You are bookmarked.nRemittancen

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