GPS is used for a number of purposes, but they all have one thing in common – location. No matter if you use GPS for navigation, route recording, gaming, geocaching, employee monitoring, location sharing, the one thing in common for all these usage scenarios is subject’s, or object’s, location. And one of the most fun ways to use your, or someone else’s location, is playing location-based video games.

Location-based video games origins and base mechanics

These games cannot be made without GPS technology, meaning they aren’t that old, or they are, depending on your age. Since GPS chips become prevalent in mobile phones around the beginning of the 21st century, we didn’t see location-based games before 2001, and the only way to have fun with GPS was geocaching.

Geocaching is a real-world treasure hunting activity revolving around locating caches using their GPS coordinates. The activity began shortly after improved GPS accuracy was enabled for civilians, in 2000. Since then, geocaching became quite popular and is still alive, although most physical containers ended up replaced with virtual ones, and instead of using standalone GPS devices, geocaching can be enjoyed with a smartphone.

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Location-based games share the basics with geocaching, and that’s using real-world locations to hunt for various treasures, but most of them go beyond that.

The basic premise for most location-based games is finding various virtual treasures and exchanging items with other players. There are also competitive games in which players look for opponents in real world and battle them via their mobile phones or, like in some multiplayer shooters like Battlefield series, fight to control various points placed in the same spots as prominent real-world locations (such as museums, stadiums, landmarks, etc.) ultimately trying to beat other teams.

Now, we mentioned that the first location-based game saw the light of day back in 2001. Botfighters was a game played by sending and receiving SMS, it didn’t have any graphical user interface and revolved around players sending messages in order to hit other players, and receiving messages that they have been taking hits from other “assassins.”

The game was quite popular; players would receive messages if other opponents were around, or receiving texts with info about nearby items, or new weapons. Some players even cruised around in cars, performing “drive-by shootings” and escaping before another player would realize (before he receives a text) they have been “assassinated.” The game had clans and players could help their teammates.

Another pioneering location-based game is called Mogi, and it debuted in Japan in 2003. Mogi was the first location-based game to use a full-fledged graphical interface. Why Japan? Well, the country is known for accepting new technological breakthroughs a lot faster than the rest of the world, and that was the case with GPS-enabled mobile phones, but more importantly, that was the case with mobile internet. Simple, the potential user-base was high enough to launch the game in Tokyo, turning the city into a huge virtual world full of treasures to be found.

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Mogi

Of course, most phones back then were feature phones, equipped with basic apps and without access to centralized app stores. In order to install games and apps, you had to hunt them down online, on browsers that were basic at most, compared to modern ones found on each and every smartphone.

The game was playable just in Tokyo and saw users track various virtual treasures placed in real-world location of a huge Tokyo Metropolitan area. Payers would hunt for treasures in the form of artifacts, various objects, food, etc. The social part of the game was in trading these treasures with other players, but they had to meet in order to exchange items. The game also had timed events, like in Pokémon Go, when different creatures would appear near specific objects only during specific hours during a day, forcing players to wander around the city and catch them.

There were many other location-based games, but the real breakthrough came with Ingress, a game developed by Niantic, the team behind Pokemon Go. The game combined location-based features with augmented reality and became the world-first location-based gaming phenomenon.

Ingress and Pokémon GO

The first real worldwide popular location-based game is Ingress(iOS, Android), a title developed by Niantic that will later develop the biggest location-based game phenomena of all time, Pokémon GO. Instead of hunting digital monsters, performing battles and doing lots of other stuff available in the Pokémon GO, Ingress is a game of area control.

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Basically, the story is set around portals, the sources of Exotic Matter. Players are divided into two factions, Enlightened and Resistance, and they compete for control of the portals, spreading their control fields.

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The main feature of the game is the fact that all portals are in places of real-world places of significance such as museums, landmarks, monuments, statues, post offices, libraries, parks, etc. The game uses Google Maps and places a layer on top of Google Maps layer depicting locations of portals as well as areas of control.

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The game became quite popular, with millions of players around the world competing for one or the other faction, earning fame and leveling up. Aside from using location-based model relying on GPS, Ingress also introduced augmented reality and made the concept mainstream on mobile devices.

Using their camera, players are able to see in-game environments superimposed onto real-world environments. Players can see portals and other in-game objects, and by pointing their smartphone camera to a portal, they would start conquering it for their faction. Players from another faction, controlling the portal, can defend it, but there’s not interaction between two factions, sans at portals. The main goal of the game is gaining as much score for the faction a player is aligned with.

The game is played by walking through the city, locating portals and in-game items, reaching them and interacting with them, which makes players move and walk and not making them sit and doing nothing. This is one of the best qualities of Ingress and Pokémon GO, making players exercising instead of sitting in front of a screen.

Ingress is waiting for a re-launch that is set for 2018, and that should bring new graphics, new story, and massively improve almost every aspect of the game.
Since Ingress managed to produce a huge interest with mobile gamers, and since the game became the most popular location-based title ever, Niantic has been hired to place one of the most popular gaming brands of all times – Pokémon – into the real world.

Pokémon GO (iOS, Android) managed to become the most downloaded mobile game ever, and the craze lasted during the whole summer of 2016. Hundreds of millions of Pokémon trainers have swept the world trying to catch as many digital monsters as they could. During the end of summer, the massive popularity noticeably deflated but it still is one of the most popular mobile titles, played by millions.

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Pokémon GO used the basic principles of location-based and augmented reality games and managed to push them to a higher level. Players hunt for numerous Pokémon scattered around the real world locations. Pokémon nests are placed around parks or other similar places, and players can also get eggs that contain new Pokémon as well as other resources. Eggs hatch by player walking a specific distance, meaning that more you walk the more eggs will hatch, and you’ll get more Pokémon as well as other resources needed for upgrading your monsters.

Real world locations are used as gyms, in which players can train their Pokémon and battle each other, and the game uses a virtual map placed on top of Google Maps layer, using GPS to track player movement and to locate carious elements of the game. The game uses AR in order to project Pokémon and other elements on real-world image feed provided by the camera. You don’t have to use the camera all the time, just during battles, and while catching Pokémon.

Although Ingress and Pokémon GO are the most popular location-based games that use GPS in an incredibly fun way, there are other interesting location-based games to try out.

Some other popular GPS location-based mobile titles

There aren’t many location-based games around, but there are a few that are definitely worth trying. For instance, if you want to stay fit try Zombies Run (iOS, Android) an exergame that puts you against a horde of hungry zombies. You must complete quests in order to stay alive, and most quests include lots of running. The game is great for joggers because it gives them a worthy motivation to push further – staying alive and outrunning zombie horde!

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Turf Wars (iOS, Android) is another location-based game, and it revolves (as the name suggests) around holding territory around your neighborhood. You can join a gang, complete missions, battle other players, and do lots of walking while trying to broaden your gang’s area of influence.

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If you’re up to some location-based Monopoly, try Landlord (iOS, Android). In Landlord, you buy percentage real-world locations and then collect rent based on the number of people who checked in at the location you bought. You can outbid other players, trade your estates, and do other stuff with other players.

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