The future of location-based games, with Atlas Reality

By John Koetsier January 27, 2023

Where are location-based games in 2023? We all know Pokémon Go is the one massive success for location-based gaming, but it launched 7 years ago in 2016. Niantic Studios, the company behind Pokémon Go, is using the mapping built for Go into multiple games including Pikmin Bloom, launched in 2021, and NBA All World, which “turns the real world into a basketball theme park.”

What else is out there?

There’s a The Witcher-based game by Spokko, a Polish game development studio, there’s Orna, a “geo-RPG,” there’s Jurassic World Alive by Ludia.

But it’s not a huge category, and even Niantic had to punt on Wizards Unite, a Harry Potter-themed location-based game that just didn’t take off. So what does the future of location-based games look like? Is it possible that just one company can succeed in this niche?

“It’s not as big as I think it’s going to be, but I also don’t think it’s massive,” says Atlas Reality president and CTO Beau Button. “It’s not gonna like take over the gaming industry.”

location-based games

That’s startling humility from a leader in a space. I’m not used to that, frankly. Most executives in a specific vertical are ridiculously, even insanely bullish on their chosen space. In some sense, they almost have to be, because not only do they need to convince themselves that huge success lies ahead in the venture they’ve dedicated a massive chunk of their lives to, they also have to sell it to potential employees, users, customers, and investors.

But it is realistic. 

Gaming is big, and location-based gaming is probably going to stay a niche for some time. As is so many other forms of gaming, like puzzle games.

Here’s Button’s take on how to grow location-based gaming: don’t demand people invent new habits to play the game. Rather, build the game around what they’re already doing. It’s the classic don’t invent a parade marketing advice: rather, go find an existing parade and get in front of it.

“If we can do things that are fun and not change behaviors, but kind of augment existing behaviors, we can see success,” he told me in a recent Growth Masterminds interview.

His first game is Atlas Empires, which allows people to claim space in the “real” world, build fortresses, find resources, attack enemies, make alliances, become mayor, governor, or president of a territory, get virtual rent when your properties get popular, and earn virtual currency for watching ads. Currently the game is at 1.5 million players, Button says.

Interestingly, virtual in-game money can be turned into real cash via PayPal … not Ethereum, or Bitcoin, or some kind of no-name token, or some other layer 2 cryptocurrency. What Button has done intentionally is to build common web3 themes into Atlas Empires without building the underlying technology — blockchain or crypto — into the code.

“So I’ve always looked at the blockchain as nothing more than like an evolution of a database,” he says. “And I was inspired by not only the blockchain on how it worked, but some of the games that were built on top of the blockchain.”

But blockchain and wallets and cryptocurrencies come with a cost.

“I wasn’t convinced that it was ready for the mainstream because the onboarding flow for web3 — getting a wallet, remembering where to put your keys, is it a custodial wallet, a non-custodial wallet, is it a hardware wallet — those are not terms that are easily digestible by average gamers.”

Plus, the common challenge to any mobile game is that whenever you increase your seconds-to-fun count, you lose players. Which means that perhaps you don’t have to be a purist around the technologies underlying your game as much as a participant in the ethos of decentralization, sharing, and distributed ownership.

A lot of that makes sense, I think.

Another design choice, of course, is making the game location-based, adding world-as-a-service via APIs from Mapbox. But Atlas Reality has done that sparingly: you don’t have to walk or drive around if you don’t want to, although doing so does add to the gameplay. Which is probably a good idea if we’re thinking about the future of location-based games: use location when it adds to gameplay, not in every situation and scenario

It’s hard to see if we’re going to eventually have a rich diversity of thousands of location-based games. But it’s pretty clear that we’re likely to see an emerging distinction between location-based games and location-aware games. While both might be a bit challenging for people who don’t travel or move around much, location-based means location is a core part of the gameplay. I wouldn’t be surprised to see location-aware games become more and more common where location impacts gameplay, but doesn’t drive it.

Think Subway Surfers in your current city while traveling. 

Think regional battles and championships for specific geos in battle games. 

Think puzzles with location-relevant items … and much more.

The M-word features in here as well: metaverse. The more we see digital elements overlaid on physical geography, the more gamified any enhanced experience is likely to become, whether that’s in utilities like mapping, in social apps, or in ratings/reviews apps. Ultimately, the true golden age of location-based games (and apps) is likely in the medium-distance future as we get smart glasses that take over some of our smartphones’ functions. 

But hopefully we’ll also see more successes in the space before then. Any niche with just one major competitor is a little boring.

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