Making the Real World More Fun
By Mark Frauenfelder, Tue Apr 03 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Ever wanted to play cloak & dagger, or be an assassin out on the prowl? Here's a Swedish company called It's Alive that's making it possible.

Picture this: It’s a beautiful fall afternoon. The air is crisp, and there’s a hint of snow in the clouds overhead. You’re inside a warm coffee shop, with a friend, sharing a drink of something warm.

Suddenly, your mobile phone emits an ominous warning siren. A killer robot is closing in on you! You grab the phone and study the display, which indicates that the robot – disguised as an attractive young woman in a wool sweater – is standing right outside the café’s front door. Before you have a chance to run out the back – Wham! – you’re jolted by a crippling blast from the evil robot’s ray gun. With your last reserves, you return fire. It’s direct hit! Your enemy’s defense shield is no match for your high-power zap gun. She’s dead.

Congratulating yourself, you and your friend chuckle and go back to your coffee. After all, nobody was really killed. It was only a game, called BotFighters. It’s the world’s first location-based mobile game and was developed by It’s Alive, a tiny wireless entertainment company in Stockholm, Sweden.

The trial run of BotFighters, conducted in November in conjunction with Swedish wireless operator Telia, was a rousing success. Sixty players in the city of Stockholm participated in a two-month adventure, and many players became so wrapped up with the plot that they would sometimes drive miles out of their way to assassinate a robot from an enemy team.

It’s Alive plans to conduct more testing of the game throughout Scandinavia, and will then market the game to the U.K., Italy, Germany, and France.

The networked advantage

Wireless mobile games are hot now because they offer a compelling advantage over standard Gameboys and other traditional handheld gaming devices. By being connected to a wireless network, players are able to compete against real people, rather than against a boring computer opponent. And carriers like wireless mobile games because customers have shown a willingness to pay money to play them.

Location-sensing technologies are making mobile games even more appealing. Games are no longer confined to the low-resolution display and poor sound quality of a mobile phone. Instead, the real world, with real people, becomes the playing field, so that the game actually surrounds the player, blending with their daily routine. It’s Alive calls this “pervasive gaming,” and they’re serious about it – for example, the only way to stop playing BotFighters is to turn off your phone.

In BotFighters, your phone, which serves as both a “radar device” and a “weapon,” is only one element of the game. You also log onto the BotFighters website to get you “hit” assignments, upgrade your robot, give it a name, buy additional weapons, compare your score with other players, and see the location of other players in real-time.

When a rival player is nearby, your mobile will let you know where he or she is. You can then attempt to get close enough to the person and “shoot” him or her with an SMS message. Depending on the weapon you signed up for on the BotFighters’ website, and depending on the defense shielding your enemy is equipped with, your victim will suffer a certain number of damage points. Once the points run out, it’s bye-bye robot.

Whenever you destroy an enemy robot, you’ll earn credits and climb up the high score list. You can use your credits to buy new weaponry and recharge your robot’s battery (which gets drained whenever you get shot by another player.)

It’s Alive’s partners include Ericsson, Cellpoint, and SignalSoft, who are working with the company to develop and deploy a variety of location based games, including a “relationship-building” game for teenage girls that will launch this summer.

In January, Sven Hålling, formerly a director at Ericsson, became CEO of the company. He joined, he says, because It’s Alive is a pioneer in the new field of pervasive mobile gaming. The company hopes to make money by charging wireless operators a monthly fee proportional to the number of players who use the game. In turn, wireless company will charge subscribers a monthly, or per-game, fee to play BotFighters.

While It’s Alive may have developed the first location-based mobile game, they’re not the only ones working on them. A French company called In-Fusio plans to roll out a “massive community multiplayer game” that uses location-sensing services called Katch’em.

And US based Gravitate, a location services developer, is teaming up with Oven Digital, a New York Internet consulting and development company, to develop a number of multi-user wireless Internet games that use Gravitate’s location sensing technology. In England, Ngame is working with Yahoo and AirFlash to create location based games, which will be released in the next few months.

Gamers, it looks like we’re in for an exciting summer, and make sure you keep an eye out for those evil robots.

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Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.