Sitting on a Gold Mine

Rovio announced last week that they’re partnering with Barnes & Noble to geo-contextualize Angry Birds. Customers can now download a free “Mighty Eagle” add-on on their NOOKs at any store. I don’t often get to B&N (Amazon will usually do), and I’m not a NOOK fan, but maybe it’s awesome.

Then again maybe not-so-much. The add-on is part of Rovio’s larger “Magic Places” (love the name, actually) rollout, which they announced last month and which aims to use connected devices and location to expand Angry Birds. Magic Places will work a little like a traditional location-based game — when a player arrives at a specific location, she can use her smartphone to unlock special game content like new characters (e.g. the Mighty Eagle) and levels.

This is more gaming value than location-based gamification — and it’s a step in the right direction — but it’s not very thoughtful, considering the gold mine that Rovio is sitting on. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve got the right idea — according to Gigaom’s brief interview with Rovio Product Manager Ramine Darabiha, Rovio sees Magic Places as a way to encourage players to find new places and content, and they view location as a legit distribution channel.

But Gigaom reported that Rovio’s plan isn’t to aggressively monetize Magic Places, but to build deeper engagement with the Angry Birds brand.

Razzle-frazzel-frackin-fricken. It’s another example of Low-Hanging Fruit Syndrome, and while no surprise, I was hoping for better. After all, Rovio’s been in the trenches. They developed a slew of titles, many of which were unsuccessful, before Angry Birds. They came back from near-bankruptcy at the eleventh hour. And they’re from Finland.

Building brand makes complete sense — that’s a big piece of what they should be doing, but they’re already doing it with merch, film, lots of press and of course porting and extending. Not to mention their $42B round of funding in March (a chunk of that money, I would think, is paying for marketing).

If they want location to help them reach a billion downloads by the end of next year, they’re going to need more than the unite-retailers-with-customers model. Their markets are big and the Birds are still on fire, but a billion downloads? They’re at about one quarter of that goal today. Rovio CEO Mikael Hed is talking wartime but his location strategy has gone peacetime.

Rovio should stay on-product and re-innovate to fully leverage location. Why not let players design their own basic birds and/or levels and drop them anywhere on the globe? Use AR to find “birds in the wild” to top it off. Reward mobility but don’t require it. Give the crowd a way to crowd-source and share actual game content — be scrappy and focus on a location strategy that has a better impact on gameplay.

Where, Here and Every There

Pyramid recently came up with a $10B, 2015 prediction for the overall location-based services market. According to their numbers, that’s almost 4x higher than their $2.8B total in 2010 (even more interesting is how mobile operators have lost around 30% of the total revenue in the last two years, while the market grew 5x). Strategy Analytics is predicting similar growth at $10B for 2016 (both firms, by the way, report advertising as a big percentage of revenue).

Google said last year that one-third of mobile searches are local searches. They also recently disclosed that 40% of all Google Map use is mobile. And Google Places is growing at a rate of about one million ratings and reviews per month.

Much of the growth so far has certainly been about finding places and looking up directions — this is the power of where. It started, more or less, with the world’s first consumer handheld GPS receiver, and we’ve been hooked ever since.

The power of where has made navigation ubiquitous, saving countless gallons of gasoline and probably relieving more stress than all of the pharmacists and therapists combined in the last twenty years. The power of where will keep GPS honest and make it more accurate — far more accurate than it is today. The power of where will create and fill bigger POI databases. The power of where is strong.

What may be stronger is the derivative of the power of where — the power of here (coined by Marissa Mayer at SXSW). The power of here is “what can I do?” or “what do I need to know?”, and it can tie the physical and digital worlds together in a much more compelling way than the power of where.

The platforms and products that are happening to support the power of here — better maps,  geographically-aware databases, augmented reality, augmenting location with crowd-sourced data and AR — make complete sense. They scale well with the current infrastructure. They’re natural milestones on the location timeline.

The power of here is behind Foursquare’s 10M users in two years, as well as the early success of Gowalla, MyTown, Google Latitude and others. These new types of dedicated location-based services are working.

On top of that, there’s a growing mobile-access storm brewing on every major planet in the social media galaxy, transforming it into a geosocial universe. Not to mention all of the cool stuff Google alone has happening. “Here” is emerging from — or answering — “where”.

But where do we go from “here”? (My apologies, I couldn’t resist). The power of here has its own derivative — we’ll call it the power of there, just to keep up the wordplay. To borrow from physics, the power of there is a bit like the rate of change, over time, of the power of here (that’s a little dense, but stay with me).

If the power of where asks “where can I go?”, and the power of here asks “what can I do?”, the power of there responds with the instantaneous flow of content. It’s the scope of what you’re doing and the direction you’re headed. It’s the content flowing back and forth between the digital and physical worlds. It’s the path to where you’re not. (For physicists, kind of a wave-particle duality; for mathematicians and C programmers, a bit like a tilde).

In Orc Defender, for example, the power of there is the point at which a player thinks that, while she’s in a virtual world fighting another orc in single combat, she is fighting for land ownership in the real world. The power of there is deceptively strong, since it glues location-based content with memory and imagination. The power of there is also more difficult to get right, since it requires careful design and creative use of context to avoid content fatigue.

Where, Here, and every There — together they represent a powerful future for location-based services and platforms. For location-based gaming in particular, it’s a fantastic formula for play.