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What is Foursquare’s Endgame?

zelda“What if going out was like a game of The Legend of Zelda?” was the question asked by Dennis Crowley from the stage of the New York Tech Meetup last March.  It was this question that he introduced Foursquare to the New York tech community.  As “players” check in to their locations via their cellphones, they gain points as they spend time with their friends, but as they do so, how do they rescue the princess?

Foursquare is the spiritual successor to the online app Dodgeball, which was bought by and eventually shut down by Google, by Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai.  When a user visits a restaurant, theater or any other place, the user loads a phone based app or mobile website and announces to their friends they are at that place.  The user then gets points based on how many times they have checked in that day and if they have ever been there before.  The users are then rewarded with badges based on their check-ins, and his or her tallied points are shown on a leaderboard for this or her friends to see.

I am a gamer.  My first home console was an Atari 2600, and I have owned every Nintendo made console.  I have played many games, including every Legend of Zelda game, to which Foursquare was compared.  I generally prefer to play finite games where you get the girl and kill the baddies.  I’ve saved the world, I’ve vanquished the big bad, I’ve defeated Bowser only to find the princess was in another castle.  I like games that are finite and I enjoy that sense of victory that comes from a successful endgame.

By playing Foursquare, there is a weekly “victory” of being the top of your city or your friends’ leaderboards.  Like a game of Pac-Man, your high score sits at the top of the screen for everyone to see until the machine is reset, as Foursquare’s is every Sunday night.  Since the leaderboard isn’t often looked at by it’s users and isn’t recorded anywhere, most users don’t see it as a true victory.  The game continues to cycle and people check in trying to receive the badges as checkpoints along their social voyages through their city.

I have tried games that are not finite before, like Mafialife – an online, text based mafia simulation game.  Mafialife required a large time commitment in order to work with your mob family to commit crimes and battle against the other families.  The game is played in rounds over the course of 45 days and then back to the beginning, an endless cycle of text based crime that ultimately goes nowhere.  I lost interest in under a month because there’s nothing but churn.  It’s the same reason I don’t play Multiplayer Massive Online games (or MMOs).  You spend large amounts of times battling the baddies and getting better equipment for your virtual persona, and the reward for doing so is going to bigger battles and better equipment only to continue to more and more of the same.

Is there a way for Foursquare to rescue the princess?  Is there an endgame or a victory that can keep their users interested long term or will it be a continuing cycle of checking in and gaining points and badges, only to check in for more points and badges, or is there a gaming aspect that can keep the users interested?  I have been a Foursquare user since they unveiled it in March, and nine months later, I am still playing so that I can share my social activities with friends online.  Will I, and others, continue to play or will the gaming aspect wear thin and we lose interest in favor of the next location based social network, like Gowalla.

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