>> Mission: Hide and Seek

Well into its execution, being an ARG without a budget, Intimation hadn’t yet provided much of a live experience for players beyond web-based content and Twitter interaction. So we wanted to increase involvement of players in different ways and provide creative story elements on alternate platforms.

In February of 2009, shortly after the prologue launched and the narrative was on its way, a tweet appeared from Steve Peters about a new location-based mobile game called “GPS Mission“, and considered that it may have potential to be used in ARGs to perform outdoor tasks. Deciding to do a bit of research into GPS Mission, we determined a way to give it a place within our story. As a bonus, it was also entirely free for use (although the game seems to have been recently be abandoned as of this case study).



GPS Mission was at the time a startup providing a location-based mobile game in which groups of virtual waypoints are created in the context of ‘missions’ through which players must physically traverse with a GPS-enabled smartphone in order to complete and earn rewards. Waypoint descriptions could contain plain text or imagery, or even puzzles – questions requiring a correct answer to unlock the next waypoint or task in the mission. Beyond competing for points, missions could therefore take the form of ideas like tourism guides, or outlets for local exploration and discovery. Additionally, treasure waypoints would reward players extra points by collecting virtual gold, and photo waypoints provided opportunities for sharing scenic views with friends and other users who visited the locations. GPS Mission had many elements that could make virtual location-based gaming fun, with the flexibility to build stories and interactive experiences into its delivery.

Being in a fledgling state at the time, their website and mobile app didn’t yet have a large uptake in North America. In their community forum, many players lived overseas where the game seemed to be far more popular. They’d only recently expanded to include English in North America. The mobile smartphone app, however, was still only available for the iPhone.

We felt that the platform had a lot of potential, and our initial play-testing seemed to work well enough; but the practical implementation of our plan had clear drawbacks.

Play-testing a virtual hide and seek

Our first public “experiment” – testing out a private mission placed in New York – worked well. So we moved forward and created a few more missions in other major cities, chosen to be near known player locations, including a few located overseas. These in-game missions were created by our AI character, depicted as a playful child, as a way she could play games with friends. She chose to play hide and seek, leading players from waypoint to waypoint in the mission, each being the next place the player was led to physically check. Each of these little games of hide and seek, once completed, would reveal the AI’s story content.

One problem – with no automatic notifications of mission completion at the time, we had to monitor mission activity directly, hoping players would rush out to complete them once published. A benefit of the missions listed on the website was that other mobile users – players just trying the app who weren’t following the ARG – would also be able to complete the missions if they were in the area. These missions could then serve as another portal to introduce newcomers to the ARG. It was a beautiful platform to incorporate into the story.

In theory.

What we found in practice was that not physically being on location to verify the accessibility of all the mission waypoints ourselves caused a number of problems. Though smartphone GPS technology has improved over the years, in 2008 the technology in smartphones was still relatively young. Varying environments and satellite reception can have a major effect on accuracy, especially in dense urban areas. Even today, GPS-based gaming on smartphones can suffer from a few very basic drawbacks that should be taken into account.

Being a form of virtual deaddrop needed to progress the story, we attempted to minimize the technological risk by choosing waypoint locations that we believed would be optimal:

  1. Accessible:  in open outdoor areas, and not inside buildings
  2. For/near existing players:  those who’d expressed interesting in doing missions for the AI or who had access to an iPhone
  3. Well populated:  aerial map tile accuracy would be more trustworthy and there would be a greater chance someone nearby would complete it without issues
  4. Not too much effort to complete:  we tried to keep mission completion time estimates under an hour

Since we couldn’t physically be at each location, we created these missions remotely by scouting through Google maps, preferably finding locations for which street-level views existed.  Even after all that, it was still insufficient for a smooth execution.

Missions: Go?

As we rolled the missions out, many of them weren’t completed nearly as quickly as we’d hoped, and some proved problematic.

  • Some players who’d expressed interest in doing a mission and for whom we’d created one shared later that they didn’t actually have a supported smartphone. Others had difficulty finding time in their schedule.
  • The mission completion time estimates provided by the website’s development tools weren’t always accurate.
  • Some waypoints we’d placed ended up in the middle of temporary construction zones, or the closest that players could get physically was just outside the radius required for their smartphone app to register the waypoint.
  • Urban GPS capabilities can be limited as signals can bounce between very tall buildings – an environment not well expressed in satellite imagery or street view, causing the estimated location to jump randomly and sporadically.
  • Google’s aerial map tiles at many points weren’t up to date and didn’t reflect the current environment, roads, buildings, or nature at the waypoints.
  • The iPhone app itself even had occasional bugs and flaws in its releases.

Through all these frustrations, we quite often applauded in our cloaked silence the impressive efforts and determination of players. In one player’s case, despite blistering weather, hindering construction, travel woes, and other frustrations, Krystyn set out to complete more than one mission in her area. On reading her recap of the experiences, we felt her pain, and it was clear that creating good missions would take far more research and effort, and at the very least someone to physically verify each location and the mission routes before publishing. It wasn’t fair to players for us to place challenges in front of them, without making sure that their efforts to complete them wouldn’t be for naught.


Due to the missions not going nearly as smoothly as anticipated, we decided to wrap the phase up quickly but feasibly, and find ways to reward those who put much toil and effort into completing them.

GPS Mission had a reward system built in, but it too was still in a fledgling state. We worked frantically with the creators of the game to provide some custom content and improvements, such as unique trophies for individual missions and rewards specifically for the first players to complete them, added to their profiles. Unfortunately, communication with the development team for the deployment of those rewards also took much longer than we’d hoped. Nonetheless, the developers worked with us and graciously allowed us to provide those custom rewards to our players.

In the end, some missions weren’t completed within our timeline goals, and acceptance of the game mechanic was not very favorable, so we had to find other ways to provide the missing content. This was a fairly complex gameplay mechanic we incorporated into our project after it had begun, and the resulting experience was much less impactful than it could have been.


This particular beat in the ARG ended up being much effort to ask a small community of players, even when focusing on those individuals eager and ready to get out there and help, and it was executed with insufficient planning or testing.

Placing unique tasks in cities with a player (especially if there’s only one in the vicinity) essentially forces them to be the one to complete the task for the community. Without some kind of guarantee that it can and will be completed, it would be better to present a task to a larger group of people and let them figure out how to carry it out, or else provide some redundancy or fallback options such as multiple tasks that many people could attempt, each leading to the same reward. Most importantly, however, a contingency should be prepared in case the main task fails, especially if the task is essential to moving the story forward.

On top of that, each mission of ours was created last minute, the very week it would go live, since we hadn’t initially planned for GPS Mission’s use. They were created with little time, and little to no live play-testing. The missions’ connection to the story ended up hazy, and felt more like a technical experiment than an intentional component of the story. Thankfully, the phase completed and the story progressed.

GPSMission.com’s future today as a mobile location-based gaming service is uncertain, but the concept of course remains feasible as a game that would likely best fit in the context of tourism and localized gaming – if time is spent to ensure creative quality.


PITFALLS: Respect the community, Value the experience