Making Successful Location Specific Content

(This is the talk I gave yesterday – it synthesises a lot of the design work I did this summer into a set of rules of thumb for making this kind of work)

These are interesting times for publishers, the very notion of what a book is is being broken down. People have said it’s like the Wild West and you can do anything, anyone can be a publisher. My contention is that just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

I’ve spent part of the last year making location-specific stories and games on an Iphone platform called Placewhisper and testing them on the ground with real people. I’m going to talk to you about what I’ve learned – through real experience – and then consider why this sort of work might be interesting to publishers.

Location-specific content is really good at one thing, which is making you feel like you’ve stepped into a narrative. Moments of emotional connection. I started to understand this while making quite a different kind of game – a playground game about the Battle of Hastings for the BBC.

I spent a lot of time looking at diagrams like this:

And by the time the game was made and I was travelling around the country playtesting it in schools. I happened to do a test in Hastings, and on a whim hopped off the train and went to see the site of the battle itself. Which looks like this:

The thing that slightly blew my mind was how steep it is. In all my years of studying the period and hours of looking at squiggly diagrams, that fact had never got through to me. And suddenly the Normans at the bottom with a seemingly impossible task ahead, the Anglo Saxons snugly at the top with everything in their favour, made more sense than it ever had before.

It wasn’t that being in the place was somehow intrinsically better than looking at the diagrams. Without knowing the diagrams it would just have been a field. But the point is that knowing the diagrams made being in the field better. Being in the field deepened my understanding of the diagrams. That multiplication is the nub of what’s important about making location-specific content.

Whatever you are offering people has to make their experience of going to a place better, otherwise why are you asking them to go there? This sounds really obvious when you just say it, but it has huge implications in design terms. The bargain you make with the person who accesses your content is really different to the one you make when you are making web content or physical books, where people have absolute control over where they are when they access it. There’s a physicality to the experience which needs to be considered.

This is sculptor, Anthoney Gormley’s Another Place. It’s a really poetic piece that interacts with the environment beautifully. It stands on the boundary between land and sea, and as the tide goes in and out it reveals and conceals metal casts of the sculptor’s body that all look out towards the horizon. And every year the coastguard get called out several times to rescue people who have got into difficulties while looking at the artwork

Gormley’s take on this (as it kind of has to be) is that people can look after themselves while they’re looking at art, and they don’t lose their critical faculties.  This is possibly true with art, but I know from making pervasive games that as soon as there’s an element of interaction that’s no longer true – people expect you’ve got their back while you concentrate on the challenge you’ve set them.

It’s tempting to make location based work the easy way – google maps, google earth, from the top down. You can’t. Initial research has to include *pounding pavements*

However, there are really positive reasons to make this kind of work, and it’s really not necessary to risk drowning your punters. I wanted to talk about those reasons through the lens of Watch the Water, a project I made this summer with Coney. It was commissioned by Trigger for the Edinburgh Art Festival.

Watch the Water was a location-specific iphone app, made on PlaceWhisper.

It’s a work of fiction: eerie audio placed on places with open drains, which told the story of the engineering that underpins the city with a Lovecraftian twist. (For those that don’t know it, Edinburgh is built on an extinct volcano and the railway station is in a drained lake – how it doesn’t fill up with water whenever it rains is a constant wonder to me).

Five design decisions that made this really work for the people that tried it.

One of the really smart things about the commission is that there was a really clear funnel into the start of the experience – it was designed for people visiting one of six galleries as part of the Art Festival we knew where they would be physically and where they would be going.

It’s a comfortable space to be on foot, day or night.

But mainly, Edinburgh is hugely atmospheric – you get awesome  hi res 3d graphics for free. Let’s just dwell on that for a moment, *for Free.*

You could consume the audio clips – and the story – in any order you wanted. This gives people a bit more agency, allows it to fit in with their other plans rather than having to set aside a certain time to do your experience.

I’m a big believer in doing this with audio. It means there’s no screen between you and the exciting stuff. Instead of looking down at your phone, you’re looking up at the world. Again, it’s all about making connections with what you’re standing in front of, otherwise what’s the point?

Watch the Water was 9 pieces of audio in the space of less than a mile. Each between 40 seconds and a minute and a half. The points could have been more densely packed in the space, but the area didn’t want to be larger – that’s already a lot of walking.

There’s something about making invisible things tangible that people really respond to. The mechanism of discovery gives people a sense of ownership of the work.

This is a new way of delivering content, but it’s something that can fit into traditional publishing models. I have a couple of examples:

Imagine: Everyone at a literary festival is invited to download a free app from the app store, with a story from a new writer mapped onto popular locations at the festival. It’s promoted through the festival as something to do between talks. Those who try feel that sense of ownership, and word of mouth is created. There’s a route to buy the book direct from the app.

Or: A popular crime writer deeply associated with a particular city – like Ian Rankin in Edinburgh, or Henning Mankell in Ystad – spends two weeks writing a short whodunnit you can play in that city over about 2 hours.

It sells for £4.99 in the app store to the writer’s fans and tourists visiting the city who want a ‘different’ ‘authentic’ experience. Not only can this become profitable in itself, people who play feel more ownership of that writer’s stories. People discover more about their back catalogue and in a couple of clicks can buy books that mention particular places they’ve been.

What I’ve learned from all my work with location-specific content is that it isn’t always the right answer. In the right kind of circumstances, though – and there aren’t many of them – it gives you so much for free: hundreds of extras, thousandss of years of history, and the best visuals money can buy.

Most importantly, it reminds the consumer how much you value their imagination.

I’m looking to make more of this type of project, so if you have a situation where there are a lot of people physically in a particular place, do get in touch.