Ben Dodson

Freelance iOS, macOS, Apple Watch, and Apple TV Developer

Why I built an Item Finder for Gowalla

Last Thursday, I expanded my Gowalla Tools website (a companion site for the popular geo-location game Gowalla) to include a new feature known as the Item Finder. It works by displaying a list of spots in any area you choose, and them removing those that don't have items you are missing from your vault. I always knew that this would be a controversial feature and that I'd need to write a piece explaining why I had built it - now that a few people have complained that it is "changing the core nature of the game", it is probably an apt time to publish my opinion on why this is not the case.

Ever since I began work on my Gowalla Tools project, people have consistently been in contact to ask me to make an item finder. They were frustrated that it seemed so difficult to find existing items in their areas when they were so abundant in other areas. For example, in the UK it's very difficult to find a "Cowboy Hat" as these are only available in spots marked as "Saloons" (of which we have very few). However, a few of these rare items have made it to our shores thanks to random items being seeded into new packs (meaning new players have a chance of having a rare item such as this available to them from the start) which are then dropped at locations to make them founded spots.

In the first version of Gowalla Tools, I added a feature which allowed you to see what items were available at any spot you chose. This was not exactly game changing as you could work this out yourself on the Gowalla website by seeing what items had been dropped and picked up until you ended up knowing what was there - my site simply did it faster. When I was initially asked to add a search feature, I was hesitant as I felt it took a lot away from the game and made it simply an item collection game similar to Packrat (which is how the vast majority of players came to find Gowalla) rather than a game about going to places. I actually felt so strongly about changing the game into item collection that I edited the first draft so that items appeared in a popup window rather than inline - this meant it took a good 3 seconds or so before you could view the items at a spot and thus made it so that you couldn't just click around and see what was there. Aside from my issues around gameplay, there were technical constraints as searching that many spots would place heavy demand on both mine and Gowalla's servers so I ruled it out.

It was a month or so later that I suddenly started to hit a brick wall with items. I was missing around 10 items all of which were proving to be incredibly elusive as they were created mainly for the Texas area (e.g. Longhorn). I realised I was spending a lot of time on the Gowalla Tools map clicking around trying to find out what items were available in my area and found quite a few items I had been missing that way. Gowalla also stepped up their game and introduced version 1.3 of their app which allowed you to vault items from within the application - they were starting to take items more seriously so my site needed to do similarly.

I started to get underway with a brand new site and introduced the 13 days of Gowalla Tools Christmas - a daring attempt to build 13 new tools for the site within the 25 days leading up to Christmas. The first tool was obvious to me; the map needed to be radically overhauled and easier to search and view spots. I improved the item offering quickly by showing you what items were at a spot and highlighted those items that were missing from your vault. On day 2, I added the item search. It didn't work the same way as many people had hoped (e.g. type in "Longhorn" and it'll show you all the spots that exists) due to the technical constraints. However, it did allow you to load all the spots in your area and then remove all but those that had items you needed.

Initial feedback was excellent and I had felt that my compromise between ease of use and item searching had been well balanced. However, I was recently alerted to a post on GetSatisfaction (and several tweets) that felt that the new feature was game changing for Gowalla and was tantamount to cheating.

I disagree.

My main reason for playing Gowalla is nothing to do with items - it's about finding new places and visiting those places. It's about finding interesting spots in your neighbourhood that you may never have known were there and then going out and visiting them. In my opinion, items were added in order to lure more people from Packrat and to make it seem more like a game but the key thing is locations. Yes it could be perceived that the Gowalla Tools Item Finder makes it unfair to those that knew where items were previously who are now unable to get them as somebody else has now found them, but that's all part of the game. You can't pick up items unless you are checked in at a location so if you don't go there, you can't have it. If someone else gets there first, then the item is theirs!

The one thing that has annoyed me from the start about Gowalla is the rights that people have given themselves in terms of "that item is mine" or "I'm going to create that spot so you can't". There are no "rules" in Gowalla apart from "first come, first served". The claim that this is game changing is ruled out completely by the fact that Gowalla are fully aware of the Gowalla Tools website and support it (with many of their developers retweeting and using the functionality). I speak with the developers frequently to let them know when I'm releasing new tools that I feel conflict with the core gameplay or could interfere with their servers (e.g. by placing too much demand). I would of course remove any tool they felt violated these rules and as yet no request has been made - only encouragement to do more!

On the positive side, there are a lot of people using the Item Finder in the way I intended. I received a lot of tweets yesterday from people thanking me as they had found an item at a spot and were now going their specially to get it. Some people were travelling up to an hour out of their way to get an item and I think that's great! They were playing the game, going outside to new places rather than waiting and hoping that nobody would know an item they would quite like was there.

The item Finder does not change the core gameplay of Gowalla in any way - it adds to it by showing you spots that are of interest to you. There are people who are affected (namely those on the Android platform) but unfortunately that is a shortcoming on Gowalla's part in not implementing the same level of gameplay for all users. They shouldn't have launched the Android version without all the core game components but this does not mean that Gowalla Tools should be limited. There are several people on devices that can't play Gowalla who would like to - should we horde items away for them? Of course not! Items can still be obtained in the traditional ways and as yet they aren't limited to batches in the same way Packrat items are so I don't see the problem.

Over the coming weeks I'll be releasing more tools that push forward this key feature of getting out there and discovering new places and todays new tool (Flickr Integration) hopefully expands this more by giving you more visual information about a place before you get there. I stick firmly by my decision to release the item finder and I hope that the majority of you will agree with me.

Now get out there and start Gowalla'ing!

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