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Location-based Storytelling

robert | July 10, 2012  ‐  17 Comments

Location-based storytelling is popular and there is much to gain by applying a transmedia storytelling-based approach.

In summary, when creating a location-based story:

  • design for the experience to be location-aware, not location-dependent
  • design for existing behaviors

If the story uses game mechanics to enhance the experience then:

  • assume nobody will read the rules
  • give rewards early and frequently

Most important of all is to know the audience and to layer the experience based on different levels of participation. Yet to really start considering the audience and participation, you need to decide the business model and what type of experience you’re really creating.

Know the business model

The first question to determine the business model is asking yourself if the experience will be an event (or series of events) or persistent. That is, will the experience run for a set period of time at a given start date & time (an event)? Or can anyone start the experience whenever they wish (persistent storyworld)?

The second question is asking if the experience is aimed at locals or visitors. By “locals” I mean anyone local to the location… and if the location can be anywhere then all the audience is a local. By “visitors” I mean people in a different location to the one they’re familiar with (e.g. not their home town).

Figure 1 shows some of the implications of these two decisions. This breakdown isn’t supposed to be exhaustive but it should help you focus on exactly the type of audience you need and where you hope to find them:

  • Event for Locals - are there enough people in the catchment area willing to explore a location-based story? It’s not just knowing the town or city’s population – you need to be honest about who the experience appeals to and whether they have the time and inclination to take part
  • Event for Visitors – is this the best date, time and place for this story? Will there be enough visitors of the required demographic willing to take part?
  • Persistent experience for locals – is there enough content at enough locations to accommodate this audience? Are you allowing locals to take part at wherever location they’re at or do they need to travel?
  • Persistent experience for visitors – will visitors feel they have enough time to take part? How will they know to take part?

Figure 1 Location-based story design – stage 1
Location-based stories A

Know your audience & the Location

It really can’t be stressed enough that you need to know at whom this experience is targeted. It’s not enough to consider the basic demographics, you need to dig deeper to consider age, income, education, volume (number of people), frequency and occupancy rates (how their numbers swell and wane around the planned location during different times of the year), technographic (use of technology like mobile phones but also emerging services like Twitter vs SMS).

If you’re designing for a particular location, consider the traffic patterns (commuters travel by bus or car, are the roads gridlocked?), whether the location is pedestrian-friendly, climate (raining? sunny? too hot or too cold to walk about?) and of course access to 3G, wifi etc.

Considering these aspects can help you design an experience that fits existing behaviors. It’s might be crucial not to expect someone to do something different. If the location has two coffee shops of the same chain on either side of the same street then you know that in this town people can’t be bothered to cross the road for a coffee so why will they do anything for you?

Layer the experience

For persistent stories, requiring someone to go to a particular location is immediately going to reduce the number of people taking part. Firstly, the location may not be convenient and secondly most people can’t be bothered to try something new. The key, therefore, if it’s at all possible, is to make the story location-aware rather than location-dependent. This means allowing anyone to access the story online (from the comfort and security of their home or office) and using real-world locations as added-value.

If a local business wants people to visit its store, find a way to represent the store online and entice people to the store with additional content, power-ups, level-ups and any number of other incentives but avoid making it mandatory. Requiring anyone to go to a specific location is likely to create a road block which could result in someone abandoning the experience.

If you think about the places you’ve wanted to visit because they were mentioned in a book or used in a movie, the enticement came from the lowest form of participation – reading or viewing.

For event-based experiences, make sure that you start the recruitment of players early and use online resources to capture the largest possible number of people. In this you may be expecting people to travel to a specific location at a specific date and time so make sure you make it easy by providing all the information they might need and make sure there’s enough time to plan the travel.

Putting it all together

Having decided the type of experience you want to create, who it’s targeted at and where it’ll play you can now start to write the story and the audience participation. The workflow is shown in Figure 2.

Note that the final stage is to consider how the audience will find out about the story – these are the “discovery touchpoints”. It might be online and it might also be flyers at the actual location. Be very clear about discovery and the call-to-action.

If you’re involving local businesses, make sure it’s clear that they know they’re a discovery touchpoint (you might not want to use that jargon though :)). That is, have them agree to have a flyer or poster in their window, have a custom table flyer or beer mat, a point-of-sale display and importantly make sure staff are informed and encouraging people to play. Don’t require passersby to go into the store to take part but add value if they do.

If you have a game-based experience:

  • assume that nobody wants to read a bunch of rules before they start engaging so try to have the rules reveal themselves through the play
  • make it easy to get hooked with simple casual games as well as or instead of more difficult scavenger hunts and puzzle solving
  • give rewards early and frequently so that players know they’re doing the right thing and are encouraged to continue
  • keep everything very simple and frictionless which means low intellectual demands, physical demands, time demands and technology demands. Every time you increase one of these factors above the minimum you reduce your potential audience.

Figure 2 Location-based storytelling – decision flowchart
Location-based stories B