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Location-game showdown: Gowalla vs Foursquare

Whilst the iPhone wasn't the first phone with GPS, the arrival of Apple's handset - and its GPS-toting second iteration - has driven demand for location-based services quicker than any other device. Even the desktop OSes are seeing location services included: both Mac OS X Snow Leopard and Windows 7 contain location-awareness APIs for developers to use.

Out of this location-service boon, there's a couple of fun and interesting games available that allow you to make the most of your location to compete with friends (and others nearby) in game-based social networks. Today we're taking a look at two of the most talked-about: Gowalla and Foursquare.


Earlier in the year whilst the Download Squad team were at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, social network / location-based game Foursquare was the talk of the town. Foursquare, built by the same team who built Dodgeball and sold it to Google, is a location-based game that lets you check in when you're out and about - earning you points and badges. The game has weekly leader-boards, and depending on your activity the points that count on the leader-board get multiplied for (say) checking in at multiple places in a single day. Foursquare is very city-specfic - and is only available in 21 cities around the world - however it means that Foursquare has a tonne of relevant data that lets you get playing far quicker, instead of having to add every venue you visit.

Foursquare have long had an iPhone app available (complete with Push notifications) as well as an Android app - and there's also SMS integration that lets you send an old-school text message to the service to check in, letting friends know where you are. There's also a Blackberry app in development, just in case you're wondering.

Foursquare gets even more interesting when you add in venue Mayors: if you check in more times than anyone else at a venue, you're promoted to Mayor status. Whilst it's mostly just bragging rights, some venues are actively engaging with Foursquare offering Mayors free drinks or discounts when visiting - and one of the recent additions to Foursquare is to allow businesses to offer promotions to Foursquare users and the recent iPhone app update lets you know when you're near a Foursquare-enabled venue with a promotion.

One of my favourite things about Foursquare is the user-submitted to-dos. If you're looking for a venu recommendation, or simply a tip for a venue you're already at, the To-Dos provide a great contextual guidebook of the city. It's not entirely dis-similar to Dopplr's Social Atlas, if a little more informal - and game based given that each to-do you cross off gets noted on your Foursquare profile (here's mine to give you an idea).

There's tonnes of things to love about Foursquare - and whilst some will write it off because the service isn't yet in their city, I'm pretty happy to sit out and wait for them to roll out the service to other corners of the globe. During my week in San Diego with the service, the excellent data really showed the potential of Foursquare and it's clear that the three guys behind the service are focusing on ensuring the data and gameplay are great in the cities it is available in instead of a spotty global launch.

Hot on the heels of Foursquare, however, is Gowalla - a service that also launched at SXSW this year. In much the same way, Gowalla lets you check in at venues, and has an iPhone app available for your use. There's no SMS integration, however the iPhone app is a slick affair - and you can check in via the Web site too.

The most notable thing about Gowalla is that the service isn't limited to specific cities: the idea being that the service improves its venue listings by crowd-sourcing them. However, at the same time it's a double-edged sword. Depending on your location, results can be spotty if you're looking to play from the get-go, you may be disappointed. That said, Gowalla seems to be attracting a fair amount of attention and from no locations at the start of this week there's now a fair selection for Brighton UK (where I'm testing it).

Gowalla has a lot more visual flair than Foursquare - though Foursquare are rolling out a new look to their website - and both services have badges that you collect as you use the service. From your first check-in through to multiple nights out (which on Foursquare earns you the 'Bender' badge) there's a tonne of collecting to be done. Gowalla takes it a step further with a fun (albeit small) set of Trips that the Gowalla team have put together to encourage you to explore places a little further. One such trip, the 'Austin City BBQ Bonanza' is clearly something we need to check out at SXSW next year!

Much as I'd love to spend time on adding venues, the appeal of the two services - no matter how early in their lives they may be - rests with a tradeoff between instant-playability with available data and the venues you're willing to add: Gowalla may be too sparse for you to use right now (though I'm happy with the recent data I've seen added). Whilst some will write off Foursquare because the service isn't yet in their city, I'm pretty happy to sit out and wait for them to roll out the service to other corners of the globe. During my week in San Diego with the service, the excellent data really showed the potential of Foursquare and it's clear that the three guys behind the service are focusing on ensuring the data and gameplay are great in the cities it is available in instead of a spotty global launch.

Editor's Note: Given that both services are in their infancy, we'll be keeping a firm eye on both the services over the coming months.

Tags: Foursquare, Gowalla

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