Beacons Cast Spell on Mobile Gaming

By Claire Swedberg

For its BattleKasters game app, Artifact Technologies has been installing Bluetooth beacons at fan-based conferences, where an average of 1,000 players have used the technology to cast spells and work their way toward a portal to save the planet.

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BattleKasters, a smartphone game made by Seattle software company Artifact Technologies, brings together Bluetooth beacons and gaming. The game, developed with author Alane Adams, is based on Adams' Norse mythology-based novel series, known as "Legends of Orkney." By using phones running the BattleKasters app, fans at the PAX Prime gaming conference, held on Aug. 28-31 at the Washington State Convention Center, in Seattle, searched for beacons installed around the facility so that they could use them to cast spells, unlock cards and set traps for other players.

In the past year BattleKasters has been featured at six gaming-centered conventions (cons) run by fans of games, television shows or movies, and will be at more such venues during 2016. The game is the first beacon-based product offered by the company that focuses on location-based gaming using mobile phones.

The BattleKasters app provides details about various beacon-enabled physical locations that a player can visit.

Artifact Technologies was founded in 2011 to provide mobile apps (using its Mixby platform), initially in the form of a social network in which individuals could tag themselves in a photograph linked to the phone's GPS coordinates, and then share that photo with friends on the network. When those friends' own phones detected that they were within close range of the coordinates where someone else took a picture, their phone could alert them that they were at that location and display the image. However, the company found, consumers didn't use the app enough to make it worthwhile, and required too much of a phone's battery power. The firm then developed an iPhone game known as Ghost Patrol that allows a player to use GPS data to hunt for and capture ghosts within the user's vicinity, based on pictures taken by others in the area.

"Artifact was initially funded as a development lab, where we developed a couple mobile apps, all centered around where and when a user engaged with our products," says Sam Teplitsky, Artifact's co-founder and CEO. Ghost Patrol and Fonograf, a music discovery app, were the products created during the first phase of the business.

However, Teplitsky says, GPS-based data does not provide very precise location data. "We were trying to solve use cases with coarse awareness of location," he explains. So two years ago, the company began using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon technology included in iPhones and iPads. "Beacons have crystallized everything," he says, when it comes to the use of mobile-based gaming.

Artifact's team, Teplitsky reports, has become experts at location-based engagement, "which is a combination of the right user experience and app design, understanding the place where our experiences will be utilized, deep technical aptitude in devices and network limitations, and, most recently, tuning and deploying beacons."

The company began testing beacons, seeking models that could not only transmit a signal at great distances, but also support shorter transmission ranges. For instance, he explains, as opposed to some retail applications, games would often require that a player be very close to a beacon before receiving a transmission on his or her phone. The firm opted to use beacons from Sensoro—although, Teplitsky adds, the company is hardware-agnostic, so it might employ other beacons for other Mixby-based applications. The company began developing software that would use the beacon location data to create new gaming opportunities, then teamed with Adams to develop a game based on the plots of her books.

When PAX attendees arrived at the conference, they had the option of downloading the free BattleKasters app from the iTunes or Google Play website. Once installed on the player of an iOS or Android smartphone, the app then provided details about various physical locations where participants could play the game by selecting an action (such as casting a spell) available at each site.

For the PAX Prime show, Artifact installed a Sensoro beacon at different 15 locations within and around the Washington State Convention Center.

At each of these 15 locations (13 onsite and two offsite—one at the station for the monorail that transported con-goers to the show, and the other across the street from the convention center), Artifact installed a beacon that transmitted a unique identifier. That ID number could be captured by a beacon-enabled smartphone located up to 10 feet away, causing the app to display data about the game options available at that spot. The participant then followed prompts in the app to select his next move in the game, such as casting a spell. With that selection, the player could then accomplish other tasks that would protect him or set up traps for other players arriving at the same beacon-based location. The game's objective was to close a portal that allowed passage by creatures attempting to take over the world. To accomplish this goal, players had to visit enough beacons to keep casting spells and make their way toward the portal.

According to Brett Cutler, an Artifact game designer, participants have the choice of playing the game competitively by racing others toward the portal, or, more casually, simply experiencing the storyline of the book and game.

During the past year, Artifact Technologies has been piloting the game at various events, by installing the system and providing it to conference organizers at no cost. At each event, the company operates a booth where it can not only advertise the game but also explain how it is used to convention participants.

One of the other events at which Artifact installed the game was at San Diego Comic-Con, held in July 2015 at the San Diego Convention Center, during which one of the beacons was installed at a business in the Gas Lamp District near the convention center, and coupons for that business were provided to individuals playing the game. The rate of coupon redemption was 50 percent, Teplitsky says.

Currently, Artifact derives no revenue from BattleKasters. In the future, however, the company may opt to sell system access to companies that want to advertise or provide content to players, such as information about a business at whose booth the beacon has been installed. In the future, Artifact also plans to sell kits—which would include a fixed number of beacons, as well as the app and content-management software—that would allow organizations, such as schools, cruise ships or communities, to set up their own BattleKasters or other game for individuals inside a building, campus or ship.

Sam Teplitsky, Artifact's CEO

In the meantime, Teplitsky says, Artifact Technologies finds the fan conventions to be the best venue for the game. "The fancon space is growing," he explains, adding that the company has performed analysis of the best market for such beacon-based games and has found that the convention audience "is highly open and receptive" to such technology.

Artifact Technologies is currently analyzing the results of the game, including how long players stayed with it, how many completed it and when. If there were any points at which players dropped off from the game, the company intends to determine the reason for that as well, such as the distance between beacons requiring too much walking, or sending players to different part of the conference. Although Teplitsky does not know the exact number of players at the PAX Prime conference, he says the company has been averaging about 1,000 players per convention.

Since the first deployment, the company has reduced its installation time from half a day to about an hour. This involves mounting beacons at key locations and setting the software to identify the location of an app user based on that beacon.