The Tap Lab, Backed by Harmonix Trio, Pushes Mobile Gaming Into Real World

4/3/12Follow @gthuang

You can’t box in Dave Bisceglia. Just when you think you know what location-based games are, or what mobile check-ins are, he goes and tries to upend the whole sector.

Bisceglia and his fellow co-founder Ralph Shao (see photo, right) don’t know any better. They’re a couple of young guns—recent grads of Boston University and the TechStars Boston and MassChallenge startup accelerators—and after being heads-down for the better part of a year, they are coming out blazing this week.

Their Cambridge, MA-based company, The Tap Lab, is announcing its new multiplayer mobile game, Tap City 2, which will be in Apple’s App Store this summer (it’s in beta now). The Tap Lab also says it has raised $550,000 in seed funding from angel investors including Harmonix founders Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy (creators of Guitar Hero and Rock Band), former Harmonix chief operating officer Mike Dornbrook (now with CommonAngels), and Google developer advocate Don Dodge.

Like their original game Tap City, which has been out for a year, Tap City 2 involves taking ownership of real-world properties around you like stores, coffee shops, and hotels—kind of like playing Monopoly in the physical world with your phone. Unlike the first game, however, Tap City 2 lets you travel to other locations virtually (some 35 million venues worldwide, via Foursquare API), so you can interact with players who are physically far away. Players can also sign up to “work” at virtual stores—for example, making coffees as a barista at Starbucks (see screenshot above), in exchange for points and virtual goods.

In most location-based games, including the first Tap City, players are restricted to their immediate surroundings. Indeed, that’s usually the point. The downside is at any given time there might not be many properties, other players, or things to do around you. “Once you were done [playing], you were done, unless you got in your car and went down the street,” says Bisceglia. “We had to solve that issue.” Hence the virtual travel—which could help the game pick up more players and boost their activity more quickly.

“We’ve taken the concept of the check-in and thrown it out the window,” says Bisceglia. “The check-in is no longer your ball and chain.”

What’s more, players’ higher levels of interaction with their properties should help The Tap Lab “really integrate with brands,” Bisceglia says. The company is in conversations with some major brands, he says, but it’s too early to talk about any specifics—presumably things like local offers and marketing built around virtual stores. “The game is built to be fun with or without brand integration,” he says. “We’re focused on building a game that’s inherently viral.”

And that is really the key to the game’s success—being fun and spreading fast. Egozy, the investor from Harmonix, said at a TechStars event that The Tap Lab founders reminded him of himself and his co-founder in the early days of Harmonix, in terms of the respect and trust between them. (As an outside observer, I would add being modest and understated to their list of commonalities.) The question is whether The Tap Lab will take many years to have a breakout hit, as Harmonix did with Guitar Hero, or whether the whole mobile-social thing might drastically shorten that cycle. In any case, the startup seems to be onto something with its curious blend of the real and virtual worlds.

The Tap Lab, which started in 2009, has five employees and is looking to hire two more developers. Its first game has “thousands of players around the world,” says Bisceglia, with the highest density in Boston and Austin, TX. Active users play for an average of more than 25 minutes a day, he says, and the new game aims to beat that.

This is a big week for game companies around New England: The PAX East expo takes place this weekend at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Many local companies, including The Tap Lab, Fire Hose Games, Demiurge Studios, Turbine (Warner Bros.), and Harmonix, will be demonstrating their games at the convention. We’ll be watching to see what the buzz is all about.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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