With Tiny Tycoons, The Tap Lab Leads New Charge of Boston Game Studios

3/21/13Follow @gthuang

[Updated with game trailer, 2:05 pm] That sound you hear is a dozen or more independent studios churning out new games around town. The games are mostly for the mobile-social set, and they are mostly free to play, with an emphasis on attracting and retaining users. They make money through a combination of advertising, virtual goods, and other strategies. This, it seems, is the future of gaming.

On the eve of the PAX East expo in Boston, every respectable studio is getting its ducks and avatars in a row. That would include Proletariat (led by ex-Zynga Boston employees), Owlchemy Labs, Dejobaan Games, Disruptor Beam, LuckyLabs, Zapdot, and many others.

One of the young leaders of the movement is The Tap Lab, which started in 2009-2010 and went through the TechStars Boston and MassChallenge accelerator programs. The 10-person startup is based in the Twine Building near Kendall Square, Cambridge, which is also home to the Intrepid Labs co-working space and the Indie Game Collective (a pretty interesting group of developers).

The Tap Lab is releasing its new location-based game today, called Tiny Tycoons, on the iOS App Store. If you’re familiar with the company’s previous games (Tap City and Tap City 2), the new one is a pretty natural extension. The idea is “Monopoly in the real world,” except now the “real world” includes virtual travel and a bunch of other features. Got that?

I’ll let the gaming press discuss the finer details of the game-play, but basically you have an avatar, which you can customize (see image below); you travel around the world buying up properties like hotels, bars, and restaurants, hiring staff (your friends), and building up your virtual businesses and personalizing them; and you can buy and sell properties to other players. The goal is to progress up the various levels of the business ladder, from big shot to baron or magnate, say.

What seems fun about the game, besides the cute graphics, is that players can escape the drudgery of real life and travel to virtual versions of Paris or Tokyo or Sydney, say, and try to build up empires there. Or just pass through different towns and scope out the offerings (see game trailer below). Plus there’s a lot of strategy involved—having to do with resource management, when to buy or sell, and so forth.

Location-based mobile games have been around for a number of years, but there hasn’t been a runaway hit yet. The Tap Lab, of course, hopes this will be it. But it also recognizes that it’s part of a bigger wave of mobile games that provide “bite-size consumable content you can pull out on a regular basis,” says CEO Dave Bisceglia (pictured at top).

Coming soon to Tiny Tycoons will be booster packs of content around featured destinations and landmarks worldwide, as well as additional content around specific types of venues such as entertainment and music clubs. And new ways to make physical proximity a factor, thereby tying real-world location more tightly to the game.

To me, The Tap Lab and its new game are interesting because they are part of something much bigger. For one thing, mobility seems to be the engine that will drive the broader gaming industry out of the doldrums of the recession. And conversely, gaming will continue to push mobile techies and business experts to innovate around new models—whether it’s chipsets, graphics packages, user interfaces, virtual currencies, or new kinds of ads. (Note: of the 10 to 15 top-grossing iOS apps, all but Pandora are games.)

As for virtual worlds and their eventual impact, it’s still very early days. But a new generation of gamers (and kids in general) is growing up with an alternate digital reality in their pockets at all times. How that will affect society and business is anyone’s guess.

“We’ve created a game engine and mapping system that allows us to render the world in a unique and compelling way,” Bisceglia says. “This is the first game on that platform.”

Which means there’s plenty more to come, from The Tap Lab and other companies, so we’ll stay tuned to this fascinating sector.

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. Follow @gthuang

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