Backed By Star Investors, Red Robot Labs Debuts on Android With RPG Life is Crime

By Kim-Mai Cutler Comment

As the Android gaming landscape heats up, a new company backed by pedigreed investors and talent from Playdom and Electronic Arts is throwing its hat into the ring.

Red Robot Labs is launching a mafia-themed, role-playing game called Life is Crime on Android. It’s a location-enabled game where players can compete in real life to own the territory and venues around them.

The company has well-known industry investors with funding from Playdom’s co-founder Rick Thompson and Facebook’s former vice president of user growth Chamath Palihapitiya. It also has experienced talent through its co-founders Mike Ouye, who ran monetization efforts for Playdom and Crowdstar, Pete Hawley, who was a vice president of product development at Electronic Arts and co-founded the EA2D label and John Harris.

The Palo Alto-based company is attacking a promising idea that has yet to bear real fruit. Many companies have tried to do location-meets-social gaming on smartphones like Booyah and CrowdMob, but we’ve yet to see a title take off. Finland’s Shadow Cities is another notable company that’s attacking the midcore market with this concept.

“This game is about dominating a region and the places you frequent the most — that Wells Fargo Bank or that Starbucks,” Ouye said. “The technology we’ve built is a geo-gaming index based on people’s play.”

In the game, when players arrive at a location, they can do missions like commit crimes, leave or pick up contraband, rob tourists, pick-pocket hipsters or leave graffiti. The more tasks they do, the more they build their reputations in the game. They can climb up the regional hierarchy to rule their local mob, moving up from being a street thug to a gang-banger. After that are roles like being a hit man, the mob boss’ right-hand man or being the mob boss himself.

Users play for real locations, like how Booyah’s MyTown turned local venues into places on a Monopoly board. Red Robot was particular about the kinds of locations they included in the game; they wanted common location types that players could control like train stations, coffee shops and restaurants.

“We just wanted 12 really simple categories of places that were based around people’s routines,” Hawley said.

Players can also battle each other. They can check out other players who are at the same location to see their statistics, reputation and attack and defense abilities. Then they can decide whether to fight them.

While there are plenty of mafia-themed RPGs, namely Storm8’s iMobsters, the caliber of art in Life is Crime and the design of the virtual economy in the game is sophisticated compared to what’s currently available on the Android platform. Players can pick up and leave cash at various real-world locations, called contraband, for their friends to pick up.

The reputation system is also designed so that there’s some balance between experienced players and brand-new ones. A powerful player, for example, will lose reputation if they intentionally beat up or bully novice players too much. Weaker players can also band together and start competing against more powerful players.

Like many other smartphone RPGs, Life is Crime monetizes through the sale of virtual goods and currency. There are about 160 items in the game like weapons and clothing that players can buy to customize their avatars.

There are also social features that let players follow what their real and virtual friends and enemies are doing on a real-time basis. It’s also part of what Red Robot is calling the R2 Gaming Network — which looks the basis of a future platform play for the company — a sort of OpenFeint or Papaya model that’s yet to come.

So the big challenge for creating a location-enabled social game is the launch. It’s difficult enough to acquire users for a brand new RPG from a brand new company. Adding location creates another dimension of difficulty since the experience might not be seeded from day one for new players.

But Red Robot is taking a careful approach with a slow rollout. They’re launching the game city by city in smaller, but dense metropolitan environments like Seattle and San Francisco. They’re also staging the launch around events like Penny Arcade Expo where they can have masses of early adopters try it all out at once.

Players can also do battles in distant locations, like how the Finnish location-enabled RPG Shadow Cities lets players fight anywhere. But in Life is Crime, this is where the game’s complex reputation system comes in. The farther a player fights from where they currently are or where their home turf is, the weaker their reputation becomes in those distant battles.

The company’s also planning a few more launches this year on both iOS and Android. It’s also building geo-layer underneath Life is Crime in such a way that it can be used for third-party apps too.