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CodeRunner chases the location-based dream

CodeRunner is quite an app, and I almost don't want to tell you what it is before you try it. In fact, let's not. Just go download it from the App Store and experience it for yourself first. It's US$2.99, but if you've been following location-based iPhone games, you'll find the price worth the experience.

Back? Great. Now we can actually talk about how this thing works.

CodeRunner is the work of three guys I met at GDC. One of them, Michael Ferraro, has a long history in traditional console game development. Ryan Chapman has a background in server engineering; Jeff Macpherson is perhaps better known as Dr. Tiki from the popular Tiki Bar TV web video series, and an experienced writer and video producer in general. As you can probably tell from their backgrounds, these guys know how to tell an interactive story, and CodeRunner is that story.

It's tough to explain here, which is why I hope you've played through the game already. Basically, CodeRunner uses your GPS location and connects it with a real map to put you and your iPhone in the middle of a conspiracy tale complete with spies, puzzles, and all sorts of wild twists and turns. The app is quite ingenious in how it inserts you in the middle of things. The team uses Google Maps to set up real-world locations for you to hunt down in your own neighborhood and very cleverly combines some vague video to convince you that what's happening on your phone is actually happening in the real world around you.

"The premise is really important" for the story to work, says Macpherson. "It really sets the tone." This trailer gives a good idea of how the game is set up. It's all very urgent, and Macpherson's background in quick and high-quality video certainly must have helped in the production of all the content that went into this app.

Unlike most location-based titles, it's not really social. The game itself (which runs around four to six hours, depending on how fast you move from mission to mission) guides you around the real world and tweaks your expectations of what's actually happening, like telling you there's a radiation leak in a certain area or that the building in front of you is really the secret headquarters of a terrorism cell. The question during production was all about "what can we do that you can't prove isn't happening," jokes Ferraro.

While I played the game I thought it would be a good idea to use it as exercise, but the team plays down that angle a little bit. "It's secretly an exercise app," says Chapman. The actual radius of the game is meant for just walking around, so you won't really have to run all over the city to play it. But the game does keep you moving, and if you are a runner, you could definitely run to a new part of town and replay the game there, with new landmarks to explore for missions.

Finally, once the main game is done, there are a series of "dead drops" that do encourage the social aspect. Players can hide what are essentially geocaches around the world, and the game will keep track of those and send other players to find them. CodeRunner isn't a geocaching app, per se, but it has its own system of drops for you to find if you want. Still, the "single-player" content means that even if you're not in the middle of a big city you'll still have things to do, even though it might be unlikely you'll find any other local players.

So far, the team is still waiting to see how the title does before offering any more updates, but if it's popular enough to justify some, they wouldn't mind putting some more "mission packs" together.

Until then, hopefully CodeRunner will get the audience it deserves. It's definitely an interesting experiment for the App Store, and it solves a lot of problems that many location-based titles on the platform have had in the past. I don't know if it quite lands on the idea of location-based gaming that a lot of developers have aimed for before, but CodeRunner is definitely worth a try and does a lot of things right.

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