Location based games like Foursquare and Gowalla are very popular and can be addictive! There are differences in the game play of each of the different location based games and there is no reason why you can't play them all at the same time. The only thing that would stop you from playing all the different games is taking the time to check in to 10 different services every time you walk into a store.
While there are many to choose from, the most popular ones are Foursquare, Gowalla and a newcomer, SCVNGR. These location based games are usually played by using GPS enabled smartphones, but some of them also work through WiFi location mapping. This allows you to play with an iPod Touch or other devices that have WiFi, but not a GPS receiver.
Playing location based games like Foursquare can be fun for the player, but there is a hidden side to these games that needs to be pointed out. Businesses love location based games too! This is because location based games bring customers to their venues. Many businesses are making deals with the game creators to offer special discounts for people who frequent the locations because of the game. This is certainly not bad for the consumer since the venua usually offers incentives for you to play.
Here is a listing of the top 3 location based games and what makes them distinct from one another.
Foursquare allows you to check in using their app on a smartphone. You can check in at venues to earn daily points and to compete with your friends in weekly competitions. You earn badges for checking in to certain locations multiple times, or certain types of locations. For example checking in while on a boat you will earn the "I'm on a boat!" badge. Checking in from 3 locations with a photo booth in them (usually airports) will earn you the "Photogenic" badge.
One of the most common things you hear players of Foursquare talk about is mayorships. The person who checks in most often over the course of 2 months will become the mayor of that location. Sometimes venues will give you special discounts, or freebies, for being the current Mayor. This encourages multiple visits for checking in resulting in more sales for the location.
Foursquare started by only allowing checkins from locations that they put into the database. Therefore if you didn't live in one of the large cities where they started their service, you were not allowed to play. Later they opened it up so that the users could add locations to the service. It is now available anywhere in the world that you can think to create a checkin spot.
Gowalla started from the beginning allowing anyone to check in from anywhere. This is probably what forced Foursquare to open up their game to other locations. Gowalla rolled out with a much nicer user interface and seemed to make a huge initial splash on the location based games scene.
The game play has you competing for stamps. Many of these stamps are beautifully created icons. As far as eye candy, this game is much more appealing than Foursquare. You earn stamps by visiting locations, just like in Foursquare. Some of the locations are specialty places such as Cloudgate (the Shiny Bean) in Chicago. Just by checking in there I got a stamp with a picture of the bean. You also earn a new stamp for checking in while in different states and in some different countries.
Beyond checking in, you can find virtual items at different locations. You then drop those items at other locations to become a Founder of the location, or you can trade with items that are already at the location. It is fun to go to the Gowalla website and see where those items have previously been. Sometimes Gowalla does marketing deals with locations or retailers who will offer a real product for free when you find the virtual product in the game.
When playing SCVNGR, you get a small number of points for a basic checkin, but much larger number of points for checking in with a group of friends who are also playing. Even more points are available by doing an activity that may be location specific. The whole idea is to get you and others into the venue having fun and buying goods and services.
SCVNGR has really marketed themselves to the host locations more than the individual players. If you are lucky enough to find a venue that has made a deal with SCVNGR you could earn yourself free food or big discounts on products. These are usually based on completing a certain number of challenges and earning points.
Because SCVNGR is venue-centric instead of player-centric, the players are not able to create their own locations like they can with Gowalla or Foursquare.
There are other location based games like Facebook Places and Whrrl, among others. These other location based games have not excited me as much as Foursquare, Gowalla and SCVNGR.
Which one will come out the winner in the location based services market? I don't know that any of them need to come out on top. They all have their own game playing style. If I have to limit my checkins to just one, I usually choose Gowalla because I love picking up the items and dropping them off in other places. However, Foursquare seems to be the giant pushing the location based gaming genre of smartphone apps. I have not been able to earn any points towards free stuff on SCVNGR yet because they don't have any "deals" worked out in my location. But maybe some day, if I end up getting a free Dr Pepper because of SCVNGR, I will get much more excited about using it.
If you have an iPhone or an Android phone, get out there and play a location based game or two. Choose from these or look for another location based game that you enjoy playing.