The Cambridge, Massachusetts, headquarters of the game company Scvngr (pronounced scavenger) is a hand-me-down from the French phone company Orange–a lavish custom-built affair with bamboo gardens and a “war room” equipped with moving walls. This is also where Google’s Android platform was later conceived. Now the workspace belongs to Seth Priebatsch, the 21-year-old “chief ninja” of Scvngr, a startup that aims “to build a game layer on top of the world.” The hyperkinetic entrepreneur informs me that people can get points in a Scvngr game by climbing onto the roof of the building and leaping over the bamboo canes. He’s done it.
Amidst such silliness, Priebatsch hopes he’s found a business model that will finally unleash the marketing power of the smart phones that hundreds of millions of people now carry everywhere. If you download the company’s app, available for both iPhone and Android, you’ll see a whole list of such dares, ranging from difficult athleticism to more modest stunts–like making an origami figure out of a tinfoil burrito wrapper. “There is real value to engaging with a place–to playing with a place and having fun, to building a type of experience that you can’t get with any other type of social media,” says Priebatsch, who founded Scvngr while he was a freshman at Princeton.
Companies in the Boston area are piloting Scvngr to see whether it can get customers to engage with their products in new ways. For example, the car-sharing service Zipcar is “challenging” users to find new pick-up locations and snap pictures of themselves posed next to the vehicles. Besides earning rewards, the users learn where they can pick up Zipcars. “We’re hoping for a deeper connection to the Zipcar brand, and we want folks to have a little fun,” says Rob Weisberg, the company’s chief marketing officer. “Our members are tech-savvy and highly engaged in the social space. We want to play where they play.”
City Sports, another brand trying Scvngr, has similar goals. “Here at City Sports we’re all about creating a store atmosphere that is both inviting and exciting for our customers,” says Rob Wittmann, the retailer’s director of integrated marketing. City Sports is using the game to challenge customers to find products in particular arrays of colors. Wittmann adds that he hopes Scvngr will open customers’ eyes to new products inside the stores.
Scvngr also has a deal with the shoe retailer Journeys, which offers a 10 percent discount to people who get a certain number of points completing challenges at a Journeys location–such as snapping a photo of the store’s smallest shoe (see video).
Scvngr is one of a new crop of apps that rely on the location knowledge built into smart phones. But while others, like Foursquare, place users on a map and enable them to “check in” at specified places, Scvngr’s game takes matters a step further. If other players have been there, they may have left behind challenges, which the user can complete for points. After visiting a location enough times, users earn the right to create their own challenges.
Scvngr relies on principles of game dynamics that Priebatsch has gleaned from reading hundreds of academic research papers and doing his own experiments. Why, for instance, do players of games such as Tetris get so obsessed with reaching the next level?