Game Over?

By Michael Fitzgerald | Boston Magazine |

Some local talent has already been snatched away. In April former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling and his company, 38 Studios, decamped for Rhode Island in exchange for $75 million in loan guarantees. The company has high hopes for the February 2012 debut of its role-playing game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Schilling has promised his new home state that he’ll employ 450 people by the end of next year, a 50 percent increase from his current workforce of 300.

In an effort to keep from losing still more companies, state Representative Vincent Pedone (D-Worcester) proposed new legislation in October to provide employment tax credits to the video-gaming industry. Before crafting his bill, Pedone says, he spent 18 months talking with the governor, university leaders, and local video-game executives. “I think that we as a commonwealth should look at investing in this industry, because this has the potential of being this generation’s biotechnology.” At this point, his bill is still in committee.

IN A CUBICLE DECORATED
with the kind of aphorisms usually reserved for the horoscope column (“A thrilling time is in your future”), Ralph Shao pulls out his iPhone and gives it a tap. A cartoon skyline and the words “TapCity” pop up on the skyline. He taps again and I’m looking at a map of Main Street in Kendall Square. But the buildings look weird: I see a couple of igloos, several castles, and a skyscraper. I glance out the sixth-floor window of One Cambridge Center, where Shao and I are sitting in what’s called the TechStars business incubator, but I don’t see any castles.

The cartoon buildings on the screen represent various types of “development” in what just may be the future of Boston’s video-gaming community. Shao, at 23, is chief technology officer of the Tap Lab, a Boston gaming startup he cofounded with his fellow 2009 Boston University grad Dave Bisceglia, who at 24 is the CEO. Their game, TapCity, blends Google Maps, Foursquare, and Monopoly: You check into a property, like your office, favorite coffee shop, or Fenway Park, just as you would with Foursquare. From there, you earn digital currency, which lets you “buy” properties, collect rent, and develop them, just like in Monopoly. Instead of just houses and hotels, though, you’re able to create 15 different types of buildings — including castles to defend your property from takeover attempts.

Shao taps the screen again to launch an attack on one of the castles, which happens to be the TechStars office we’re sitting in. He recruits friends to help him, but he’s not optimistic — the owner’s defenses include a blast door, a force field, a security camera, a SWAT team, and ninjas. Shao’s best weapon is a crowbar, but what he really needs is a Trojan Horse, an unruly mob, or a lawyer.

His business partner, Bisceglia, acknowledges that the game seems unorthodox, and maybe sophomoric. Unsurprisingly, it came out of a project the two started in college. “I grew up in the neighborhood playing capture the flag,” he says. “We’re looking at how we could make that gameplay work with mobile devices.”

Silly or not, TapCity has potential. Bisceglia and Shao are “at the forefront of the next stage of innovative gaming,” says Nabeel Hyatt, who in addition to being their adviser is the general manager of Zynga Boston, which in September launched the hit Facebook game Adventure World. “Location-based mobile games — a lot of people feel there are amazing amounts of opportunity there,” Hyatt says.