Gbanga Makes Berlin an Offer It Can’t Refuse

By David Knight |

The mafia meets startups – Gbanga Famiglia is a mixed-reality game where players roam the real world picking up points, taking over ‘territory’ and trying to become the Godfather of their neighbourhood. Based in Zurich, the company has now arrived in Berlin and has joined forces with startups to drive the localisation of the game.

And players can even pick up ‘superpowers’ from the startups, be it super vision from EyeQuest, magic glasses from or even babysitting for the (virtual) kids from to allow the adults build their in-game Family.

The game features quests and basic features like conquering territory such as restaurants and bars and collecting virtual goods spread across the city like diamonds and whiskey. It is reminiscent of FourSquare – the personal battle to become Mayor by going somewhere more often.

And the key to making Famiglia a success, according to Gbanga CEO and co-founder Matthias Sala, is adding the crucial local element. He told Silicon Allee: “It needs to be more interesting for the locals, and that’s why we were looking for startups that have interesting products that we could feature in the game. The player is a mafioso who’s trying to take over the startups.”

After launching in their Swiss base, Gbanga is now looking to expand internationally and Berlin was the obvious choice. The idea to use startups has already proved a success in Zurich, according to Matthias: “There were people showing up at the offices of the startups just to meet them because they had read about them in the game and thought, cool, I didn’t know that this particular company is just next to the bus stop where I am everyday. So there are a lot of cool things that can come out of this.”

The phrase that repeatedly came up during the conversation was critical mass – the tricky aspect of location-based services, Matthias explained, is that you not only need global critical mass, but also a local equivalent: “Foursquare has that, but I see Foursquare more as an informational service, discovery of stuff, whereas Gbanga is a game where, because it’s not a utility software, you could actually also simulate the local critical mass with things like pop up non-player characters and automated robot players, so it feels as if it’s filled. But still, the content would be better if it is genuinely local.”

Taking Over Neighbourhoods

Other startups involved in Berlin include second-screen app TunedIn, where players must find a TV set and follow the Get Diamonds Every Day show to receive a daily reward for a week, and Urbany, a travel app which enables players to take over neighbourhoods by sending opponent bouncers away.

In addition, there is 7Moments, a private online photo album service whose in-game photo gives users points every time they share it, as well as streaming portal Rdio which enables players to take over nearby ‘cells’ with speakers.

So what’s in it for these startups? Matthias said: “Of course, they are naturally interested in trying out new things, especially with marketing and advertising, and it was early on so we had created this product that was easy for them to integrate. It was a no-brainer for them. They only had to provide us with a little bit of information so it didn’t involve a lot of work. And it’s interesting for them to explore new possibilities – if you’re a startup that doesn’t have anything to do with games, you can integrate an element of gamification very easily.”

The main challenge for Gbanga now is to entice people to start the playing game in the first place. The rise and fall of virtual world Second Life provides an example of how difficult this can be: “PR is not going to bring you to a critical mass in terms of actual players. That probably didn’t happen with Second Life either. Everyone knew about it but nobody played it. There was a lot of hype, it was everywhere. In Switzerland all the newspapers wrote about it but nobody was actually in it.”

The game is currently available in iOS, with an HTML5 version in development, and being featured in the App Store is one way of raising awareness about the product. Another is through invitation, and despite the lack of localised content, there are some surprising communities of players in far-flung places. Matthias added: “People invite their friends in so they’re not alone in the game, and that’s what we see for example in Tokyo. There are people who speak English there who play our game, because we haven’t translated in into Japanese yet. But they started playing and then began asking all their friends to join them.”

They must have made their friends an offer they couldn’t refuse…