Text-Enabled Scavenger Hunt Offers A Novel Way To Explore Your City

Text-Enabled Scavenger Hunt Offers A Novel Way To Explore Your City

PSFK spoke about the Future Of Gaming with the founder of Stray Boots, a company that offers interactive, cell phone-guided tours.

Timothy Ryan, PSFK Labs
  • 31 october 2011

The PSFK consulting team has noticed that brands and organizations are creating scavenger hunts, which leverage the GPS capabilities of mobile phones, as an entertaining way to deepen engagement, creating unique experiences which can inform, motivate and reward players for their efforts.

One company operating in this space is Stray Boots–a New York City-based start-up that facilitates urban exploration and educational experiences through mobile-powered scavenger hunts. Users sign up for interactive tours in any one of thirteen cities available and receive challenges sent directly to their cell phones via text messages. Players discover interesting facts about their city while completing challenges which require some investigation to determine the correct answer. Players earn points for learning interesting facts about their immediate surroundings on a self-paced tour intended to make learning enjoyable. PSFK spoke with the founder of Stray Boots, Avi Millman.

Please provide a brief introduction about yourself and your company.

My name is Avi Millman. I’m the founder of Stray Boots, a company that offers interactive, cell phone-guided tours of major US and international cities. As an alternative to traditional walking tours and bus tours, our scavenger hunt-style games take you to the city’s coolest spots in a far more engaging way than traditional tours, and they do so completely at your own pace.

Please tell us about Stray Boots. What is the idea and goal behind the game?

The idea and goal behind Stray Boots is quite simple: to make exploring your city more fun, engaging, and flexible. Traditional tours have you following around a guide with a bunch of strangers, listening to a history lecture about what used to be here and there, being tugged along at a predetermined pace. In our tours, you merely play a game, and in the process you explore the city and learn about it. Here’s a quick rundown of how they work: you receive challenges on your own cell phone that take you to hand-picked spots around an area of the city; for every challenge you complete, you send the answer to a question; when you get an answer right, you earn points and learn fun facts about the area; if you have trouble, you can ask for a hint or skip a question. What’s more, the experience is completely at your own pace, so you can stop at any point just to take a break, grab a snack, or check out something that interests you along the way.

As an avid traveler, I noticed that most tours and guidebooks make your exploration far too passive an experience. By turning your tour into a game, we involve you in the entire experience, interacting with the environment around you. The interactivity of the experience, makes it more engaging, enjoyable, and even more memorable, as you’ll be able to recall the places you visited and things you learned along the way. Moreover, the “gamification” of tours makes them extremely accessible for younger generations, raised on video games and inseparable from their mobile devices. Our tours take advantage of that, delivering an interesting, educational tour through a more fun, accessible medium.


What has been the audience reaction? Can you share any stats around user engagement?

Reception so far has been fantastic and in many ways surprising. For instance, when we developed our first tours in New York, we anticipated most of our customers would be tourists visiting the city, since my experience as a tourist was what had initially sparked the idea for Stray Boots. However, we soon found that there was huge interest among local residents for our product. In fact, at least half of our customers are locals, who do our tours as dates, family outings, birthdays, and tons of other non-sightseeing-related activities. Case in point, when we ran a Groupon deal this spring, we sold over 2500 tickets in 24 hours, almost all to NY metro area customers.

It turns out people don’t just want to turn sightseeing into a game, they also want to turn other aspects of their lives into games as well. We’ve gotten requests for and have developed special games to cater to corporate team building, class trips, bachelorette parties, wedding proposals, and more. It seems like for every event in life someone wants to make it a game, and we’re there helping them make that happen. Perhaps this should be as no surprise, given the popularity of reality-TV shows that have essentially applied game-show dynamics to real world challenges, from “The Amazing Race” and “Survivor” to “The Bachelor” and “Hell’s Kitchen.”

As far as reception to our tours, we were also surprised to find the demographics to be broader than initially anticipated. We thought the sweet spot would be the young professionals crowd, of which I’m a part, who grew up playing Super Mario Bros and NBA Jam. But we’ve actually discovered that our tours are quite popular among families looking for a fun way to show their kids around town without their losing interest, as well as older groups of adults who are looking for something to spice things up. Throughout our product development, we’ve made a focus on maintaining simplicity of gameplay, and I believe that has something to do with the broad appeal we’re finding. Our tours are easy to get the hang of, and rely on simple game dynamics, not futuristic graphics or a complex story, for their appeal, the same way that Tetris and Jeopardy do.

This positive reception is what sparked our recent geographic expansion. Throughout last year, we received emails from customers who had done our tours in NYC, asking us when they’d be able to play in their hometown. This suggested to me that the supply and prevalence of “reality-based” games was still lagging dramatically behind demand. And as we’ve expanded to other other cities, we’ve found that to be the case, and have found customer response to be as positive as it was in New York. In fact, all of our tours around the country get 4.5-5 star ratings on Yelp and TripAdvisor. As a result, we’ve continued to expand, and now Stray Boots tours are available in 13 cities around the US, and will be available in the UK in November.

We have noticed that brands and organizations are creating scavenger hunts, which leverage the GPS capabilities of mobile phones, as an entertaining way to deepen engagement, creating unique experiences which can inform, motivate and reward players for their efforts. Do you see this trend manifesting on a larger scale?

Absolutely, this is a trend that’s growing and will continue to gain momentum. The amazing things about game dynamics are how “sticky” they are, from three perspectives. First, games are fun. Doing a scavenger hunt to find a Dodge Journey, as the company encouraged the US public to do in Sept 2011, is a far more fun activity than reading a magazine ad about the car. It’s likely to attract more participation. Second, if you play a game, you’re more likely to remember the subject matter of the game, than if you just read, watched, or listened to the same subject matter. The interactivity of it requires a certain amount of learning and that makes it more memorable. Thus, someone doing the Journey scavenger hunt is more likely to remember the car’s features–if learning about the features is an element of the hunt–than they would otherwise by watching a TV commercial about the car. Third is the emotional investment that games entail. As anyone who’s played any game can tell you, whether the game is Monopoly, Halo, poker, or a crossword puzzle, people get emotionally invested in the experience and its goal, whether it’s finishing the puzzle, beating your younger sibling, or reaching the next level. Dodge is potentially forging an emotional connection with customers by involving them in a game. Moreover, by working game dynamics into things like customer loyalty programs (as SCVNGR enables with its LevelUp program), companies are using those same levers to make people emotionally driven to reach the next level of customer loyalty, and thus buy more stuff. McDonald‘s annual Monopoly sweepstakes is a great early example of this, as you keep buying french fries until you finally get that one property you need to win the X-box (or, as is more often the case, you don’t win the X-box).

What other trends within or around gaming have you noticed?

What I find intriguing is the monetization strategy of various gaming platforms and concepts. In old media, you had to pay-to-play whether it was a board game, computer game, or whatever. Now, though, there are all sorts of amazing monetization strategies involved with the various new media through which the games are delivered. Companies like Foursquare and SCVNGR make their games free to users, and get revenue from businesses for participation. Meanwhile, Zynga and other computer game companies are charging customers for virtual goods within their games, and given customers’ emotional involvement, they’re finding people are willing to pay. The app world has also opened up a “freemium” game market where you can get a free version or free taste of a game, but have to pay more for the whole thing. And finally, there are still the games, such as Wii games or Stray Boots tours (call me old-fashioned), that still rely on a pay-to-play retail model. I’m fascinated by all of these strategies and whether they can coexist in the long-term or whether one or a couple will win out.

Thanks Avi!

Stray Boots


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