The world’s first “connected reality” game, Qurius (pronounced “curious”), released in a stealth beta earlier this month on Android and had over 62,000 installs in one day. That’s quite a feat for a game that, so far, hasn’t had much if any marketing effort behind it. It just goes to show how innovative gameplay can still help games stand out in an ever-crowded mobile space.

Connected reality is a term that developer, icejam is using to describe how Qurius connects with real world data and social connections to create a dynamic game experience. The game collects local weather information from all its players and turns them into gems, which can be cultivated and spent on constructing different buildings. These buildings vary according to the weather, which adds to the sense of discovery as players grow and explore the 3D world and help the indigenous life flourish.

The game reflects the player’s celestial events (such as moon phases) and local weather, no matter where they are, to influence the game, but additional gems from around the world can be acquired by growing special trees that come from meteors that intermittently rain down on players’ lands. The trick is, they have no control over what kinds of weather tree gems will arrive. So, while building a snow town in the middle of summer is possible, it depends on a lot of luck. Players can purchase additional meteors, trees or special decorations, but they too are random.

Stuart Duncan, CEO and founder of icejam, is the former director of EA Mobile Studios and founder of Bight Games, one of the first free-to-play mobile game studios. He helped conceive, develop and produce The Simpsons: Tapped Out, which has over $130 million in life-to-date digital net revenue, and has been in the top-20-grossing iPhone games in the US for all except 12 days since its launch in 2012.

Duncan explains that the company’s goal is to create mobile games driven by real world data because it’s more fun for players, and it increases engagement by providing a constantly changing environment in which to play. He recently spoke with [a]listdaily about connected reality and how it could be the next big innovation in mobile gaming.

Stuart Duncan, icejam CEO and founder

Qurius seems to employ a very high-concept kind of gameplay. How do you think mobile gamers will take to it?

It’s high-concept, but honestly, it’s a mass market-wide proposition in what we think is a friendly and unique IP. We turned on globally on Android and got 62,000 installs, and that’s all organic. We think the appeal is there, and even if half of those people uninstall, just the idea of it can capture the imagination.

What inspired the creation of a weather-based mobile game?

I’ve been in the games business since 1996, and I came from a conceptual art background, dealing with how audiences related to interactive art installations. So, some of my early work was on data-driven art. Twenty years later, we have supercomputers in our pocket, and users understand real-time data in a way that they never have before. In fact, not only do we understand it, the regular Joe on the street has an expectation of real-time information now. This was never the case before.

So, we have an educated audience, we have a technical capability, and we have a wide availability of cloud-based data. For us, it’s a confluence of these things that makes it the right time to do this kind of work. We think the interesting thing in the success of Pokémon GO is not augmented reality—that’s a red herring—it was a mass market acceptance of a data-driven experience. An experience related to one’s location.

Platforms have been predicting the success of location-based gaming for the last ten years, and it never happened, and there are lots of potential reasons for that. But we think it’s because it required users to be in a certain place in order to play, and what Pokémon GO understood is that a user needs to be able to be anywhere and still have the benefit of that enhanced play. It’s the perception that their environment is making a difference. That kind of gameplay is a very good illustration of why our company exists.

In the future, we’ll be using pollution and tidal information, all of which is available.

Could a game like Qurius eventually include augmented reality features?

I guess it comes down to how we define augmented reality. If we use the definition of augmented reality as injecting the real world into the game experience, then it’s already augmented reality—just not visual. We call that tight integration connected reality to differentiate from augmented reality.

Augmented reality feels like a solution built by engineers to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. I think this is the nature of how many game studios are engineering driven, whereas we’re entertainment driven. We have some of the best engineers in the business working for us, but the drive is to create the experience and bring entertainment to the customers, not to do a technical puzzle. We’re not trying to unravel something that’s just cool, technically.

How does collecting weather foster deep engagement?

In my view, engagement follows re-engagement. What our game can do is give you a real world reason to take your phone out of your pocket. In effect, the world becomes your push notification system. If it’s getting dark, you play; if it’s dawn, you play; and if it’s getting cold, you play. We want these events to be cues to get back into the experience. The gameplay changes at night—the creatures go to sleep—so the rhythms of your life and environment will keep you playing, and we don’t want to be pushing bullshit notifications at our users.

How do the social features work? Can you only collect weather gems from friends or is there a public area?

It’s only public. You can’t collect from your friends. All the trees, which are portals to other players, come in a gacha (collection and growth gameplay). They come from the sky in a giant, fiery meteor strike, and when you crack them open, there’s a tree seed inside. That tree seed can come from anywhere in the world, so it could be completely useless to you. But if it is, you have the choice to grow it and increase its yield. Trees also naturally grow over time. So, you don’t connect with your friends on purpose, but you connect with people that you don’t know who have the weather you require.

Are there going to be more direct and deeper social aspects?

Yes. We deeply understand that this is a service we’re providing, and the service needs to evolve and grow, so we have features planned out for next two years. We’ll implement those features depending on who our players end up being. Right now, it’s too early to say who they are and what they want. So, we have ideas for everything from very deep social play to roguelike dungeon crawler features. We are ready to do what our players want, but always based on the concept that the world outside is the world inside.

More games are being treated as a service now. How do you compete in an environment where companies are trying to keep players engaged for years on end?

Well, it’s expensive to compete, but just like anything else, better products win. It comes down to the differentiation of your audience, who your customer is, and how well you serve them. We just have to do better than our competitors. Better means having a differentiator, and we obviously have that. And we have a wealth of experience from one of the top-ten-grossing games of all time on iOS, so we know how to keep delivering that content year-over-year, and that experiential base is a competitive advantage for us.


How have you been getting the word out about Qurius and spreading awareness of the game?

It doesn’t seem like we need to, with 62,000 installs. We’re trying to be stealth—we’re just in the beta program. I guess there’s a high latent demand, but I can’t explain it yet. We plan to launch worldwide in a couple of weeks, but we haven’t been doing much [marketing] at all—we’re just rushing to get the game finished.

What is the incentive for collecting sad, cold and rainy weather?

It rains in-game, and it’s a really weird but cool phenomenon to look at your game to see what the weather is like. But “sad” weather isn’t sad in the game. Rain creates a beautiful gem, just like any other kind of weather, and a rain town can only be completed with rain gems. If you’re the kind of person who wants to completely decorate and customize a rain village, then you need that weather. And if you live in LA, then you might need to get it through other people’s trees.