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Keynote speaker is game for SXSW

Omar L. Gallaga
ogallaga@statesman.com

Would you like to play a game?

Seth Priebatsch, "Chief Ninja" at Cambridge, Mass.-based SCVNGR, has two of them in store for attendees of his South by Southwest Interactive Festival opening keynote presentation, which he'll deliver today.

Though most keynotes at SXSWi typically involve a single speaker and some slides (like Zappos.com chief executive Tony Hsieh's talk on happiness in 2009) or an onstage interview (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's legendary train wreck with journalist Sarah Lacy in 2008), 22-year-old Priebatsch promises to break the format with a more participatory presentation.

"I do like to have a lot of fun, and I do like to have a lot of fun with the audience. It's either going to work and be one of the coolest joint experiences that anyone in the audience will have had … or fail gloriously," Priebatsch said. "It'll be epic either way."

From his "Chief Ninja" job title (he could also be called founder and CEO) to his company bio ("Seth Priebatsch was born in Boston, MA at the age of 7") to his cheery, hyper, completely convincing banter by phone, Priebatsch is part of a wave of online companies and Web executives who work humor and games into the fabric of what they do.

It worked for Groupon Inc., the online deals service that by some estimates could be worth $15 billion.

For SCVNGR, which started off as a location-based business app that Priebatsch developed as part of a business competition at Princeton, the mix of quirky and forward-looking is paying off. The service announced in February that it has passed a million users and on Thursday introduced a feature called "LevelUp" in Philadelphia and Boston.

SCVNGR in some ways resembles a mix of location services like Gowalla and Foursquare, where users check in at specific locations, but is heavily focused on what Priebatsch called a "gaming layer" that introduces elements of, say, video games into real-world interactions.

"This decade was the decade of social," he said. "The next decade is the decade for gaming."

With LevelUp, SCVNGR will work with merchants to reward repeat customers, cracking a problem that seems to affect daily deal and location-based sites that attract flocks of new customers to local businesses but doesn't give them enough reason to come back.

"We're trying to crack the science of loyalty for local business," he said. "We believe that (location-based services) and the local deals space are on a head-on collision course."

The potential on the business side for being one of the first companies to crack the code is huge, but Priebatsch is equally excited about the implications of video-game mechanics increasingly working their way into the real world. Points? Leveling up by completing challenges and earning achievements? Finding the (metaphoric) princess by completing a stage of a game that is spread out across your city?

The keynote will tie that in by example, he says: "It'll force everyone to experience this in a visceral way," Priebatsch said.

ogallaga@statesman.com; 445-3672

SXSW Interactive opening keynote presentation

Speaker: Seth Priebatsch

When: 2 p.m. today

Where: Ballroom D, Austin Convention Center, 500 E. Cesar Chavez St.

Information: Event open to registered attendees of SXSW Interactive Festival. Will also be live-streamed to the public at sxsw.com.