Google’s Niantic Labs has been experimenting with an augmented-reality, mobile-only game for nearly a year. And now the experience, Ingress, is about to formally launch on Dec. 14.
Augmented-reality games overlay a fictional virtual environment atop the real world, and Ingress is a step into a future where augmented reality is common and playable across wearable computing devices like Google Glass. Ingress links to real-world meetup events that are then reflected back in the game’s fiction.
As soon as its 39-city global player event, dubbed Operation #13MAGNUS, finishes, Ingress will exit its public beta. The live events have occurred in more than 80 cities and people have downloaded the conspiracy-style game more than 1 million times.
John Hanke, vice president in charge of Niantic Labs, said in an interview with GamesBeat, “Gaming and real-life meetups are really coming together. I can’t say we predicted how popular the live meetups would be.” He added, “We didn’t anticipate the degree to which people would go to live events to meet people they didn’t already know. The game is a social icebreaker.”
As of today, Google will switch from an invitation-only setup to welcoming all Android players into the experience. Players can now freely download Ingress from the Google Play Store. Niantic, an autonomous division within Google, is also announcing a one-time badge, the Founder Medal, for all players that reach level five by Dec.14.
From Nov. 4 to Dec. 14, players can participate in the Ingress Elite V challenge. The contest will identify the top five most elite Agents (what Ingress calls its participants) from around the world. Ingress performance stats and creative social-media submissions will determine the winners. Those Agents will visit Google’s Niantic Labs for secret Ingress briefings in February of next year, and they will participate in a special interview with the game’s faux TV show host, Susanna Moyer from The Ingress Report (a weekly YouTube program).
Hanke said that the company spent the past year getting its technical infrastructure right, so people could play the game without annoyances such as slow response times.
“For a while, demand outran us,” Hanke said. “That’s behind us now. … The game has matured a lot. The communications and the things you can do have changed a lot in the last 11 months.”
The sci-fi element comes in with the ability to pretend you’re in an alternate reality. You can act like a secret agent with a heads-up display (especially using Google Glass) where you can see virtual overlays on the real world. You can pick up items like shields, weapons, and power-ups and use them to capture or defend portals. Your aim is to take over as much territory as possible around the world. You can only do that through massive teamwork.
The meetups center on battles that take place at public monuments, which are portals between worlds in the sci-fi story behind the game.
In the game, one faction dubbed the Enlightened has identified portals to an alternate universe at public sculptures and wants to know more about what they might mean. But another faction dubbed the Resistance is wary of them, especially the “mind hacking” that happens around the locations.
The two sides do battle with each other via smartphone screens as well as desktop computers. On the desktop, you can see a bird’s-eye view of the battle and communicate with the players in the streets. You’re like an operator in the control center, dispatching commands.
If you get near a portal, you can hack it in order to take it over for your side and benefit from the energy concentrated around it. That energy has an influence on human minds and is a spark for our creativity.
That means that Ingress has become less of a hardcore-fanboy title and more welcoming to a broader audience, said Hanke said.
During the beta, Niantic added features such as remotely recharging portals, and it improved personal profiles. So far, Hanke is proudest about how the game encourages people to work together.
“It’s so much fun to do the live events, walking around in a city,” Hanke said. “It’s almost like an e-sport gamer event, where people strongly identify with their teams. After that part is over, it becomes very social at the live events.”
Niantic is now intentionally using the live events to advance the story and generate more interest in the game. And the Ingress Report picks up on the news from these gatherings and relays it to the larger audience.
At the start of Operation #13MAGNUS, an “XM entity” known as Roland Jarvis shattered into 13 pieces. These shards scattered throughout the world. Now, Enlightened Agents must reunite them in order resurrect their leader. Resistance Agents will be seeking to destroy the shards and rid the world of Jarvis forever.
People are playing Ingress in more than 200 countries with live events driving interest and giving players the chance to meet each other for the first time. The Ingress fiction has spread across two e-books, a comic-book series, and the aforementioned Ingress Report.
“The game is almost more like a social network,” Hanke said, and that fits with Google’s own ambitions.
“We see ourselves as a platform company,” he said. “The idea behind Ingress is to understand the space of mobile social-location games and what it means for the future of Android, Google Glass, and game developers.
Google has more appreciation for games, partly because of the social experience it is getting from them.
“The platform is the long-term strategy,” Hanke said. “I like to think that we are broadening the definition of what a game is with these augmented-reality games.”
The player activity is impressive. Agents have created more than 2,000 Ingress communities on social networks. Creative designs have emerged for shirts, badges, jewelry, and other objects. More than a dozen Agents have tattooed the Ingress logos on their bodies.
The remaining live player events will happen in the following cities: Nov. 16 in Dallas, Texas and Vienna, Austria. Dec. 7 in Phoenix, Ariz. and Rome, Italy. Dec. 14 in San Francisco and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Hanke said the storyline has a lot more things to come, but at some point, the game will come to a satisfying conclusion.
The autonomous Niantic Labs in Google’s San Francisco office created Ingress as well as teams in Los Angeles and Mountain View, Calif. It includes members of the teams that created Google Earth, Maps, and Street View. It’s one of the games that you can play using Google Glass, but it works on any Android smartphone.
The name Niantic refers to a whaling ship that docked in San Francisco Bay and became a hotel. It is now nothing but a historical landmark at the site of the Transamerica Pyramid in the city. The name Ingress refers to the entrance into our dimension.
The project is features the same “adventures on foot” theme that Google started with Hanke’s Field Trip app for Android. In that app, you receive notifications about places of historic interest on your smartphone as you pass by them. Hanke founded Keyhole, an Earth-visualization technology that Google bought and used as the basis for Google Earth.
Entertainment franchises like the television series Lost inspired Ingress. The project encourages movement, and it makes people strike up conversations with total strangers, who might or might not know about the game.
The title is free to play, and Niantic is experimenting with a sponsorship model. For instance, it worked with the Jamba Juice smoothie chain to make its stores into portals. In New York City, the Duane Reade pharmacies are portals. Ingress is already pre-installed on phones like the Droid Ultra, and the players who use it will have access to a power-up known as the Ultra Strike.