John Hanke, the head of Google’s Niantic Labs mobile gaming division, isn’t your traditional game developer. At the Dice Summit in Las Vegas last week, he gave a talk about mobile games — and he seemed a bit out of place. Hanke is stretching the definition of a game with Ingress, a mobile-only experience which encourages players to go to live events (anomalies) where two factions can battle for control of a place in the real world. The title encourages gamers to socialize, exercise, and be more civic-minded by visiting public places.
Ingress, which now has 2 million registered users and formally launched after two years of testing, is blending the virtual world and the real world. The game uses smartphones, tablets, and eventually will work with devices like Google Glass. Ingress players are showing up at live events that are like “social icebreakers” for players, Hanke said.
While Ingress might appeal to the geek with a smartphone, Hanke wants to reach a broader audience. Niantic is also working on Endgame, a title that will be a game, movie, and book in collaboration with author James Frey and book publisher Harper Collins.
We caught up with Hanke at the Dice Summit. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Are you getting a feeling across to some of the traditional game developers?
Hanke: I think so. It takes a few times, two or three times, and then it starts getting through. Some of the old-timers in the industry have come up to me and said, “This is amazing. I totally get it. I want to work with you guys.” The people whose professional lives haven’t just been the most recent console era; the people who were back in the 8-bit days. They’ve seen changes. It seems like they get it more readily.
GamesBeat: It’s clearly a strong community there. You see pictures of people getting together at events.
Hanke: People like getting together and meeting other people, exactly. It’s social. It’s the same dynamic that you see driving a lot of social products out there, outside of games.
GamesBeat: What did you have here for the event? How did you organize this one?
Hanke: We had a mini-anomaly. That’s where we have an event and publicize it to the users. It affects which direction the story is going to go. In this case, it was a reveal of some important information. We opened it up, obviously, to Dice people. We had Android phones so that they could try it if they didn’t happen to have an Android. There was a strong local contingent of players. There were people who flew in from Hawaii and Seattle and other places.
GamesBeat: You had a newscaster come in.
Hanke: Susanna Moyer, yeah. Klue, who’s another important character in our world, she was also here interacting with people. Essentially, the event earned the Resistance faction – which won – a clue to the new chapter of the game that’s just starting, called Recursion. That’s our first-quarter 2014 season.
GamesBeat: It takes a lot of planning and preparation for all of these things. Is that where a lot of your energy is going within the team, making these events happen?
Hanke: We have people who put them on. It’s not my primary focus. We have a modest-sized marketing team that’s on the events. They can do other things, other kinds of marketing, but for us, the player events have been a great way to encourage the virality that’s already present in the game. It energizes the player base.
Our primary way of growing the base has been players recruiting other players themselves. We just try to encourage that.
GamesBeat: You had the big 13-city event.
Hanke: Yeah, last quarter, 13 Magnus.
GamesBeat: For 2014, are you doing more of the same, or planning different things?
Hanke: It’s similar. With 13 Magnus, the new twist was … did you see the presentation that we did yesterday? We put these 13 shards out all around the world, and people were trying to move them to San Francisco and Buenos Aires. That worked really well as far as driving planning and coordination and communication between people.
There’s a similar type of game that’s happening in Q1. That’s part of this Recursion theme. It has to do with an artificial intelligence that’s merging with a human and trying to achieve immortality.
GamesBeat: I think I heard a two-million figure now. Is that double what you had the last time you talked about numbers?
Hanke: We talked about a million. Now we’ve referenced two million.
GamesBeat: That seemed pretty quick, the ramp there.
Hanke: We had a really solid fourth quarter. But we also came out of beta. We were invite-only until Q4. We’ve definitely seen a spike. And then, hopefully, we’ll see another spike when we come out on iOS. That’s the next big thing for us.
GamesBeat: You’ll have to catch up with Flappy Bird now.
Hanke: We’re going to be here in a year. I don’t know, maybe they will be too? I hope so. We’ve announced Endgame since the last time you and I talked as well, which is the new IP, the James Frey IP, that will be a book and a movie and a game with us. That’s cool. I think when you and I spoke, I alluded that some Hollywood people are really getting this idea of launching something and building a world across games and books and movies all at the same time.
GamesBeat: The choice, was that more like a mainstreaming of what you’re doing?
Hanke: I would say a broadening. We were excited about it because James shared the same vision we do for world creation. To do that at that scale, with Harper Collins pushing a major book launch and a movie and the game and all that in a coordinated way, was exciting. Because he got it. I think we’re doing it the right way.
We’ve had people talk to us about doing a marketing campaign for a movie: “Hey, we want to do something with you guys to promote the launch of this movie.” This is not that. This is a game and a book and a movie that are all designed as one cohesive experience.
GamesBeat: It seemed like the relevant talk for you might be the Dice talk by CCP Games chief Hilmar Veigar Petursson, where he’s talking about making virtual life meaningful.
Hanke: I saw that one. It was interesting. I kind of disagree with his core thesis.
GamesBeat: You’re putting the game into the real world.
Hanke: Yeah. I think we make the real world better. We’re spicing up real life. We’re not trying to replace it with some completely different alternative. For personal happiness and all that, just walking and moving and exercising. There’s a book called Spark, which is about the effect that exercise and movement have on the brain, in terms of your cognitive ability and your emotional state. Exercise and movement are really critical to good functioning of the thought process and your overall well-being.
I’m not sure how things will work in a virtual reality future. Maybe you’ll be attached to some of your devices or something. But in the short term, getting outside and moving around and exercising is a really healthy thing for people, and it has the side effect of releasing endorphins and other chemicals that make you feel good.
A lot of the positiveness that people associate with Ingress is partly due to that. It’s partly due to the same responses people have when they have a real social interaction with somebody. It makes you feel good on a physiological level.
GamesBeat: Nintendo’s suggested that a connection between health and games exists for them in the future, too.
Hanke: I saw that in their announcement. With Wii, they pioneered the exercise experience. I’m embarrassed to say, my daughter and my youngest, they play Dance Revolution or something on the Wii? That gets you moving.
GamesBeat: It’s nice to see gaming moving in directions that are more accepted. Trip Hawkins brought that up, that game creators are viewed as pornographers, and we need to clean up that image.
Hanke: Yeah, well, there are parts of the game industry that are doing innovative things that I think will help change that. Hopefully, we’re part of that. Some of this stuff gets a bad rap. Something like Minecraft is a great game. It helps with cognitive ability. My kids are players. I’m a fan. I sponsored Notch to come give a talk at Google a while back. You shouldn’t paint everything with the same brush.
It’s good to see all the creativity in the game industry. Right now, I think, could be a golden age. You’re seeing a lot of small, creative projects get some airtime, where for a while it was all getting bigger and bigger. There’s a bit more room now.
GamesBeat: Is Google getting more excited about games in general? Do you detect that this is having an effect on the rest of the company in some ways?
Hanke: Google’s always been pretty excited about games. Googlers like Ingress because it’s innovative. It has a strong internal following amongst Googlers. I think with Play and that part of Google, there’s a recognition that games are a huge part of the mobile-app ecosystem. We have a whole separate part of the company that focuses on things like … we have Play APIs for leaderboards and matchmaking and things like that. The company’s excited about games.
GamesBeat: Does a future exist where you’re considered not an outlier within Google but more a part of the main company?
Hanke: There’s a future like that, yeah. We’ll see. Our mission as an autonomous unit is to be free of any restraints and encumbrances so that we can go off and do this quickly, with a lot of focus. Then, we’ll figure out if it makes sense to weave it into a broader corporate strategy. I try not to think too much about that. We want to stay focused on our mission.
GamesBeat: Do you see yourselves doing lots of different games like this? Or, do you see yourselves extending Ingress as far as it goes?
Hanke: We’re focused on making the underlying platform available as a set of APIs. The first step for us is to work with some other developers to start making use of that in a very close way, so that we can hold their hand and work with them before these APIs are ready for broad release to everyone. There will be some other games getting built that we’ll have a hand in. But the goal would be to have a more turnkey API, like the Google Maps API, that can be available for people to use, with certain terms attached to it.
With Ingress, it’s our flagship proof of concept. We’re excited about continuing to invest in it and putting all of our good ideas into Ingress. But my expectation that other people will have lots of good ideas, too, that by definition we didn’t think of. That’s my hope, at least, that people surprise us with other innovations in this space.