Before there was Pokémon Go, Niantic got its feet wet in the location-based gaming market with Ingress. And last week, the company returned to the world of its first sci-fi game with a reboot title, dubbed Ingress Prime.
While Pokemon Go has more than 800 million players, Ingress was no slouch with 20 million downloads. And because Niantic owns it outright, it can be as experimental as it wants to be with Ingress Prime, which will also be another massively multiplayer game where two factions fight for control of virtual properties at real world locations such as public landmarks.
The original came out in 2012, but the new title has better narrative features, a companion anime TV show, augmented reality, and more support for live events.
I was in a small group of press that got a full download on Ingress Prime. After that, we had a chance to ask questions of the team, including Niantic CEO John Hanke, senior engineer Niniane Wang, product manager Scot Frank, and marketer Andrew McIntosh.
Here’s an edited transcript of our group interview.
Question: You mentioned that it’s a reboot. What happens with the original Ingress? Is it just gone?
Scot Frank: No. Players will be taking their badge, their achievements, all of their stats, their agent name, their faction—all of that will transpose into Ingress Prime. As we mentioned, there’s the prestige feature. That’s a building block on some of the new aspects of gameplay and leveling that are to come. Those will be starting with launch and then building into the future.
One thing that’s been challenging for us from a product perspective, but also really amazing—we’ve seen both from our core internal players, as well as the beta testers, how passionate they are about the efficiency and the performance of the current Ingress scanner they have in their hands. At the same time, we want to emphasize the new user experience and onboarding for new players. Balancing those for this upcoming anomaly on November 17, we’ll be making the current Ingress 1.X version available separately. It’s a redacted version of Ingress that will be available. Whereas otherwise, the main focus from here on out is Ingress Prime, building that, making it a great experience for all players
John Hanke: If people want to experience the game as if they were a new user, go through everything all over again, then you can recurse in the game. You get prestige so people know you were a level 16 super powerful player, but you’re going through again. You’ve seen that technique in other games.
Question: Like Call of Duty prestige. You hit level 50 and start over again at zero.
Hanke: That’s the concept, right.
Question: Do you still view Ingress Prime as the lead horse as far as what you’d do with future games using augmented reality and other new technologies?
Niniane Wang: Certainly, since we own this IP, we’re able to very innovative and experimental in pushing the frontiers of how players interact with augmented reality. As John said, it’s not just what you see in the camera feed, but different ways of interacting with real-world locations. Certainly the learnings we have from our experiments and our new features in Ingress are learnings we take to all of our games.
Hanke: I think a great example of that is our Burngress event, a campout we did with our Ingress agents. We’ve done it two years in a row now. Agents sign up and they’re broken into 13 teams. They build massive art exhibits, Burning Man style, at this camp. It’s a two-day event. The art exhibits are built with LEDs and smoke machines and lasers, and they actually tie into the game. Each of those exhibits is a portal. This was in the woods of northern California, so you’re walking through the woods and you stumble across this amazing giant beating heart that’s illuminated with LEDs and responds to what happens in the game. Based on what faction is controlling it and how powerful the portal is, the artwork’s responding to that.
The idea of connecting our games with the internet of things, which a lot of people talk about—that’s an opportunity for us to experiment that in a really fun way involving the users. We can figure out what the world would be like if what’s happening on your phone is actually controlling the ambient world of these connected devices around you.
Wang: Another example is the shard game in Ingress. We’ve seen how player react to it, the lengths to which they’re willing to go. Go to this lighthouse on a particular Friday night at 10PM. People will show up. How they coordinate between different countries, even, to fulfill their mission in the Ingress shard game. Those kinds of learnings — how player self-organize, how they bridge between different countries and territories — are learnings we apply to our other games.
Question: You mentioned already that you used this game to create many ideas you applied to Pokemon Go. Have you taken things you learned from Pokemon Go and put them back into this new version of Ingress?
Frank: Absolutely. One aspect we’re working on–with Ingress Prime introducing the new framework and updated architecture that Niniane mentioned earlier, that’s going to help us be much more efficient with what we’re doing, and also share learnings and collaborate across teams. Certainly we’ll find that some things work better in one game versus another. Even in hallway conversations, we get ideas and we’re able to debate and prototype and see what sticks. That’s one of the fun things we have here.
Hanke: Directly, the Pokemon Go onboarding experience–it’s super easy to get in the game. The team leader is going to hold your hand through that process, whenever you choose your team. When you experience the Ingress Prime onboarding, you’ll encounter Ada and Jarvis in a much more personalized way than you did in the first version of the game. They really handhold you through that onboarding experience. We’re looking directly at how Pokemon Go got so many users so quickly and made it so easy for them to get into the game. Go does that very well, and Ingress didn’t do that as well in its first incarnation.
Frank: In building that onboarding experience in Ingress, we developed this modular system, which allows for additional tutorial-like experiences to take place throughout an agent’s tenure. From a technology standpoint, that’s something some of the other games are interested in adopting. There are opportunities for innovation both to the user and in what’s under the hood.
Wang: Social is another area where we learn from each game and apply those learnings to different games. We have real-world social, where people meet in the real world. In other games, if people aren’t meeting face to face, then there’s a need for more virtual interaction. We learned from Pokemon Go, for example, seeing how people reacted to the friend features. We take those learnings and apply them to all of our games.
Question: How does the anime tie in to the game? Is that canon, so to speak?
Andrew Macintosh: Absolutely. The anime–even though that’s been established and the story’s not going to change live, we’re definitely going to be connecting to the game as much as possible through things like live ops. We want to make sure our Ingress agents are committed and feeling really excited about the anime. They won’t be completely separate. We want to make them feel integrated.
Hanke: Our writing team worked with the Crafter and Fuji TV writing teams to write the anime. Ada, the artificial intelligence that guides you through the game, is part of the anime, obviously. Hank Johnson, one of the primary characters in Ingress, is in the anime. And there are new characters as well. But yeah, it’s considered canon. It’s blessed by us.
Question: How many episodes are you looking at there? How often are they coming out?
Hanke: It’s 11 episodes. They’re being aired weekly on Fuji TV in prime time for anime, which is late night. It’s their primary place to debut anime. It’s in that slot right now. They’re on episode three or four. Then it comes to Netflix.
Question: Do you have updated numbers on daily and monthly active players for Ingress? Has the business model changed, and will there be changes in Ingress Prime?
Hanke: The only numbers we’re talking about on Ingress are the historic numbers of downloads, which were over 20 million for the product. That’s smaller than the close to a billion that we’ve enjoyed with Pokemon Go. We’re looking to obviously increase that with this new version of the game and the relaunch.
The business model is the same, although we have expanded the type of items that you can purchase within Ingress. The first version of the game had almost no monetization in it, because we designed and built it within Google. We didn’t really think about monetization at the time. [laughs] But our philosophy around making games is you should be able to play the entire game without ever buying anything. The game should be fun to play. There shouldn’t be timers or other conventions you see in a lot of free-to-play games that block you and make you feel like you’re going through a shakedown. We don’t believe in that. You won’t find any of that in Ingress, as you clearly don’t in Pokemon Go.