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.

John Hanke (left), CEO of Niantic

Above: John Hanke (left), CEO of Niantic, and Scot Frank, product manager for Ingress Prime.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

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.

Ingress Prime

Above: Ingress Prime is available on iOS and Android.

Image Credit: Niantic

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?

Hanke: Definitely.

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.

Ingress Prime

Above: Ingress Prime features The Enlightened (green team) and The Resistance (blue).

Image Credit: Niantic

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.

Ingress Prime

Above: Ingress Prime is a reboot of Ingress.

Image Credit: Niantic

Question: Are you still partnering with companies as you did in the beginning?

Hanke: The sponsored locations business model is part of all of our game products. It’s growing. So yes, there are retailers like Lawson’s and McDonald’s. You’ve seen Lawson’s in Ingress. You’ve seen McDonald’s in Pokemon Go. There are current and new sponsors coming to Ingress. Those are integrated in a very organic way. They become locations in the game. It’s not throwing an ad or some brand logo in your face, but it’s there. It’s a place that you may end up while you’re playing the game, because there are items and power you can get from that spot.

Question: What is the state of the Google Maps API? We’ve seen that games like Jurassic World Alive can very quickly become location-based games. How do you feel that you can differentiate in a world where everybody can adopt this? Are there certain features here that you think go beyond where the Google Maps thing is?

Hanke: From my point of view, the mobile game landscape is awash in copying. Copying other mobile games, for a lot of companies that’s their bread and butter. The fact that our successful games have now been emulated and copied–that’s the way the world is, I guess? [laughs]

Question: But it was almost impossible to copy this, because nobody else had the locations. Now all of a sudden they do have landmarks through Google Maps.

Hanke: Yeah, but if you look at those games, the locations that are utilized coming through Google Maps are commercial establishments, things of that nature. I personally don’t think that’s the right way to build the game. Anybody who grabs a 3D engine can make some kind of 3D shooter. That doesn’t make it Fortnite. The nuance of what makes a great location-based AR game–we feel very confident that we’re the world’s leader in that. That something looks superficially similar doesn’t necessarily mean it can do everything we can do. I think the user numbers, success, and traction of products is ultimately the thing to look to about whether that’s happening or not.

Above: Niniane Wang is a senior engineer at Niantic.

Image Credit: Udacity

Wang: As John has said, sometimes when people think of AR they just think of overlaying something on the camera feed. But it goes much deeper. That’s just a screenshot, the very surface level. Similarly, sometimes people think of an AR game as, “Oh, there’s a map. Anything with a map is in that category now.” But again, that’s very surface level.

We talk about the magic factor, what makes people think there could be another reality on top of this reality that actually can feel magical. There’s so much more that goes into making those two worlds — the augmented one and the real one — feel consistent with each other, making people feel that sense of, “Oh, this could almost be real.” It’s not just opening the app and seeing a map. There’s a lot more iceberg under the water.

Macintosh: The social aspect is a really important one. The last anomaly I went to — this was in Mexico City — I suddenly had eight friends. I spoke English, unfortunately, but even though there was that language barrier, they took me around with them on their team. I didn’t tell them I was the Ingress product manager. [laughs] I just showed up and happened to be an Enlightened member. They brought me into the fold.

That was the part of the magic that I could see. These are people who–we were going out to their favorite restaurant later that night for dinner. Through a combination of my broken Spanish and some body language, it felt like more of a community than I experienced in the other two days I was down there. That’s an awesome aspect of these games. These are people that come from different walks of life, different background, different interests, but that one commonality in Ingress brought us all together.

Wang: I think many people would like to feel a sense of magic. It’s part of why people like, for example, Harry Potter. Just having wizards doesn’t make something the same as Harry Potter. There’s a desire to feel that there’s fun and magic lurking in our world, waiting for us stumble on it. A lot goes into the underlying psychology of what makes that feel actually magical. It goes beyond just something like a map.

Question: In terms of mechanics and story, it feels like Ingress is more intensive than Pokemon Go, for example. How engaged are Ingress players compared to Pokemon? To what degree do you see it as more complex or harder to get into?

Frank: Something that’s interesting about Ingress is that there are many different dimensions of gameplay. There’s glyph hacking. There’s linking. There’s fielding, deploying, remote recharging. There can be a different version of Ingress gameplay depending on what your preferences are.

At a very basic level, I remember when I first started playing, I was more about hacking. I liked exploring the locations in my neighborhood in San Francisco and discovering the stories behind this wooden statue I’d passed on dog walks for more than a year, without ever knowing anything about it. From that, then I’ve evolved into–now I really like linking and fielding. Over time, the game has supported my different interests and different types of gameplay that I might be doing. Maybe it’s through the airport, and I’m just trying to capture a couple of portals before I touch down in the next city.

Certainly Ingress can support pretty complex gameplay. But a lot of the elements of it are broken down and can be much simpler. We’re hoping that with the new onboarding experience, people will be able to find their type of gameplay as they progress as an Ingress agent.

Ingress Prime

Above: Ingress Prime is the new game from Niantic.

Image Credit: Niantic

Question: When you look at the community behind Pokemon Go, a lot of it is built by the users. It happens in places like Discord and other third party applications. Is anything going on with Ingress Prime to centralize that? Do you want to bring that community closer through a read-only API or something like that?

Hanke: The community that exists in Go creates because we gardened it and nurtured it based on the Ingress community. The 40,000 Ingress user groups that popped up globally during the game’s launch showed us how real-world communities could work, this idea of MMO guilds in the real world. We were deliberately trying to nurture that with Pokemon Go in the way the game was designed. Certain things like raids were about local collaboration.

We never set out, though, to build ourselves the social network infrastructure where those communities could organize. That’s partly because, in different countries, people prefer different social networks. Discord is popular here. WeChat is popular in China. KakaoTalk is popular in Korea. People may prefer Telegram in Europe. It varies, and our feeling is that should be the choice of the local users. As long as there’s a way for them to get together and organize their meetups and stay in touch with one another, we’re supportive of that.

A challenge for us was that Ingress was originally launched inside Google around the time that Google+ was launched. We launched the game to Google beta testers, which was a pretty tight group of a few tens of thousands of people who were vetted by Google. We launched on Android only. The Ingress community naturally sprung up, originally, on Google+. It’s persisted there. If you think about Google+ as this shopping mall where everybody’s left, there’s one anchor store in the corner that still has a huge amount of activity. It’s the Ingress store.

And now the mall is closing. The realtors have decided to bring in the wrecking ball. [laughs] It’s a challenge for us to figure out how to help Ingress find that new version of–the Silph Road is obviously huge on Pokemon Go. That has to happen. We frankly acknowledge that’s something that we have to help with. It’s a challenge to help that get transplanted to a new home.

Question: We have more games like this now — Ingress, Pokemon Go, and now your Harry Potter game. What do you think about what happens when people playing these different games mingle with each other in the real world?

Macintosh: I think it’s awesome. I don’t think it’s a problem at all. I think it’s brilliant. We see this at events all the time. We’ll go to an Ingress event and everyone pauses for a minute to go to a Pokemon raid. Or at a Pokemon Go event, suddenly everyone’s fighting over all of the portals in the area. As someone who goes to a lot of live events, we like this. We like people playing different games. We think that each game can appease a certain part of you, whether it’s the competitive side, the exploration side, or the collection side. There are so many sides to it. Having a diverse library of games is a real benefit for us.

Hanke: We’ve planned Ingress events and Pokemon Go events to happen side by side. For example, at Go Fest in Chicago, there was an Ingress event that included a piece where people were marching together in groups through the park to do various Ingress things through this area. This was the day after Go Fest — it was Sunday — but there were still tons of players in the park downtown. They were all high-fiving each other as their paths intertwined on their way through the park. I agree. I think it’s cool. People are having fun together in public places.

Macintosh: I mentioned the Mexico City anomaly I was at earlier this month. The second day was a mission day. Going through on those missions in Ingress, all of a sudden I reached this park. I look up and there’s a sea of people covering every inch of this huge city park. People were everywhere playing. It was fun to look around and see Pokemon Go here, Ingress there, every person alternating.

Question: Is this ready for new devices, as more AR devices start to enter the market?

Hanke: Are you talking about post-phone types of devices?

Question: Magic Leap, that sort of thing. I suppose you can’t do that outdoors yet. But it seems like that’s coming.

Hanke: We’re very eager prototypers of our technology on AR devices of various kinds. I’m eager to see devices that people can comfortably wear outside, where they can see — the visuals are bright enough — and the mobility and form factor are there such that these things can be used outside. That is, of course, the big challenge. I would think even Magic Leap would say that’s a living-room device at the moment.

That’s all in the lab, in the experimentation stage. There was a version of the original Ingress for Google Glass, where you could actually roam around and hack portals and see information about them. Despite the fact that Glass didn’t quite make it, it definitely convinced me that heads-up gameplay for games like the ones we’re imagining, that’s the right way to do it. As soon as those devices exist, we’re all over it.

Question: Are you not so concerned about screen time addiction in this one? This seems pretty deeply engaging.

Hanke: I’m a believer that technology can be used for good, and it can be used for–bad things? One of our goals as a company was to build products that could be enjoyed outside with real people, and I think technology as a facilitator for going out into a beautiful park and spending the day playing a game is great. I don’t view that as a negative aspect of technology. It can be used to power great experiences like this. That’s why Niantic exists.

I think it’s wrong to conclude that all screens are equal, or all applications are equal, and all technology is equally bad or good. You can build experiences that suck people into sedentary Matrix-like behavior, where you just want to put the goggles on and the IV feeding tube in. [laughs] But I think you can just as easily build technology that makes your run better, that makes your step-counting more fun, that makes your interaction with your family more fun.

I have three kids. I have used every trick in the book to get them out with me to on a field trip or go spend time outside. If this is a technique that parents can use to get those kids away from the indoor screens for a while, I say more power to them.

Question: A console version of Ingress would be counterproductive, then?

Hanke: Not on our road map, no. [laughs]

Macintosh: It’s hard to drag the PlayStation around outside.

Hanke: But you know, my philosophy is a game should have maybe 30 percent of the gameplay happening indoors and 70 percent that requires you to be active. Having some things you can do in a game when you can’t go outside is fine, because it allows you to stay connected to that world. With Ingress a lot of that has been the intel map. Scot showed some examples of that. We have an AR version of that coming. The planning and plotting–can I make a field over Oakland, if I go up here and then down to the zoo and over to the port and work with some other people to knock down these links? A lot of that happens when people spend time planning indoors. Then they go out and play.

With Pokemon Go, there’s some of that with evolving a Pokemon. I’d like for there to be more. We want to strike the right balance with all of our games. But a pure console game, no.

Question: It seems like Pokemon Go lends itself more to something dog-walking than this game. How much of Ingress Prime can you play on an everyday route versus going to lots of different places?

Frank: At least in my neighborhood, I smash a fair number of portals from the opposite faction on every dog walk in the morning. [laughs] And then I come back in the evening for the second dog walk of the day and I see I have to smash them again.

Hanke: We tend to own the dog-walking market. That’s our secret corporate plan. 12B: dominate the dog-walking.

Above: Ingress Prime

Image Credit: Niantic

Question: That seemed to be one of the ideas behind the Adventure Sync.

Hanke: Absolutely, yes. That’s a platform-level technology that lets you get credit for your steps and your exercise, even when you don’t have the screen up and the app up. That’s something we intend to implement across all of our products.

Question: Did any of the acquisitions you made come in handy for Ingress Prime?

Hanke: You’re seeing some of that in the AR preview there, the Escher technology coming into play. All of the acquisitions, in the sense of the AR acquisitions, feed into the Niantic AR stack, which again is deployed across all of our products. We’ll be seeing benefit from that across all those games as we add features and capability to that stack.

Question: Can you explain more about the AR functionality that you showed us? How does that come into play in the game?

Frank: As John was alluding to, in terms of planning some of the strategic ops — during anomaly gameplay, or even if you just want to put a field up over Oakland, being able to see what links fall where, which portals are key in order to capture Jack London Square, for example — that’s one way in which this AR intel map would come in handy.

In addition to that, being able to quickly see beyond just the current map view, that’s on the screen, and understand, “Okay, where are the high-level portals? Where can I go set up a farm and get high-level gear? Are there players over in this part of the town?” These are some of the different things that initially will be unlocked through the intel map. There’s some other, more dynamic features that will be coming up later.