Google’s Mobile Game Ingress Finds a Passionate Following
Sometimes, Google seems like a wanton withholder of things that are good and useful (see: Google Reader). Sometimes, the company seems to be chasing the competition (see: Google Shopping Express). But here’s something totally fanciful and weird that Google is devoting substantial resources to: A mobile augmented reality game called Ingress.
Since launching in November, Ingress has developed a passionate following that begs on Google+ for invites, trades intelligence on Reddit and meets to go on real-world quests together.
“It’s like the real-world socializing of Foursquare merged with World of Warcraft,” explained Ingress creator John Hanke in a recent interview.
Hanke and his team — an internal division of Google called Niantic Labs — clearly have a lot of very geeky fun. They’ve devised an alternate reality where players divide themselves into two teams and then work to connect together virtual portals situated on actual local landmarks. Hack a portal and connect it to two other ones, and your team gets control of the land area within that triangle.
Ingress players wander around with their Android phones running the app, making plays for portals and coordinating their attacks. They look for clues and codes from videos and other content put out by Niantic.
Hanke said Ingress was pitched to Google CEO Larry Page as “a bet to invent experiences for mobile devices today and the future.”
He said that — for the time being — Niantic’s efforts to explore the future of location-based gaming are exempt from efforts to focus the company.
Hanke explained, “With things like Android and Glass, all these technologies are sitting around Google. There’s a lot of latent capability. We’re like kids in a candy store.”
Ingress isn’t a success yet, though it has had promising growth. The app has been downloaded more than 500,000 times and players are evenly split between the U.S. and the rest of the world, said a Google spokeswoman. The team building the technology, gameplay and content consists of “a couple dozen people,” she said.
What Niantic Labs didn’t anticipate was the appetite that people would have to socialize with each other while playing Ingress, Hanke said.
Ingress players were going on “all-night playing binges together and finishing up with breakfast,” and working together on coordinated efforts for the competing “Enlightened” and “Resistance” teams to take control of very large portions of entire countries like Norway and Egypt. So the Googlers were inspired to dream up more ways to bring people together.
Niantic started by distributing physical clues that players could find on their own, like a puzzle that led to artwork left at Jim Morrison’s grave about the game’s backstory, with a clue that, once decrypted, unlocked extra tools and energy for the game.
More recently, Niantic drew 100 people to the monument to William Wallace in Scotland to play what Hanke described as a “complicated tactical game to enclose a portal in a field.” He said some players even showed up in Braveheart paint with Nexus 7 tablets to play.
Earlier this month, the game makers devised another multi-stage event that ended in Wisconsin, where hundreds of players came to battle and the Enlightened emerged victorious. The gameplay was explained to have generated enough energy for one of the fictional characters to teleport herself out of captivity and appear live in person at the event — literally bringing the virtual world to life.
So here’s where you might be thinking, hmm, Google is known for its strength at algorithms, its skill in convincing us to hand over increasing amounts of personal data and its ability to collect gazillions in revenue. It’s pretty bizarre to think of a team of game makers in Mountain View pulling the strings in something so delightfully and geekily fun.
Sure, this is a side project in the grand scheme of things — and perhaps Niantic will evolve into a larger platform for location-based gaming — but isn’t it a little odd that Google is staging these relatively small events and weaving this web of stories?
Yes. What’s perhaps more troubling is people hanging around portals at weird hours looking at their phone have been questioned by police, and a trio of players in South Africa said they were mugged at gunpoint for their phones.
“Knock on wood, there hasn’t been anything super serious that I’m aware of,” Hanke said.
Since players do get so deeply involved in the game, Hanke’s team is actually working to make the world even more immersive. A couple weeks ago Niantic began enlisting users’ help to build out the world further by nominating new portals.
This week the team launched a weekly video show on YouTube that combines a fictional news anchor, in-game characters and real fan reports to try to combat the evil forces of the fictionalized version of Niantic Labs.
The “Ingress Report” news show is all very tongue-in-cheek — since the content obviously comes from Google — but it’s a fun concept to buy into, and it might make the game at least a little bit more accessible.
In the first installment (which is embedded above), anchor “Susanna Moyer” says as she invites fans to combat censorship by Niantic Labs, “If you support an unbiased news source in the world of Ingress, share your reports with us.”
A fan named Alex Ander commented on the episode, “I love Ingress and everything, but I can’t deny this is one of the geekiest things I’ve ever seen.”
He added, “I don’t mean that in a bad way, I’m just saying … it’s really really geeky!”