What if I told you that there were thousands of people out there in the world, right now, on their smartphones playing a globally connected real-life social MMO game? The game would encourage you to interact, in-person, with other players in a way that breeds cooperation and competition. Most importantly though, it would get you outside exploring the world around you. Well, I am happy to report that this game is not only real, but I’ve seen it in action and it’s called Ingress – the latest project from Google’s Niantic Labs division.
Niantic Labs is a start-up company within Google, founded by the creator of Google Earth – John Hanke. Make no mistake though, Hanke is no stranger to games either as previously he helped start-up Archetype Interactive. They may not be around anymore today, but they were the original developers of the 3DO published Meridian 59. For those unaware, it was one of (arguable the) very first graphically 3D MMO games of all-time from all the way back in 1996. Hanke later went on to develop what eventually became Google Earth and here we are now with their latest: Ingress.
Truly, the concept is unlike anything anyone has seen or played thus far. The marketing campaigns are more extensive than most feature films, completely inundating potential players with mysteries, intrigue and an endless flood of videos, pictures and other media to suggest everything from conspiracies to unanswered conundrums of the universe. In an attempt to at least figure out what was going on in downtown Dallas one afternoon, I was invited by Google to not only talk with Bill Kilday, John Hanke and other key members of the team, but to experience the game for myself.
As I quickly found out, a key overarching element of this entire project is the ever-present notion of connecting with other people by exploring the world around you. While most MMOs would have you sitting in front of a computer at your home, living the life of your character through a virtual avatar, Ingress is looking to bring that experience into the real world. “You have to actually walk around. The game is really about movement, getting out to explore your city, discovering it,” explains Kilday. “For example, I don’t think many of these people here would be in downtown Dallas on a Saturday afternoon. Ingress draws people to inner-cities and gets them to rediscover their environments.”
One of the most obvious benefits is physical health – rather than sitting at your desk for hours playing a video game, you can actually get outside to receive thinly veiled exercise. Judging from my brief encounter with the player-base, I can attest to the true level of diversity on display within the Ingress community as well. Some players carried banners displaying their faction of choice, or had battery packs strapped to their legs and backpacks to ensure life on their smartphones and some even attached their phones to bicycles, to enable increased speed and mobility when traveling.
While the goal may not necessarily have been to get people outside and learning about the world, it’s been a great side effect. “With all of the geotracking and landmark areas in the game, we wanted to put that stuff in there to make almost like an accidental learning experience,” said Hanke. “Without saying explicitly and being high-minded, we can get people more involved in the community as they learn a bit of history while playing the game.” From my brief encounter with the game, I can already attest the efficacy of this strategy. I live in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex and rarely spend time within the downtown regions of Dallas itself. After spending a few hours with everyone and checking out Ingress first-hand, it made me more comfortable and knowledgeable about my surroundings.
Like a lot of traditional MMOs, Ingress is based on a dual-faction system: The Enlightened and The Resistance. It’s your classic struggle – an overpowering government-esque entity and the “underdog” rebel forces. Players are free to choose where their loyalties lie and this affects not only which areas they control in the world, but who they interact with people, how they interact with people and the types of stories they will help tell in the world. One player that I had the chance to talk with is a, more or less, information broker and long-time player that’s been around since launch over a year ago, Kira Kroger.
In this relatively short amount of time that the game’s been live, it has seen tremendous growth. “When I first started playing, there were maybe 3 portals near where I lived. You would have to go drive for an hour just to get near an area where you could interact with stuff. Now, there are over 100 in my immediate area,” she told me. Now, across the globe, you have people playing the game. Most interestingly though, is that people do not exclusively play in their surrounding areas, but instead go out of their way to connect with new people and see new places they may not have a reason to explore otherwise. “I probably play less than the average player, but when I do play, I fly across the country to do it,” Kroger detailed.
Granted, this level of dedication isn’t unique to Ingress, as it exists for any game (especially MMOs), but it’s unique in that the community has so quickly banded together. Within a little over a year, Ingress is quickly taking over in other areas of the world. “Interestingly enough, there was recently a large shift in the balance of power. The Resistance actually took control of the entirety of India. All of it.” Hanke told me during our initial discussion. When he says “all of India” that doesn’t mean an in-game map that replicates India, but instead it literally means that the Resistance players in India have physically visited and captures all of the portal (at the time of our talking, at least).
As for the actual act of playing, it’s pretty easy to understand if you just download Ingress and check it out for yourself. As you walk around in cities and historical areas, different places will be marked as portals and you perform different task to take control of areas. “While playing, you’re really fighting against the portals in the world, not necessarily the actual players. We made it that way by design,” said Hanke. “Portals are sited at works of public art and historical markers as well. So you play for a while, then all of a sudden you might say, ‘Wow, now I know all these historical sites are all around my city, how did that happen?'”
Thankfully, they’ve done a great job of making sure the game carries over no matter where you are playing from. Just because you usually play around where you live, doesn’t mean that when you take that road trip next summer, you won’t have your progress. “It is a persistent game across cities,” Kilday told me. “For example, I live in Austin and I’ve got portal keys from there and I can go to another city and interact with players there. It becomes this mini-way of connecting with people when you go to a new city, we hear that a lot. They go to a new place and fire up the communications and check out what’s going on where, or post here they will be exploring. It’s a way that people are uniquely connecting with each other.”
Any MMO player worth his/her weight in loot will tell you that the community makes or breaks the game. No matter how much work and effort a developer puts into this massive universe they created, if people aren’t enjoying it and interacting in a way that benefits the life of the game, it will fail. Many MMOs have outlasted their time simply based on community love alone (heck, the previously mentioned Meridian 59 is still running on a very small scale).
The trick, with any form of game design, is figuring out how to organically engage and involve your players in a meaningful way. The risk of a game that’s as community-driven as Ingress, is that the fun almost entirely falls on the shoulders of the players. Niantic can put out hundreds of engaging videos, sponsor huge events like the one I attended and even deliver new gameplay mechanics to keep the game fresh; but at the end of the day, it all comes down to the players.
While I can’t speak too specifically on the inter-workings behind the scenes, I know the people I saw in Dallas are about as hardcore as it gets. People have already written fan-fiction in this universe, they’ve created organizations within the world of Ingress, they dress the part, they create outfits and truly dedicate themselves to the game and community. All this effort and it’s just over a year old – a truly impressive feat, no doubt.
Even after seeing the way the players band together around the idea, I fear for the game’s longevity. Unlike most MMOs where developers can add new content and create new things for people to do, Ingress suffers from certain impassable limitations. Planet earth is quite vast, obviously, but how many areas are there for people to realistically visit? The large majority of players aren’t going to travel to other countries to discover points and meet people – it’s impractical. Eventually, people will get tired of exploring the same areas, and I fear this will be difficult to overcome.
Furthermore, where is the story going in terms of direction and delivery? As it stands, content is seldom delivered directly to players in a quick and easy way to digest, but instead, requires players to seek it out or create it themselves. There is no shortage of creativity, but it may prove difficult to sustain in the long run. Ultimately, the largest issue facing this game is the severely steep learning curve and burden of community involvement. If you downloaded Ingress on your phone right now, while reading this, you probably couldn’t really do anything outside of learn what buttons in the menu do when you press them. It’s a noble idea, engaging players and getting them to go outside and play in a game full of mystery and intrigue, but it’s extremely time-consuming and leans directly towards the more “hardcore” crowd. I fear that, overall, the game will appeal almost exclusively to the types of people that already explore cities, or run marathons, or do Live Action Roleplaying or have a ridiculous amount of free time.
All of these concerns aside though, the future for Ingress has great potential. The game’s biggest strength and its biggest weakness are one in the same: the community. “I’ve never really been strong Enlightened or strong Resistance; I’m for the community. I really love the people in this game, the people are what make this the most awesome thing,” echoed Kroger. Time will tell though, if that’s really enough.
Do you play Ingress? Are you interested in learning more? Comment down below with any thoughts or questions!