The countdown begins. In the middle of Dallas’ downtown Main Street Garden, thousands of people have gathered to watch a giant tree light up as the holiday season gets its ham and turkey-scented legs. Fireworks are guaranteed and a zip-lining Santa Claus is a possibility, though along with that will come many hard-to-answer questions from all the reindeer-loving children.
Yet a block away, a veritable mass of people is crammed shoulder to shoulder on the second floor bar of a little Mexican restaurant. They don’t concern themselves with the troubles of egregiously large foliage or a rutilant stuntman. Margaritas and flags and Android phones in hand, they hang on every word of a single man warning them of the dangers to come.
This has dwindled over the course of the day from nearly 150 gathered around the bronze cattle of Pioneer Plaza to the hewn crowd here. This has turned from an afternoon of interviews to a day of adventure. This is my day with the Dallas diehards of Niantic Labs’ Ingress.
I. The Guide
Ingress, currently in open beta with an initial release set for December 14th, is an augmented reality game from Niantic Labs, an internal startup within Google. It focuses on getting players out from their homes and onto the urban streets around them, exploring cities and interacting with others. And that’s all I knew going into it.
Luckily I had someone to show me what else went into the game. She is Seattle-native Kira Kroger, and she is way into Ingress. Strapped to her leg is a holster containing a sizable external battery for her phone, which also has an Ingress logo emblazoned across its case. (Her Ingress shirt and pin might also give her away as a player.) She’s been playing for about a year and less frequently than most others, but, as she says, “When I play, I fly across the country to do it.”
Kroger tells me the ins and outs of the game, which eluded me my first time firing up the app. There’s a war concerning something called Exotic Matter—also referred to as XM—and there are two factions: the Enlightened who wanted to use it to evolve humanity and the Resistance who want to keep us free from XM and its mysteriously associated alien overlords called Shapers. You capture portals (often placed around art installations or historical landmarks) in the real world, beef them up, and explore.
This info dump occurs over the course of a few hours. It’s not an overwhelming amount to take it, but Kroger knows a lot of people. This is my first taste at the real binding element of this game: its community. Kroger is, as far as I can tell, something akin to a black market information dealer like Mass Effect’s Shadow Broker. Having played both sides and attained a high literal and social ranking, Kroger is the perfect person to ask about Ingress.
The game’s growth hasn’t just been limited to numbers, though that part is true: “When I first started, there were just three portals where I lived, but now there’s over a hundred.” The more interesting developments have been on the personal interaction side. “When I first leveled, it was really hard, and there were a bunch of macho guys going, ‘I’m going to destroy the competition.'” But since then, the community has swelled in a more affable organism.
Onboarding new players is a huge issue. It’s a hard game to get into without knowing how it works, why it works, or who makes it work. This is Kroger’s twelfth anomaly event and has been maxed out at level eight for quite some time, so she knows how new players come to the game. “The first question is often ‘how do I move?’ And the response: WALK!”
Matt Robbins, a local Texas player, says this communication is crucial. There are whole communities and Google Plus pages (this is the first time I’ve seen people actually use Google Plus and it is bewildering) that exist just to match up level eight players with level one players. “Teamwork is key,” Robbins says, and it’s all cooperation that has emerged out of its players, not something strictly required by the game.
Part of it is the fact that Ingress is so free-form. “Ingress is whatever you want it to be,” says Kroger, and it seems true. “Some people like destroying stuff, some people like farming, and some people just like going to anomalies. Some people don’t ever play the game, but they’re totally enmeshed in the arc.” Funny she would say that.
II. The Bards
There are two brothers. They hold a strange position in the world of Ingress. They aren’t primarily players, fighting over portals and engaging in battles, nor is what they do official in any capacity. They do what they do best. They tell stories.
Daniel and Mark Casper are what you would call arc-centric players; they take the canon given to them and they expand on it. Daniel, a computer scientist turned writer, and Mark, currently studying physics, create content for Agents for ADA, a pro-Resistance organization dedicated to the AI machine known as ADA.
Daniel describes their involvement with Ingress as “investigation of the story over local operations.” He says, “We try to help move the story along and help people get into it.” They produce videos and interview people and characters. They have to anticipate where the story is going before it gets there and mold their expanded fiction into it. (And sometimes they get to run spectrographic analysis on intercepted packages from London to decipher messages, but that’s a story for another time.)
It’s tough, though, because Ingress‘ story, between the eBooks and the game and the official news videos, is quite expansive. “It’s a lot of little threads that converge suddenly,” says Mark. Here’s a little taste from the brothers: “Hank is hunting for glyphs in the middle of nowhere, following ancient civilizations; a PhD semiotician is studying Shaper language; Doctor Bogdanovich is working with Shaper technology; and the NIA are trying to put a clamp on the whole thing. It all converges on the glyphs and getting them to Campbell to decode them. Oh, and then Campbell dies.”
And that doesn’t even bring you up to date. But that just gives them and the other community members like them more to work with. Niantic has had a very hands-off approach to how the players have taken to the game. “They let people have their way and explore the space they’ve created. Create a framework and let the people inside,” says Daniel. And it’s that framework that is most compelling.
III. The Vision
“It’s okay, honey, it’s just nerds!” A man goes running back to his girlfriend after seeing what this large gaggle of green and blue-adorned people is doing in Klyde Warren Park. And he’s not wrong; every person here is a nerd, but a nerd for Ingress.
It’s mostly thanks to John Hanke, a serial entrepreneur if there ever was one. He was a cofounder of Archetype Interactive and helped build Meridian 59, one of the first MMOs. After that was acquired by 3DO, he started Big Network and got acquired by eUniverse. Then he founded Keyhole and developed the product you now know as Google Maps. Oh yeah, Keyhole got acquired by Google.
Now he’s leading Niantic and building out Ingress. But he’s got help, though his time with Meridian 59 should be useful anyways. He’s got two 25-year game industry veterans along with other seasoned pros from Sony, Naughty Dog (a lead on Uncharted, in fact), and Blizzard.
That’s good, because Ingress is ambitious. It’s worldwide with weekly Ingress Report videos highlighting agent check-ins from places like Vienna and India. A player named Artio recently chartered a plane to a remote town in Alaska just to play. It’s an active game that tops over a million downloads and thrives on its community.
It started, however, with a single goal. (The “accidental learning” of historical landmarks is a welcome side effect, though.) “We wanted a game able to be played by a person who just has five minutes, going to Starbucks, on their way to work or school, or whatever,” says Hanke. “Everything was geared towards asynchronous play. We wouldn’t have to coordinate our schedules to play. It opens a ton of opportunities if anyone can play at any time.”
Emergent gameplay has given him and his team some ideas, though. The game can always be played by yourself—”Some people are loners, and frankly, we want to support them”—but cooperation has come to the forefront of design consideration, which is a challenge considering this happens in the real world.
For example, battles happen in Ingress over portals. Generals lead their teams and coordinate efforts. I first thought this was a discrete structure in the game where a notification comes up that says “YOU ARE IN A BATTLE” and a general is selected, but the entire thing is a microcosmic event created by the players. It’s actually two faction groups putting up and tearing down defenses while standing in rather close proximity to each other.
And sometimes communities will sandbox parts of a city. Acting as a surrogate for gating game interactions into MMO-style PvP zones and the like, it’s just a mutually agreed upon space where low-level players can battle each other for AP, free from high-level farms and equipment.
It’s emergent. It wasn’t originally intended to be that way, but battles have become a fixture of the more active play-centric folk. But now that Niantic has seen the desire to work together, they’ve started to give players the chances to do so. Level eight portals, for instance, require eight level eight players to put up, and at the very least, more than one player is required to fully buff a captured location.
“Indirectly encourage and reward cooperation but not require it,” as Hanke says. Loners and low-level players trying to find their feet can do so at their own leisure, but the biggest payoff and the highest level of engagement is reserved for those deeply ingrained in the cooperative aspect of the game.
The event is actually a good example of this. These anomalies started out as a single player-organized meetup. “We saw that as being successful, and we crafted that into the game where the story hinges on what happens at these events,” says Hanke. It’s emblematic of the development-player dynamic for Niantic as well as the world they’ve made. “It’s a shared universe.”
IV. The Future
It’s not all gravy, though. The biggest problem I’ve heard from players is that Niantic could do well with more communication with players. Even specified liaisons for geographical regions of the world had been suggested. Sometimes it feels like both halves are operating far too independently from one another.
And sustained engagement has been troubling as well. The community will always be there, but once you hit the level cap, there’s not much to do besides engage with players directly. You could be like Kroger and manage back channels or the Casper brothers and craft side stories, but many will simply take a leave of absence (sometimes for good).
I talked to newcomer who went by the name of Stone. He’d only been playing for two weeks at the time and had already hit level six. As a former cryptographer for the United States Space Command and geocaching enthusiast, Ingress appealed to him greatly: an excuse to explore the world and a story about ciphers and intelligent machines.
Stone plays because Ingress is fun. Cracking codes and whatnot is great, but “nobody’s life is at stake,” as he puts it. “When something ceases being fun, you should probably be doing something else.” And that’s where the problem is bubbling up for him. Stone travels a lot and he often finds himself in less urban areas. In fact, there are whole cities where he owns every portal. What’s a player to do after he’s conquered a city?
That burden falls on the community of players around you. It is admittedly strong—many say it’s a great way to find soon-to-be friends in new cities—but it’s up to the player to get engaged. I can’t imagine that’s terribly difficult, though. As Kroger says, “I’m not strong Enlightened and I’m not strong Resistance. I’m for the community.”