It’s a new thing on the Internet, a planetary-scale augmented-reality game being played on a real planet: ours. It’s fun to play, particularly if you have kids. And interesting, I think, for anyone who cares about issues of Life Online, even non-gamers.

If you want to know the basics, hop on over and read the overexcited pitch at Google Play and the calmer Ingress in Wikipedia. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Back now? Here’s what’s actually interesting about the game.

Numbers · This has only been running since mid-November, and it’s hard to get an invite, but a lot of people are playing. The Play Store says it’s been downloaded between 100K and 500K times. If you’re a player you have access to a world map at http://www.ingress.com/intel; I took a trip all over and found the factions battling it out in São Paulo, Miami, Barcelona, Moscow, Tokyo, pretty well every big city I could think of. You even find little flashes of color well off that beaten track, for example Jerusalem and Hanoi.

Just below is a snapshot of the state of play in Minsk. So far, it’s scaling pretty well.

Ingress-in-Minsk

Buzz · For the moment, Ingress is Android-only. This means that even though it’s sort of a geek thing, and buzzworthy, it’s invisible to anyone living in the iOS world, which a high proportion of our buzzmongers and culture-watchers and prognosticators do. So the word is getting around (it’s even been on XKCD), but it feels different from your average viral new Net thingie.

I see, over at IGN, a suggestion that there’ll be Ingress on iOS. I wonder; nobody at Google is saying what the project’s real goal is.

Get up off your butt! · Dig it: a videogame you totally can’t play in your basement. You have to get out there in the world and go to where the portals are. Depending on the density, that means walking, biking, driving. And — here’s the good part — the probability of meeting up with other players while you do it is, eventually, 100%. Here’s a giggly take on the subject, but seriously; as a community, we really haven’t worked out the etiquette yet.

Of course, there’s a personal downside: I’m in Canada and it’s winter; just about froze my ass off last night, clearing green portals out of Kits point.

Considered As a Game · A connoisseur might sneer. So far, gameplay is mostly just getting from portal to portal, hacking, smashing, linking, claiming. A lot of persistence, not a lot of strategy.

I suspect that as the game stabilizes, there’s going to be a lot of very deep strategy in figuring out optimal field shapes, as in at postgraduate-math level. Or maybe a raw feel for shapes and placement will win out.

Also, this is of course a Google Project, which means of course that it was released before it was finished. I’m sure there are lots more gameplay elements in the pipeline. On top of that, I’m even more sure that there are lots of emergent phenomena that will be surprising.

Having said all that, I’ve had a blast running around with my 13-year-old, high-fiving the first time we took down a green portal. Even my little 6-year-old daughter, who’s a good reader, loves operating the device on the spot; she understands “Hack”, “Deploy”, “Upgrade”, and ”Fire Xmp” and gets all excited at the sound effects and visuals.

So, if you can get an invite and have kids, give it a try.

An attack in progress

The App · It may be related to Ingress’ current Android-only status that the aesthetics are totally Holo dark, all ice-cool blue, grey, and green on black. Someone extremely clever figured out how to Holo-morph every Google Maps tile in the world.

The app is really very good I think. You’re not going to get the immersive richness of something like Skyrim, but who cares since you’re out there in the real world, which is, like, you know, immersive.

Having said that, the graphics aren’t bad at all; lots of intelligent use of 3D effects, and the attacking-a-portal sound & animation produces a satisfying little bite of drama.

There are three big problems with the app: power consumption, power consumption, and power consumption. This sucker eats batteries. People in sparsely-portaled areas have to drive around between them, but at least they can plug their phones into the car charger. High-level players have been observed scouring eBay for cheap off-brand spare batteries. Newsflash: There are lots.

The Other Window · There’s another interface to the game, available through the nearest browser via the “Intel map” — that shot of Minsk above gives a flavor, and here’s a full screenie. The mobile client is read-write but you don’t get to see much of the map; this shows you as much as you want, but is mostly read-only, aside from chat. A very interesting set of design decisions there.

Geolocation · Your experience playing the game is going to depend pretty heavily on the quality of the your device’s GPS and compass. The bad news is that they’re wildly variable, that device reviews have mostly been ignoring this stuff, and that Samsung, the leading builder of Android devices, is not a leader in GPS technology; at least if my experience is anything to go by.

Early Culture · I spent some time at the Googleplex last week, where the Ingress density is more or less maximal. It turns out that one of my close co-workers is a Level 7, which is a big deal at this stage.

He was telling me that there is a conscious culture, among the high-level players, of leveling up the n00bs. To this end, they don’t go for big long stifling linkage.

Also, they do “bombing runs”, where a high-level player goes through an area with lots of opposing portals, wipes them all out (what an L7 Xmp burster can do is awesome), but doesn’t replace them with much. This leaves the field open for n00bs to get in and do some power-leveling.

One side-effect is that on the Googleplex itself, the portals tend to change hands multiple times per day. I went down there Monday as a L2, and came back Thursday at L4, having only invested a couple of hours in it over that time.

Back Story · There’s a whole paranoid science-fictional back story that you can take in by visiting the Niantic Project. I found it amusing for about 15 minutes, but tastes vary.

If You’re Going To Play · There’s loads of advice out there all over the Net, but I haven’t seen one subject addressed very well: Which faction should you choose? Here’s my take: Before you pick, get to know someone who’s already in, and have a look at the map around where you’re going to be playing. Then, pick the faction that’s losing locally.

If you’re surrounded by lots of opposition portals, you’re probably going to level up faster and with less work. And anyhow, it’s fun being an underdog.

Disclosures · I work for Google. I’m not in contact (as far as I know) with anyone on the Niantic team. I wrote most of the Wikipedia entry.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Sterling (Dec 08 2012, at 19:11)

FYI, re-coloring GMaps tiles is part of the API these days: https://developers.google.com/maps/documentation/javascript/reference#MapTypeStyle. Which isn't to say that the Niantic team hasn't done a great job of it.

Just got my Ingress invite today, too!

[link]

From: iminurportalz (Dec 08 2012, at 21:48)

Daily game play breaks down into two modes: strategy at home, action outside on the move. The game is designed this way, according to the devs. John Hanke said the hybrid nature of the app is the most significant innovation, not the global AR stuff.

Social and strategy tools are in the intel board (chat and global view) and when you're using the app, it's pretty hard to do any strategy since you cant see more than a few blocks. “You’re like a rat in a maze on the phone,” Hanke said. Many players carry a tablet or laptop with them if they're out for long, in order to get better intel. Many inexperienced players only use the app and fumble about, putting long links down, with no sense of the consequences.

After level grinding, you spend much more time working from the intel screen, using G+ email and chat, communicating with locals and and working on strategy. I spend more time in this mode than using the mobile app because bringing others up and collaboration on high-level portal farms are the real power-gaming tools.

There is hope the social features are "augmented" if more strategy elements are introduced. The game could also go in the direction of being more interactive and facilitating real-time battles.

[link]

From: Jüri K (Dec 09 2012, at 11:26)

Is it just me, or is Ingress a rip-off of the Finnish Shadow Cities iOS-only game http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/16/arts/video-games/shadow-cities-a-new-iphone-video-game-review.html?_r=0

[link]

From: Jeppis (Dec 09 2012, at 11:30)

How does this compare to a indie game Shadow Cities? Have you tried it, Ingress looks very similar.

[link]

From: Terence Eden (Dec 09 2012, at 14:25)

I just don't get it. I have an invite and tried playing it in central London. Even on a Galaxy Nexus it was slow and buggy.

After 15 minutes of playing, I still couldn't figure out what the point was. I see a glowing light, click on it and it changes colours. Is that it?

Ignoring the silly backstory - what am I working towards? With Angry Birds, I'm using up some of the dead time in my day - the commute, sitting on the loo, etc - with this, it demands that I go out and spend a portion of my day doing "stuff".

I have a job, a life, an exercise regime - what does Ingress do for me?

I get some points, can I exchange them for anything less nebulous?

Perhaps, more importantly, what does it do for Google? What do they get out of me doing this work for them?

So, anyone care to enlighten me on what I'm missing?

[link]

From: Harry Fuecks (Dec 09 2012, at 15:27)

To me what's nice about Ingress is it doesn't promote obsessive players. There isn't much to be gained from playing longer hours - nice for casual gamers like me. Where I've seen people pull all-nighters, they vanish for the next day or two - presumably to recover - you have to be extremely fit to play Ingress a lot in a way you don't with something like World of Warcraft

[link]

From: Richard (Dec 09 2012, at 17:47)

I don't know what the hold up is with Google handing out invites - I've been waiting well over a month for one now. :(

[link]

From: Sasha (Dec 09 2012, at 23:33)

I can't tell you how frustrating that play has not been opened up in Australia as yet. I've got an invite from mid November that's still waiting to be used.

[link]

From: JB (Dec 10 2012, at 19:28)

@Sasha, you can side-load the apk.

Do a search for it, not hard at all.

--

Onwards-ever-upwards towards enlightenment.

JB

[link]

From: Roger (Dec 17 2012, at 05:41)

This definitely looks like "Shadow Cities" so I guess you must really be enjoying this Tim. :-)

Oh and btw, your blog has been mentioned here-> http://www.talkora.com/technology/List-of-programming-and-software-development-blogs_105 (look for entry #9 in the list)

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