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.
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.
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.
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.