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Reflecting on five years of Niantic

My phone buzzed at me the other day to notify me that Ingress was five years old. I was excited to install the Ingress beta back in the winter of 2012, and I played it heavily (although I mostly stopped once I’d reached L8). In contrast, when I now hear Niantic are involved in the AR mobile Harry Potter franchise, my primary emotion is disappointment; and I bought the last four Potter books shortly after the midnight on their release days.

In this post, we’ll reflect on Niantic’s first (and broadly successful) game in this, space: Ingress.

Ingress

The good

Ingress overlaid a different world on top of our own; it turned a bundle of otherwise unremarkable landmarks into a landscape of competition. For an app that could (unkindly) be described as a dystopian skin of Google Maps, it was remarkably engaging.

A typical Ingress view

Exploring the world, claiming your first portal, creating your first links and fields, eventually acquiring enough bursters to be able to attack the portals belonging to the other team – all of these things were fun.

The early game was rife with projects: collaborations to create large fields – over countries, and occasionally over significant chunks of continent. A team of Enlightened agents in London emptied the area inside the circle line of all Resistance portals. Multiple local rivalries were spawned; I spent a good hour a day trying to keep my opposite number from expanding beyond Putney. Hours were spent nervously watching over guardian portals. Hundreds of players got together for the Niantic sponsored events (albeit mostly to flip portals with hoarded Jarvis and ADA weapons).

It was an exciting community to be a part of.

Why did it form a community? Because the game required collaboration to make things work after a certain level – good luck making level eight portal farms on your own! This had viral effects; even reluctant friends were eventually chivied into joining in. It wasn’t long before the tight knit London group of friends I’m part of had eight L8 members.

The grind nature of the game was counteracted by the low impedance to play. In a reasonably densely populated area, there would usually be some in game artifacts to interact with; every short trip was made a bit more exciting by having Ingress open. At the height of Ingress’s popularity, the first action on reaching a pub would be to take over the portal that would inevitably be hanging over it; I suspect this is still true of remaining players.

So – the good

  • Playability (despite early scanner versions being rather unstable)
  • Viral spread
  • Progression requires collaboration
  • Community events
  • Some of the badges were genuinely interesting
  • Progression requires exercise!

The Bad

Ingress wasn’t actively bad in many ways at all. A few aspects of it missed the mark. A few things were missing.

Wide of the mark

Does anyone know what the narrative of Ingress was supposed to be? All those media items the game desperately tried to foist upon me were in support of something, right? Something something alien race portals between worlds something something. The only thing that really had any ‘draw’ was the voice bit of the scanner that welcomed you – much like the EVA from the original Command and Conquer games.

It was perfectly possible (and, frankly, less hassle) to make progress in the game without any idea of what would motivate you to do all of this portal related nonsense. Imagine how much more engaged  agents would have been with a decent story tying them to the fate of the portals they claim. Imagine getting a notification from Ingress and not immediately searching for the setting in your phone to turn them off again, because the story had sucked you in powerfully enough for you to react.

Missing

Besides bragging rights and better weaponry, there wasn’t much to gain from levelling up. Beyond level eight – unless you felt like ticking off all of the platinum badges – there was nothing to entice you to continue to play.

The experience as a new player once the game had really taken off was less attractive. I remember being able to find new portals, discover and claim clusters of portals, link and field with ease and level constructively when I started. Competition for space later on was much harder – it was difficult to get into the game without an experienced friend to help clear existing portals out.

I imagine the opposite was true if you tried to play Ingress outside of major cities. Out there, a completely empty world was the default, and you’d have to spend a long time getting new portals past the admins (a process that definitely belongs under ‘bad’) to get your local space up and running. The game needed a different mode or activity for sparsely populated areas.

One final nitpick. Communication and coordination between agents on the same team happened almost entirely outside the app. It would have been more immersive for the game to provide mechanisms for it to happen inside.

Mildly Annoying

The game was attacked? invaded? by several automated scripts that were used to level up agents in order to sell the accounts online. It was frustrating to see a portal farm you’d spent time putting together disappear in the dead of night from a place where public access was possible only in daylight hours.

Summary

Ingress was a simple idea executed rather well. By no means perfect, it still recruited thousands of agents who played through its grindy levelling system with great gusto and who, I suspect, look back on those days spent portal hacking with a smile; I certainly do.