Deconstructing: Ingress

by Chris F

I apologize in advance for the length of this article. First, a little background: Ingress is a Google Lab game from Niantic Operations. The guy behind the project is also the guy who was the lead on Google’s geo division, responsible for Maps and Earth. He wanted to make a game using Earth and Maps’s capabilities, and went to form this Lab division called Niantic Labs. Ingress is a game, which helps Google with something (nobody can decide what with yet). It’s not just a gamified app, it’s not just an app. It’s a game, and it’s HUGE. And it’s brilliant. Here’s why.

 

The Game

Ingress is a mass multiplayer online territorial acquisition game played on mobile devices using a modified version of a map, with extra information added on top as an additional layer. The player joins one of two warring factions in the game, The Resistance and The Enlightened.

As a player, your goal is to help your faction control as many “mind fields” as possible all over the world. In order to take control of mind fields, your faction needs to control portals. You can link 3 friendly portals together to create a field. The larger the distance between the portals, the longer the links and the larger the field will be, the more points (dubbed MUs – mind units) your faction gains.

The extra layer

In many ways, Ingress is an augmented-reality game (ARG). It has special in-game information that only players would know about, such as XM, portals, even the factions themselves, it contains a unique premise: portals have opened throughout the world in key locations, and you need to capture them for your faction. It also makes the player feel special through this, by allowing you to feel like one of the relatively few people who can do anything about this.

It comes with a lot of developer-generated content, such as weekly reports about the game done in a news-style video, “journals” written by key influential figures in the game and even having real-life books written about the universe.

All of these, along with encouraging the players to set up communities via channels such as Google+ and Facebook allows for a very, very deep game immersion.

On a technical side, the game has 2 layers. The map background, which is a simple grey map with all the streets and paths on a dark background, with 2 different widths: thick for streets and thin for paths or pedestrian-only streets. The second, top layer, is the game-only information: XM fragments, portals, resonators, dropped items, links, fields and the player.

The player is represented by an arrow indicating your current position and orientation, with an “action radius” of 45 meters around you, in which you can take actions such as hacking portals.

Technically, it seems very simple, as Kort does the same thing, as well as tons of other OSM-based games. What I love about this game is that it takes itself seriously and uses the resources available to it for creating the virtual world around it and keeping the players invested via worldwide events, just like most mass multiplayer online games. At the moment, an event called Operation #13Magnus is taking place, at the end of which the game will go from closed beta to open beta.

I, the Player

First, it needs to be said that you will need to get out of your house to play this game. The game relies on your GPS location, so you will need a GPS-enabled mobile device in order to play it.

You can take actions as long as you have energy (called XM in the game). Your energy does not regenerate over time (ha, Facebook games). Instead, you need to walk over XM clusters that are spread throughout the in-game world. Also, each portal has a field of XM around it that regenerates over time, assuring that you will be able to take a minimum number of actions, provided you are next to a portal. Most of your actions require you to be in a 45 meter radius from the target of your action. Also, you collect XM from the same radius.

XM field around a portal. The circle around the player is the action radius. If your XM meter is under the maximum value, you automatically harvest the XM inside the radius,

The player has quite a lot of options in the game, as far as the games that I’ve visited till now go. Your main goal is to help your faction have more MUs than the opposing faction. You do this by linking friendly portals together.

In order to link portals together, you need to have Portal Keys. To get Portal Keys, you need to hack portals. You can hack both friendly and enemy portals. A hacked portal yields one or more of the following items: XMPs, resonators, mods and/or the key for that portal. Not every hack guarantees a portal key, and, as far as I’ve seen, once you have a portal’s key in your inventory, that portal won’t drop another key for you. You can, however (as I’ve recently learned from some veterans), drop a key on the ground, hack a portal, get its key, and then pick up the key that you’ve dropped earlier, giving you two keys.

In order to capture a portal, you need to deploy Resonators on it. Each portal can be fitted with a maximum number of 8 resonators, and once it has all 8, it can be linked to other friendly portals. You will need to destroy an enemy portal in order to be able to deploy your faction’s Resonators on it. Resonators have a life bar that naturally decays with around 1/6 of its life per day. You can recharge a resonator’s life, either while having the portal that it’s attached to in your action radius, or remotely, from wherever, if you have the key to the portal that it’s attached to. If you recharge a resonator remotely, the amount by which you recharge it depends on the distance to the portal, with a higher distance lowering the recharge efficiency (only noticeable over huge distances: from Ipswich to a portal in central London, the efficiency was 99.7%).

To destroy an enemy portal, you need to destroy the enemy Resonators on it by using an in-game weapon, called XMP. An XMP fires a damaging circular wave from your current location. It damages any enemy resonators caught in the wave and its damage decays with distance, with the most damage being dished out at the dead center (your location). So, if you want to do the most damage to an enemy Resonator, you need to stand on top of it when you fire the XMP.

You can also apply up to 4 modifications to a portal. These modifications come in 6 flavours: Shields, Force Amplifiers, Link Amplifiers, Multi-hack, Heat Sinks, and Turrets. These have effects such as making the portal more difficult to attack, increasing the intensity of the portal’s response to attackers, and increasing the yield of hacking the portal. As of September 2013, an individual player may place up to 2 mods per portal. They may not be removed or upgraded once placed.

Everything in the game, except XM fragments, links and fields, has a level between 1 and 8. As a new player, you start at level 1. Most of the actions you take generate AP, and you level up at certain AP values. Although you have all the action set unlocked since level 1, it’s very hard to engage in conflicts at lower levels. For example, destroying enemy resonators if they’re a higher level than you is very challenging. At low levels, you’re much better off if you just capture neutral portals for your faction, hack enemy portals and link your faction’s portals, hopefully creating fields.

As a player, you also have in-game access to the game community, through the COMM (communicator). You can select the range for which to see player messages in the COMM, with choices between 20km, 200km and global. Once you’ve selected which range you want to see, you can broadcast messages either to only your faction or to both factions. Also, in the COMM you get alerts every time sometime does something notable in your chosen radius, from capturing a portal to establishing a link or creating a field. You get these messages for both factions, and you’re also alerted if anyone attacks your portals or resonators.

We, the Faction

All your actions as a player help your faction. The more fields your faction has, and the larger they are, the more MUs your faction has. You can see the global score inside your OPS screen, which is more or less your dashboard. From your OPS screen, you can see the global score, you can access your inventory, the game settings and your stats.

The global score is usually around 50%-50%, with occasional variations. In almost 3 weeks of playing, the most disparity I’ve seen was 57%-43% for one of the factions.

Much like the Alliance vs. Horde dynamic of World of Warcraft (WoW), being a member of one of the two global factions allows you to feel part of something greater, it gives you a feeling of belonging. It’s great when you see people who are of a higher level than you giving you a helping hand with understanding the game, or giving you the items which you need.

This being a GPS-based game, it also means that if you want to organize something akin to a WoW raid, with tons of players working together at the same time for a greater faction reward (like creating a huge field between cities or countries), you actually need to meet with those people. I met with 3 other members of my faction this weekend and it was really great to do stuff together, take portals from the other faction and create fields and make most of Ipswich belong to my faction. Meetings like this are also a great opportunity to learn new things about the game, new strategies and secrets. I’ve been asked by one of the others that I met with yesterday: “So, Chris, how’s your gear? Is there anything you need? I have some level 4 XMPs if you need them.”. It took me aback for a bit, making me feel like an actual part of something bigger. It also sounded like someone trying to sell you something, only he was giving them away to help you play better: he’s a level 8 player, what need you he have of level 4 XMPs when he has level 8’s?

I’ve had a lot of help since I joined the game, mostly with understanding the underlying mechanics and the community’s perception of the game, and I think the game would be so much more bland without this layer on it.

With this extra “you need to be outside” layer, one of my first concerns was “What would happen if I met someone from the opposing faction, hacking away the same way I am doing right now?”. I was worried about the real life interactions with a person who was my virtual opponent, not knowing if they would know to differentiate between the real world and our digital rivalry.

During my meeting with the other Ingress-y people, I approached this subject as well. They have told me that generally that is not the case and players are actually ok with people from opposing factions, a fact also confirmed by the general Ingress Google+ groups, where people from opposing factions prod each other with in-game monikers such as “Long have my eyes endured the spreading of the enlightened . It’s time to stop it,
it’s time to resist” (pro-Resistance) or “Resistance is futile, you will be Enlightened” (pro-Enlightened) and then reaffirming that everything was in-game. I’ve also been told that there were a few exceptions (as there usually are), with some people whose phones have been stolen after being stalked by people using an unofficial app which allows you to track a user’s movements using their activity feed.

As a gamer myself, I should know this, but I felt that the extra stripped intimacy might affect parts of this dynamic. I’m happy to know that is not generally the case.

Motivation

Why have I played Kort only for 2 hours on a Saturday night but Ingress ever since I’ve downloaded it? Why am I even now plotting what the best route would to be to go get some Coca Cola from the local Iceland by passing the most portals and still get there till they close at 4PM? Why did I manage to persuade someone to switch from iPhone to Android just so they could play Ingress? All in all, what makes this a good game?

First, I believe that this game is very good simply because it has a high level of polish. It’s immersive, it doesn’t have visible bugs, and it looks like there has been quite a bit of design going in behind it. To be honest, it passes my personal favourite test for seeing how much game design effort has been in a game by allowing me to easily visualize it as a non-digital game.

While being owned by Google does have its advantages, I think that’s not the main thing that drives the advanced polish state that this is in. It’s a game, plain and simple, and you can see that it has been done by people who love it. It’s not just another university project, it’s not a master’s thesis, it’s not a side project. You can see that the amount of time that needed to be put into this so it works has been put there by people who worked on this full-time. Would the game be better, as Eric Raymond suggests, if it were open-source? Possibly. Would it have been a good idea to start this project as a weekend project by someone who works full time as something else? I don’t think so. Even Raymond says that good open-source projects build on what other people have done, before making them your own.

What does the game do to motivate me?

One of the things that I love the most is the amount of feedback that it gives you. Ever since you start the game, there is a voice feedback that tells you what you’re doing. It welcomes you back, tells you the amount of time since you last logged in (if more than a few hours). If you capture a portal, it congratulates you on your hacks and captures, tells you when a portal is attacking you, tells you when you’ve collected XM and so on. A game that gives feedback to its players is more likely to keep you invested because you know what you are doing and why certain things happen. For example, if you hack an enemy portal, ADA (the voice) tells you that you are under attack and you can see the portal shooting out a red lightning at you.

Enemy portal retaliating after you shoot an XMP burster

Taking Bartle’s model, here’s what you get for each type of player:

As an Achiever, you can collect badges in-game, with 8 badges available, each with 5 ranks, awarded for different achievements. No, you don’t get a badge when you’ve just started a game, after your first portal hack etc., these are badges you actually have to work for. I only have 1 badge at the moment, for holding a portal for a certain number of days. I’m close to getting the first rank of distinct portals hacked when I’ll get to 100 and that’s about it as to how close I am to getting badges. Another aspect that will appeal to Achievers is that you have TONS of detailed stats which you can gaze at in your OPS screen, from how many kilometers you’ve walked with the app open and in-focus (having it in the background doesn’t count) to how many MUs you’ve brought to your faction.

Agent tab in OPS screen.

As an Explorer, well,this game was made for you. You get to explore the real world around you, find new interesting things, and even can submit portals, which can then go live in about a month after submission. Your job in this game is to find and submit new portals, based on the awesome things around you.

Portal submission screen. Take a picture, write a name and description and you’re set.

The COMM is the in-game social channel, and it’s a great design choice: it gives Socializers something to do, allows new players to ask for hints and generally facilitates interaction between players, making it a truly multiplayer game. Socializers take care of the community and make sure that everyone feels welcomed.

Player conversations in the chat. [secure] means that only other users of the same faction can see those messages.

When a portal or resonator that you own gets attacked, you get an in-game message and email, if you’ve signed up for it. This feedback towards the player allows Killers to feel good, knowing that any damage they do on other player’s portals gets fed back directly to those players, harassing them in a way. ADA also tells you that you did a good job every time you destroy a resonator, which also appeals to a Killer’s ego.

Damage report on a Resistance portal, telling the player that a link has been destroyed.

Damage report on a Resistance portal, telling the player that a link has been destroyed.

But, why?

Why would Google invest in a game? What does it bring to them? Well, there’s a lot of speculation going on, with a fair share of conspiracy theories to them, as with everything Google-related.

The guy behind the project, Brandon Badger said that they are still considering how to monetize this opportunity, from the data collected on ad placement.

Ingress would also be, according to Badger, a really good launch product for the Google Glass. How awesome it would be to actually have a proper AR overlay for portals AS YOU LOOK AT THEM, and not just on your phone?

They could use this as a marketing software for the Glass, a more logical reason, take path and walking data from their users and update their Google Maps with better directions for walking.

Conclusion

Ingress is a great game. It shows that when you put a focused team on a project, and allow them to work just on that a great game can be made. I also think that Ingress is the proof of concept that map games work in real life.

Till next time, I’m gonna go get some Coca Cola and capture do some fields throughout Ipswich, hopefully I’ll get to level 5.

Chris F.

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