Google’s John Hanke told me that he has always wanted to create a multi-player game using the assets he developed with Google Earth. I remember him talking about Second Life and gaming at the initial Google Earth press conference years ago.
He and his team at Google’s mobile incubator Niantic Project have now done it with Ingress — an augmented reality multi-player game (Android only for now) that uses Google’s mapping and local data assets to connect the online and offline worlds in a JJ Abramsesque alternate reality. It’s incredibly ambitious and global in scope.
It contemplates people playing simultaneously in cities around the world. The game is in closed beta right now but it already has thousands of players in numerous countries.
Ingress has already been written about in a few places, among them CNET. Without going deeply into the story of the game, here’s the most concise way I can describe it: players pick one of two sides (Enlightenment or Resistance) and visit public places to capture “portals” (often public sculpture or art). By claiming these places on their smartphones players can link portals together and control physical territory. Three portals linked together establishes a “control field.” Control fields are indicated on an online map.
Below is an example of some of those fields currently established in San Francisco (blue is Resistance, green Enlightenment):
Control fields and portals can “decay” and so must be maintained. They can be captured by the other side accordingly.
By establishing control fields over more and more territory, each faction moves closer to “securing or liberating the entire world.” In order to do that, however, factions of players around the globe must cooperate.
I asked Hanke if Google was really serious about Ingress as a game or whether it was a lavish test of something else. Hanke said Google was genuinely serious and wanted to make the game as engaging as possible.
The larger objective is two-fold: get people off the couch and exploring their cites and eventually other cities. (This is also an objective of another Google-Niantic app: Field Trip.) The other “meta goal” is to encourage people to collaborate and cooperate in the playing of the game locally and around the world.
Ingress uses all the geo-capabilities of the phone and overlays the alternate reality onto real places.
Ingress is not the first game to use augmented reality in the “real world,” but it’s probably the most refined and ambitious one to date. Hanke said that eventually Google may make APIs available so that other developers could build augmented reality games on top of Google Maps and other data. However that’s still in the distance.
I asked the expected question about advertising and monetization. Hanke said there were already sponsors such as Jamba Juice and Zipcar; however the ways in which they might be promoted within the game haven’t fully been worked out. Hanke then rattled off a range of scenarios that included getting players to visit stores and scanning products.
I also asked about whether Google Glass was going to be incorporated into the game at some point. Yes, was his answer. Although for obvious reasons the game was starting with smartphones.
I have an invitation and have accessed the game on a Galaxy Nexus, but I haven’t yet “played” it out in the world. I’ve seen some tentative early reviews that find it intriguing but not yet fully realized. However I believe this is one of the most interesting things Google has done in a very long time.
It brings together a range of tools and capabilities that Google has been developing for years: Maps, augmented reality, visual search and the Android OS, together with Google’s global user base. I’m not a gamer and so can’t really assess how Ingress compares to other alternate or augmented reality games.
Yet I think it’s extremely interesting and will prove compelling to many. I also believe that in several ways it offers something of a glimpse into the not-too-distant future of gaming and mobile computing.