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The everywhere arcade: How Google is turning location into a game platform

The everywhere arcade: How Google is turning location into a game platform


Niantic Labs' Ingress project will expand to support new games — and ads

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Every week, players of the global augmented-reality game Ingress receive an email that starts the same way. "Greetings Agent," it begins. "The global struggle for control of XM and human Mind Units continues." To an outsider, the emails can come across like low-rent basic-cable sci-fi. But to the game's thousands of hardcore players, they're a rallying cry to get out of the house and wage virtual war. After a year in beta, Ingress opens fully to the public tomorrow after events in 14 cities that are serving as a kind of season finale.

Ingress can easily be seen as a lark for Google, which launched the game through its Niantic Labs internal incubator. But a year in, the bigger vision behind Ingress is starting to come into focus. Encouraged by the support it has seen from players — more than 1 million people have downloaded the game, and player communities have sprung up around the globe — Niantic is starting to think more deeply about how Ingress can be turned into a platform that anyone can use to build an alternate reality game of their own.

The bigger vision behind Ingress is starting to come into focus

An open real-world gaming platform has been Ingress' goal from the beginning, says John Hanke, who helped create Google Earth and led the company's location services before launching Niantic as an internal incubator within Google. "You can think of Ingress in some ways as a proof of concept," Hanke says in an interview with The Verge. "With Ingress we've proven that people can have fun, that there's a kernel of something powerful in a game that gets you out moving. And Ingress is just one example of the type of game in that genre that you could build."


An addictive quest

The Ingress mythology, which now spans websites, forum threads, YouTube series, and official comic books, involves the discovery of a mysterious substance known as "exotic matter" (XM) associated with an enigmatic group known as the Shapers. But at its heart, the game is really all about creating triangles. Players join one of two factions depending on whether they think XM is a force for good or evil, and use their smartphones to capture as many virtual portals as possible. Linking three portals together forms the basis of progress within the game.

For the Ingress faithful, the quest to link portals together has become surprisingly addictive. "I was getting in trouble at work, because I was on my phone so much during the day," says Linda Besh, a 51-year-old financial analyst. Besh never considered herself a gamer before she found herself trudging through the streets of Plymouth, MI, searching for portals on her Android smartphone. She began posting about her experiences on Google+ and has since attracted more than 9,000 followers with her tips and advice.

"If I had a bad day, I could go and take it out on this portal."

To Besh, the game's appeal lies in the way it gave her a sense of control over the physical world — even if the only signs of that control were on her phone. "If I had a bad day, I could go and take it out on this portal," Besh says. "I think for a lot of people, it does that for them. It's a release of frustration. You can you can be totally broke and penniless, but you can still take your phone out and go play Ingress. And you're going to accomplish something. I don't see anything else that does that." Besh saw another benefit from walking around town so much: she lost 40 pounds.


Staying power

It's hard to say how many players are like Linda Besh: Google won't say how many active users the app has. For now, it's only available on Android; Hanke says that more than 1 million people have installed it, and that "a good chunk" of them are still playing. The weekly Ingress Report show on YouTube, which is produced by Google, has lately attracted between 18,000 and 48,000 viewers per episode. Meanwhile, Niantic is developing an iPhone app that is expected to be released next year, greatly expanding the game's potential audience.

The rare alternate reality game with staying power

But observers of massively multiplayer online gaming say that Ingress is the rare alternate reality game with staying power. "It definitely is succeeding, because you've got a solid player base that has stuck with it for months on end," says Michael Andersen, editor of ARGNet, which covers the industry. "Typically when you look at mobile games, people will play it once or twice and never look it again. Here you've got a mobile game that a fairly large player base has been turning to every night for a year without an end in sight."

Also encouraging, at least to Google: there are signs that the free game could have a workable business model. Advertisers including Jamba Juice, Vodafone, and Duane Reade have signed up to offer in-game goods to players who visit their locations in the real world. Right now, Hanke is characterizing the ad deals as experiments, and the team is analyzing results from the first year to fine-tune future in-game ad products. "I think it will end up working, but we're doing our homework," he says.


Building the platform

The question for Niantic Labs next year will be how to take various elements of Ingress and put them together into a series of APIs that will entice other game developers. Some aspects of Ingress will almost surely be part of any platform: location data, a communications layer to let players interact, and in-game advertising tools that would allow Google to share revenues with developers. "The idea is that we would like to explore this concept of sponsors essentially being able to get exposure across a wide number of titles, but have a consolidated entry point for them," Hanke says.

But how much would Google allow developers to change the core gameplay? Hanke imagines a vampire-themed game where instead of capturing monuments and art works, as in Ingress, they would capture cemeteries and blood banks. But what if developers wanted to go beyond the basic game of capture the flag? "One of the challenges is that with Ingress itself, the game play is pretty straightforward," he says. "If you're talking about using this as a platform, the question is how much flexibility would people have to build a new narrative on this existing platform?"

Can developers make money with Ingress?

There's no time frame for turning Ingress into a platform. The game itself has about another year's worth of stories to tell, and Niantic Labs needs to prove it can retain players over the full life of the game. It also needs to persuade developers that a game like Ingress can succeed without the financial backing of one of the world's largest corporations, and that a third-party game can generate enough in revenue to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

In the meantime, Hanke says the Niantic is spending 90 percent of its time on perfecting Ingress itself. That global struggle over human Mind Units will continue for months to come. "Right now, the goal is to make a really compelling game," he says. "Without that, none of the rest of it really works."