Google’s alternate reality, multiplayer mobile game Ingress has found a pretty large audience in the last year — more than seven million people have installed it on their Android or iOS phones, up from the four million who were playing as of July, when the iOS app was released. Now, the game is getting its biggest update yet, one that combines the core "Resistance vs. Enlightenment" faction battles with the game’s first foray into user-generated content.
Ingress’s new "Missions" feature (rolling out on Android today and coming to iOS soon) lets users put together a virtual field trip that combines the ubiquitous Ingress "portals" with a much wider set of real-world locations. John Hanke, the head of Google’s Niantic Labs, described the new feature as "adding RPG-style quests" to the game. "The world is the game board, you have to go outside to play," says Hanke. "It's built around historical sites, works of art, hopefully leading you to interesting things in your community — missions makes this exploration really integral."
"The world is the game board, you have to go outside to play."
For those unfamiliar with Ingress, the core gameplay is centered around "portals" — when you open the app, it shows you a stylized map of your current location and active portals nearby. Users create these portals at real-world landmarks and locations, and each portal is controlled by one of the game’s two factions — controlling more portals is crucial to winning the ongoing capture-the-flag competition. When you come upon a portal, you can "hack" it to gain items and experience and try to take control of it for your faction.
"Missions provide a bit more structured gameplay," Hanke says. "It's been a sort of big massive green vs. blue, global game of capture the flag — but it can be a little bit confusing for people starting to come into the game." At its simplest, Missions will let users build what amounts to guided tour of an area based on both existing Ingress portal locations as well as points of interest pulled from Ninantic Labs’ Field Trip app. That Field Trip data greatly expands the variety and number of locations mission creators can direct players to, as the service pulls in data from a wide variety of sources like Atlas Obscura, Best of the Road, Cool Hunting, Vice, Zagat, Food Network, Eater, and many more.
Your mission can be as simple or as complex as you want
To complete the mission, you’ll need to visit all of the designated locations; finishing a mission rewards you with custom badges for your Ingress profile and well as in-game experience points to help you level up. The scavenger hunt premise is simple, but there are a whole host of ways to customize any mission you want to make. The only requirement when crafting a mission is that it starts at an existing portal (rather than a Field Trip destination). From there, you can decide if users have to complete the mission in a linear order or whether they can visit the waypoints in any order they choose.
When visiting the Ingress portals, creators can have the players perform a variety of activities, ranging from the simple "hack" command to more complex actions that could require multiple players. (For Field Trip locations, you’ll just need to open up the Field Trip "card," which you can do right in the Ingress app.) And to really ratchet up the difficulty level, mission creators also have the ability to make all of the waypoints hidden and use clues to direct players to where they need to go rather than spell it all out on a map for them.
Creating your own mission is a fairly simple process, as well, which should help good content proliferate quickly throughout the Ingress world. Once logging on to the Ingress website, users can create their own missions by interacting with what is essentially Google Maps overlaid with the locations of Ingress portals and Field Trip sites of interest. You can search for a particular neighborhood or city and start building your mission by picking out waypoints, putting them in your desired order, and adding the specific activities users will need to perform at each stop on the tour.
Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to make missions as of today — Google employees have been building them for testing purposes, and a selected group of players have been whitelisted so far. However, there won’t be missions available in every corner of the globe, something Niantic hopes to fix pretty quickly. Hanke told me that the goal was to let every player who had reached level five make maps; that should be available to everyone who meets that criteria within "a month or two."
It’s obviously too early to tell how successful Ingress’s first foray into user generated content will be, but the Niantic Labs team is banking on the Ingress community to make it work. Beyond this year’s user growth is the rapidly-expanding community springing up around the game. Some 5,000 local communities across the world have hosted meet-ups, and the multiple-month, story-focused "events" that Niantic plans have gotten bigger and more complex.
"The coolest thing about Ingress has been this real-world, social phenomenon," said Hanke. Last year, meetups started with less than 50 people, and now hundreds routinely show up to take part — this weekend’s conclusion to the "Helios" event in Munich, Germany is expected to be the biggest yet, with some 2,000 people expected to show up.
Exploring your neighborhood, gameified
Whether or not user-generated missions gain the same traction remains to be seen, but it should have a shot if Niantic can roll out the mission-generating tool to the most passionate Ingress players quickly. Hardcore players will likely relish the challenges that others build into their missions — and more casual players may just simply enjoy finding new sights around their city, with a little bit of portal-hacking on the side. "For me, the best use of this will be missions that help people really discover things," Hanke said. "That’s kind of our whole ethos."