Niantic Labs made itself a global name when it worked with Nintendo to create augmented reality hit Pokémon Go. But the game developer that originated as an internal Google startup first got off the ground developing one of the earliest mainstream AR apps years earlier. Called Ingress, the mobile game introduced many of the same features that later became core pillars of Pokémon Go — particularly the capturing and controlling of virtual locations overlaid onto the real world. It was, however, very early in the AR trend, and Niantic’s ambitions outpaced the available software and the smartphone hardware of the time.
Now, five years after its first game launched and with much more advanced AR tools at its disposal, Niantic is rebooting its first game as Ingress Prime, which launches for free today on iOS and Android. Those who already have the app and an account can access the new game as an update. Niantic says account names, badges, and other progress in the standard Ingress carries over to Ingress Prime.
The developer first discussed its plans for Ingress Prime publicly nearly a year ago, but the overhaul has been in the works long before that. The launch of Pokémon Go in 2016 made Niantic one of the most popular mobile game developers in the world, and it established the company as a pioneer of boundary-pushing AR techniques and software tools.
Much of those advancements— like more realistic blending of virtual objects with real-world environments — have made their way into Pokémon Go as updates. But Niantic had yet to make use of more powerful smartphones and new mobile AR frameworks, like Apple’s ARKit, with Ingress. To this day, Ingress has a dedicated fan base that participates in a number of real-world meetups every year.
Ingress Prime is being billed as a sleeker, more modern version of the game, but with pretty much all of the same core gameplay and narrative elements intact. You still pick one of two opposing sides in a cyberpunk-style global struggle to take control of a new form of energy emanating from portals all over the world, with each portal representing a real-world landmark, park, or other notable location. And much of the game still revolves around traveling to those locations, capturing portals, and helping your side establish ever-larger networks of nodes across the globe.
Yet the new Ingress has received a visual overhaul to the overall UI, as well as a the mapping and capturing mechanic. The general AR features are also now more in line with Pokémon Go and other modern AR experiences because Niantic rebuilt Ingress from the ground up using its Real World Platform. That’s the underlying software infrastructure that powers its AR games and the upcoming Harry Potter: Wizards Unite title the company has in the works.
With Ingress Prime, however, it’s less about the tech powering the experience and more about the social aspect. Because it never had a big, established entertainment property attached to it, Ingress grew based solely on the local communities that established real-world friendships and turned the game’s meetup component into a passionate cornerstone of the fanbase.
To honor that, Niantic is relaunching Ingress’ signature Anomaly event series, which is the game’s developer-sanctioned series of organized meetups every year, into a seasonal event series in Asia, Europe, and North and South America starting November 17th. All of the Niantic-hosted events will take place in major cities like Barcelona and Hong Kong. What happens there— as well as what happens at “satellite” Anomaly meetups for those who can’t make it to a big city — will influence the struggle between the two factions in the game.
Rounding out the whole experience is a set of new storytelling components from Niantic that build upon the existing Ingress narrative. That includes an anime now broadcasting in Japan that will become available globally via Netflix in 2019, a new live-action web series called “The Dunraven Project,” and a brand new feature for the game involving artificial intelligence that will launch soon. Niantic says it’s built two new virtual personalities, one for each of the two factions, that players will be able to interact with. Over time, and depending on the outcome of Anomaly events and other in-game activity, the personalities will begin to alter and eventually become a big part of the narrative in Ingress, Niantic says.
Niantic understands that Ingress is and always has been more niche, and that it will likely never see the massive appeal that a game using the established universe of Pokémon or Harry Potter can achieve. But the developer wants Ingress Prime to be as accommodating to new players as possible, which is why it’s leaning so hard on the storytelling elements.
A lot of what made Ingress popular initially is that, like the game itself, the narrative leaks out into the real world. It’s always succeeded more as an ARG (alternative reality game) with a mobile AR component rather than a traditional gaming experience, as so much of “playing” the game is really just meeting other players, attending events, and consuming various Niantic-made and fan-made media on the internet.
So to get people engaged, and to bring lapsed players back, Niantic is now opening as many avenues as possible to get involved, explore the story, and possibly attend an Anomaly event in the future. The hardcore fans are already here and waiting to jump in. But Niantic hopes a lot of new players, especially those enthralled by the outdoors and social components of Pokémon Go and willing to try something different, will become the next generation of Ingress fans.