Recently you might have seen more and more groups of geeky people gathering at weird times at unlikely places while intensely staring at their screens. If, then you can be quite sure that you have seen us: Ingress players. Ingress is a game developed by Google’s subdivision Niantic, which makes you actually leave your couch and go outside and explore to play. For more than a year this game was in beta testing (while I was so lucky to score an early invite), and since 14 December it is now open to the general public – enough reason to take a closer look at what it is and what it is that Google is getting out of it.
So what is Ingress?
Ingress is a globally played augmented reality game available for Android phones and could best be described as Foursquare meets capture the flag. The game is set in a universe in which so called shapers are changing the ways humans think. Those shapers do this via “exotic matter” which is leaked through portals into this world. The goal of the game is it to capture as many portals (which are usually landmarks and points of interest) as possible and to link them to fields to either enable or stop the influencing of the human mind. Two factions are battling each other: the “Resistance” who believe that humanity should not be controlled by an alien force; and the “Enlightened” who believe that the influence of the exotic matter will lead us to the next step of enlightenment.
This game requires you to actually go outside and to walk/drive/cycle to the portal as you will have to stand within 35 metres of the portal to interact with it. One of the big advantages is that this game will make you see the area in which you live with new eyes and you will discover many new things. However, the other side of this might also be that you suddenly find yourself in Eccles (or any other place in the middle of nowhere) at 4 in the morning when you just wanted to quickly pop out at 10 p.m. to finish a field (yes, this happened to me). Due to a big cooperative element to the game it is also quite social and usually leads to making new acquaintances and friends. Here in Manchester both factions have regular meetups and also while travelling within the country and abroad, planned and unplanned “meetups” are quite regular. In almost every big city of this world you find an active Ingress Google Plus community.
But what is Google getting out of this?
Google is benefiting from Ingress in a number of ways, chief among them map data and advertising.
The map used in ingress is a plain map, stripped of all street names and such like. Google tries to force you to find the quickest way to the portal. As most “agents” are playing the game on foot, this delivers valuable walking map data for Google. On top of this, all portals are landmarks and sights; each portal needs a picture in order to be accepted. This way Google, once again for free, gets delivered a selection of photos of almost every single landmark worldwide.
On top of this, Google is testing out advertising options. In Germany they have struck a deal with Vodafone. Firstly every single Vodafone shop in Germany now is an Ingress portal (businesses are not usually accepted as user-submitted portals). Remember, players have to be within 35 metres of a portal to interact with it, so this cooperation will bring a large number of people to the immediate vicinity of the shops. So far I don’t know a single German player who has actually walked into a Vodafone shop due to this, but we will see how this develops.
The lack of of success of this part of the cooperation might have been the reason why they entered round two in the cooperation. Several months back Vodafone started to offer special Ingress pay-as-you-go contracts. These contracts came with an invite code, which was during the invite only beta phase of the game highly attractive. Furthermore they also offered passcodes with each top-up, which delivers free in-game items to you, for example ammunition or portal modifications that increase portals’ strength.
The bottom line
Google came up with a great game that is worth playing. If you want to walk and generally be a bit more active in the New Year it is a great incentive. On top of everything, it enables you to newly discover the area you live in and it is a great way to see new places and to get to know people.
However, Google has to be careful with the advertising it adds to the game. The steps Google has taken in Germany, declaring shops to be portals and giving particular users of a service provider an unfair advantage can in the long term poison the fun.
All in all it is a great game and absolutely worth playing. However, I have to warn you, it has the potential to be addictive and take over your live and sooner or later you will be one of us, hanging round at 2 a.m. in the pouring rain in a random park competing for pixels. Come and join us! We have cookies! Well at least I have when I am playing. You never know how long you are going to be out there.