December 09, 2014

Ingress: The Incredible & Addictive Covert Game Being Played All Around You

A little over two years ago, a small team within Google called Niantic Labs introduced Ingress, a game that adds a virtual reality layer on top of the entire world, which you can claim, defend or destroy for your cause - depending on which side you've chosen. And while I tested early versions of the game while it was developing at Google, and dabbled with it just after launch, I put it aside before jumping back in with both feet two months ago, when a pair of colleagues on my new team couldn't stop talking about it. And now I won't stop talking about it either.

Simply put, in my view, it's the most well-designed, intelligently deployed concept I've ever seen for an immersive experience on mobile, which encourages you to get off your butt, explore the world around you, and find new people to help you achieve goals together. Every facet of the application, even while it seems mysterious, is designed to help you get out of house, to explore new crannies of your neighborhood (and beyond) and discover people on your faction who need your help to achieve what would be impossible alone. I've never seen anything like it.

Some shots of Ingress badges and live portals.

As you know, I've been an avid wearables and personal fitness tracking nut for the better part of more than two years. Fitbit has been counting my steps and Moves has been showing where I go. But while Fitbit only counts my activity, it doesn't provide direction or give me a specific mission. Ingress does - making my steps matter, as they are pulled toward each new destination, and seemingly every turn provides yet another opportunity to take down an opponent, power up or build on my own space, or hack away and get new equipment to make me stronger. This combination has accelerated my near-constant walking and movement into personal record highs, consistent leaderboard domination, and I've fallen way behind in any regular TV watching.

There are many other sites dedicated to the gameplay of Ingress, so I won't go too deep, but at its heart, Ingress is a battle for the hearts and minds of humanity. In the storyline, the Earth has been seeded with exotic matter (XM), and you either believe this XM will enlighten us all, or you will resist it. So from the very begining, you choose a side: The Resistance (blue) or The Enlightened (green).

The Two Factions of Ingress: Enlightened and Resistance

Once you pick a side, you then have three primary functions, much like other multi-player games. You can build sites for your faction, you can destroy the opposition, or you can continually farm for new equipment to make you stronger. This is done by visiting sites, known as portals, which consist largely of landmarks across the world, from water fountains to murals, sculptures, churches and standing structures. If it is something that can shape your mind and appears exotic, there's a good chance it's a portal.

Ingress is played globally as teams battle for position.

As one friend of mine tastefully said, you can't play Ingress "from the comfort of your own toilet." You have to move. And in especially dense places with plenty of landmarks, the next portal can be just another block or less away. So if you find yourself out to build, farm, destroy or explore, the only limit to how much you participate is your own time, and how long your phone can hold a charge. That's led to something of a cottage industry for Ingress players lugging around external phone battery charges so playing doesn't stop short at the worst time.

Now that Ingress has you out of your house, and walking with specific destinations, with the next stop just a little bit further away, you're being stretched. Stretched to find new places in your community you hadn't previously seen, new spots in other cities you've never visited, and it sets you up to be territorial, knowing that particular portals are valuable to you or your side.

The Denver, Colorado Ingress Scene: A Mess of Blue and Green

But if you really want to have an impact, you can't just go it alone. Even the most experienced Ingress player can't build a portal up much more than halfway to full strength, thanks to features in the game that limit your ability to power up portals. It takes two players to take a portal to 75%, three can take it to just over 80%, and in order for a portal to reach 100% strength, it take contributions from eight individual players. So you can deploy and hope, or you need to find people on your side who are often more than eager to help and build, destroy or hack together - spurred on by built-in communications in the app, or augmented through dedicated communities on Google+, Hangouts and other chat tools. There, people will arrange times to meet, secret build or teardown events, or provide updates about activity in their neighborhood.

One Los Altos portal in our neighborhood.

I recently heard somebody say you either go deep into Ingress or you don't go at all. And it's probably true. I originally didn't get the attraction, as a low level player. But now I've seen things I build at midnight before heading home get taken down at 1:30 in the morning, or by six a.m. the next day. I've started to recognize and greet players on both teams, and you learn the patterns of the game, as one faction gains control over a geography, or specific people just refuse to ever give up, and seemingly play around the clock. And once you go deep, it really becomes a numbers game, as every activity is counted. Every hack. Every deployment. Every link from portal to portal. Every field. Every destroyed opponent portal. The more numbers you get, the more abilities you have and the stronger you are against the competition, and the more they need to be prepared for you.

Joining the Enlightened on Ingress has brought destinations, goals and missions to the activity I was already doing with Fitbit. It's dramatically reduced (even further) my idle sitting time, it's made me see and enjoy experiences I hadn't yet gotten to around town and in neighboring cities, and I'm getting new relationships with people from a variety of backgrounds, who all hold at least one thing in common - that we're playing Ingress, and working to expand the minds of humanity. It's more than a game. It's the true reality. I hope you do check the game out, and see what it does to your daily routine. And while I don't mind more competition, it'd be awesome if you saw the world in a new light by joining the Enlightened.

Grab Ingress on Google Play for Android and on iTunes.

Disclosure: I work at Google, and the Niantic team works within Google.

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