Pokémon GO has already been a huge success. There’s no denying it. The combination of augmented reality gameplay with a huge and beloved franchise have combined to make a game that’s way more popular than anyone could have predicted. But Pokémon GO might not have been possible if not for a 3-year-old game called Ingress. Ingress was the first game by Niantic, the developers of Pokémon GO. While lacking the name brand recognition of Pokémon, Ingress set the foundation for the technology and certain gameplay features that we’re seeing now.
Ingress, which is still going strong at 7 million players, is an original IP based in a near-future science fiction setting. The story is that when CERN discovered the Higgs boson a new substance called exotic matter was released into the world. This exotic matter enters the world through portals and has the ability to affect humans. The portals are real cultural and historical locations like parks and monuments. There are two factions of humans in the game – enlightened and resistance. The enlightened believe exotic matter will bring about the next evolutionary step for mankind. The resistance sees the matter as coming from a possible alien force and are trying to control the matter so it doesn’t find its way into the wrong hands and destroy humanity.
You play Ingress much like you play Pokémon GO! You visit places in the real world that are home to portals. You try to claim or defend these portals against the opposing faction by attacking the portals controlled by the other team, or leaving items to help defend portals already controlled by your team. You can also hack portals to gain items and experience to help you in the game. When playing the game on your phone, you can see the nearby portals and directions to navigate to them.
The concept of making the game that would involve going to real places was the original idea for Ingress. I got the chance to sit down with Niantic CEO John Hanke at an Ingress event in Seattle earlier this year to get the backstory on the development of the game.
“It’s an excuse to do something outside. We could all take a walk around downtown Seattle, but we don’t,” he said. “I love Google Earth and Google Maps, but I thought it would be wonderful to actually go out and explore those locations rather than just looking at them on a computer. But he also knew there had to be a good incentive to get people out of the house for something other than for the sake of getting outside. That’s when the idea of making up a game around that type of experience was born. “Gamers could take their game with them and get all of the satisfying experiences of progression and leveling up while visiting some pretty cool places. You know when you find that perfect spot in a park on a perfect day and you’re like ‘I feel awesome right now?’ That’s the kind of experience we wanted to achieve.”
Since its launch the story and faction beliefs have evolved based on the community. Different people in different places interpret the game differently. And they often do it together as teams in the real world. Hanke said the goals of exercise and visiting cool places were always part of the plan for Ingress, but the social aspect took them by surprise.
“The formation of social groups around the game was totally unanticipated,” he said. “It’s actually become the strongest part of the game. The way that people are making friends and working as a team is more of an incentive around the game now, than the game itself.”
I can vouch for that. The event in Seattle left me somewhat awestruck. I saw groups of people coordinating their movements and wearing matching t-shirts or carrying flags to designate their team. Some of the teams even marched down the thoroughfare from the Space Needle to the International Fountain. And I mean marched. One of the teams was a group of ex-Marines who were getting ready for the event by doing calisthenics on the lawn. It really was a sight to behold.
Like Pokémon GO! Ingress is free to play, so the next time you’re out looking for pokémon, you might want to check to see if there are any portals nearby.