Reality, but better: what Google’s first videogame reveals about its vision of the web’s future

Google’s first videogame, Ingress, in action.

There’s a new entity spreading across the globe that’s connecting people while becoming ever more influential. Many believe that by harnessing its power, people can become smarter and more creative; others are sceptical, wary of sacrificing control and concerned about its darker implications. It is a polarising force – whose side are you on?

This is Ingress, Google’s first videogame. Its creator insists it isn’t a game about the internet and the rise of the ubiquitous search engine, though the parallels are irresistible. “That’s not our intention, but it’s coming out of Google so maybe there’s a lot of Google in us and that shows up in the game,” says John Hanke, founder of Niantic Labs – a studio he describes as a start-up within the search giant.

In Ingress, players use their mobile phones to visit and ‘claim’ real-life locations for their chosen faction – it’s essentially a capture the flag game writ large, built on Google’s Earth and Maps services. In the game’s fiction players on each side, The Enlightened and The Resistance, are engaged in a battle of wills – the fight to bring the rest of the world around to their way of thinking. It’s easy to read the divide in Ingress as a binary ‘for’ and ‘against’ argument centred on the rise and influence of the internet (and Google with it), but that’s not deliberate, says Hanke. And Google certainly isn’t passing judgement.

“Both factions have philosophical elements that can appeal,” he says. “The Enlightened embrace this weird energy that’s seeping into our world – they think it’s helping humanity evolve in a positive, more peaceful, more efficient direction. The Resistance think that although it has some positive effects, it may be some form of alien mind control trying to subvert the human race.

“Some people have interpreted the Enlightened to be pro-technology and The Resistance being an anti-technology, sort of luddite faction. But that wasn’t really our intent.”

The green dots show areas where The Enlightened are dominant, with blue representing The Resistance’s territory.

The arguments are more nuanced in the game’s fiction, says Hanke, and the opposing stances are designed as a starting point for debate around those issues. The same can be said of Ingress itself – it’s a starting point for Google’s work in AR game development, a base layer of a game laid out across the globe. Its players are the ones who create its action, as Ingress’ plot is governed by the flux of territorial ownership in major cities.

Ingress’ Enlightened and Resistance have also bled into the real world, as befits an augmented reality game; communities have formed around the game, inspiring regular gatherings of players. Some more dedicated participants have had their side’s emblem inked onto their bodies permanently; others have crossed borders and continents to chase in-game artefacts, or stop an opponent claiming a certain territory. Its lore is fleshed out with comic books, e-novels and a weekly YouTube show, presented within Ingress’ fiction and designed to make the game’s players the stars. It has been downloaded two million times on Android devices, and it is coming to iOS soon, where Google’s ARG will spread out even further.

Ingress has been downloaded two million times on Android, and it is coming to iOS soon

Ingress is a return to videogames for Niantic Labs founder, serial entrepreneur and Google executive John Hanke. A self-taught programmer, Hanke’s first loves were his Atari 400 and TRS 80, on which he spent hours at school and at home making his own games. “I basically didn’t have a lot of money to buy games so I started typing in games from magazines, which is how you did things back then,” he tells me. “Then I just started writing my own games as ultimately it was more fun to do that. I still love the process of creation. Now I’m doing what I want to do – what I dreamed of doing.”

When he graduated from school, Hanke spent few years in Burma working for the US government before returning to business school in Berkeley, California. His first businesses were software houses; he was co-founder of Architect Interactive, developer of early online RPG Meridian 59 (A studio later acquired by 3DO) and he later helped start up Big Network, a developer of online multiplayer Java games.

Niantic Labs’ John Hanke, creator of Ingress.

Then, it was onto Keyhole. Formed as a digital maps specialist, it was acquired by Google in 2004, its tech turned into what we now know as Google Earth. So, having helped create one of Google’s most famed services and following a few years overseeing the continued development of Google Earth, Maps, StreetView and more, Hanke asked Google co-founder Larry Page if he could do something new. He said yes.

“Larry likes start-ups and Google has a lot of acquisitions within it,” says Hanke. “Android started as kind of a start-up within Google, the Google Glass project kinda started that way, and even Geo [the ‘maps’ group within Google] – we were an acquisition, my company and another company acquired around the same time were the nucleus of Geo. So it wasn’t that foreign of a concept.”

And so it follows that Hanke describes his new venture, Niantic Labs, as a “start-up within Google.” Currently it houses a couple of dozen engineers and a few games industry veterans from developers including Naughty Dog, Blizzard and Sony. “It really grew out of me daydreaming on my way back and forth from work about how one could make a game that incorporated location and mobile into some kind of new play experience,” he tells me. “Also, we were thinking about wearables, like Google Glass and watches and what kind of products would drive the adoption of those.”

“We were thinking about wearables, like Google Glass and watches and what kind of products would drive the adoption of those.”

The more I speak to Hanke the more it becomes clear that the future as envisioned by Google is one in which technology and the internet isn’t confined to screens on phones, tablets or monitors. It is with you, assisting your actions in the real world – augmenting reality in the truest sense. Ingress is very clearly a first step towards that, and a precursor to a more practical, naturalistic AR. “Games are often the thing that drives adoption of new hardware,” says Hanke. “We want to encourage people to have this healthy, positive experience of going for a walk and maybe discovering something you didn’t already know about.”

A gathering of Ingress players in Nashville, Tennessee.

Hanke’s experience with online MMOs helped layer videogame-style elements on top of that central idea. ”I wanted it to be an emergent, social dynamic – guilds and grades and all of the fun that happens with people,” he says. “We didn’t want to be in the perpetual loop of content creation – just building levels to keep people entertained. I think the social aspect has a lot more longevity and is a more efficient way to build entertainment, because a lot of it just comes from the people – they’re the ones facilitating it.”

That’s not to say Ingress’ world is limited. Only a company with the scale and resources of Google could build out an alternate world like this – more dedicated players can delve into the wider Ingress ARG to discover leaked documents, intercepted conversations and YouTube videos all presented as if they’re ‘real’, documenting the ongoing, player-defined power struggle between The Enlightened and The Resistance.

That story will come to an end at some point, and it’s from there that the significance of Google’s Ingress project will begin to emerge. It’s a testbed for the future viability of AR, Google Glass and wearable tech – in short, what the internet giant sees as the next evolution of how we use the internet. “I think a lot of what is going on in technology right now is extremely compelling but ultimately unsatisfying,” says Hanke. “I think being around other real people and being out in the real world doing stuff together – people get a lot of enjoyment out of that. There aren’t a lot of things in technology that facilitate that. There’s dating apps, which could be one kind of extreme example, but people are looking for fun things to do together – incentives to meet new people and go out and do stuff. For a ton of people Ingress has been that thing.”

That vision is quite different from the one being pushed by other wearable tech evangelists. Hanke is suitably polite about Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus and virtual reality’s prospects in general, but says he’d “prefer to be Morpheus than Neo.”

“[VR is] not something we’re doing, no,” he tells me. “I’m sure that experience will be really compelling for lots of people who want a fully immersive game experience but I think the outside – discovery, exploration, real face-to-face interactions – that’s an equally compelling future vision. It’s a little harder for people to see, perhaps, because it’s early and wearable devices are just coming along.”

For the same reasons, Google isn’t about to start making ‘traditional’ videogames, either. “You have to create all the fun,” says Hanke. “With augmented reality you can make a simple game and it can ride the coattails of the absolute joy you get from walking through the park on a sunny day or meeting a group of new people and having an interesting conversation with someone you didn’t expect. Or just having a new reason to get together with your friends and hang out.”

Ingress is also helping to define how Google makes AR games so that it can then offer out that tech to other game developers. Next, Hanke and his team at Niantic Labs are building an AR experience alongside HarperCollins and 20th Century Fox as part of an ambitious crossmedia project, Endgame. After that helps refine Google’s AR platform further, it’ll begin to offer its tools out to the world’s game developers.

Ingress is also helping to define how Google makes AR games so that it can then offer out that tech to other game developers

“We are talking to people now about early access to the tools and we plan to make them more broadly available next year,” says Hanke. “I would love to see hundreds of augmented reality games played with wearable devices which make them feel more natural and part of the real world – tied to exercise, exploration, physical activity, local discovery…those things come together in a really awesome way.”

It’s certainly a compelling vision, but Google will need to overcome a real-world resistance of its own if it is to popularise AR and wearable tech. Internet users are becoming increasingly wary of giving over personal data online; wearing a device connected to the web at all times which is powered by a vast corporation which trades in internet usage data might sound like an Orwellian nightmare, but it’s real and it’s coming, if you ask Google. There’s also the issue of usability – right now, Google Glass isn’t anywhere near as slick and seamless as it needs to be, and other forms of wearable tech are in their infancy. This will change as the tech evolves, of course.

Hanke outlines Google’s vision with a clarity and belief which speaks of the company’s determination to make its proposed future a reality. “Google is a tool of liberation and democracy and information accessibility for the world,” he says. But some will see Google’s plans to mesh reality and the internet as a further way in which it is seeking information about, and control over, our everyday lives. So, whose side are you on?

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