Las Vegas is a city under siege. Beginning in 2012, rifts in the fabric of our world opened up all over the Valley. Since then, the Strip, Downtown, UNLV and the Arts District have become infested with seething energy masses of indeterminate, but certainly extraterrestrial, origin. And Las Vegas isn’t alone. This alien energy has surfaced around the globe, from McMurdo Station in Antarctica to Reykjavik, Iceland, to Alice Springs, Australia. At least that’s the premise of a mobile video game called Ingress that will get you off your couch and out of your house—and may even be a harbinger of gaming’s Next Big Thing.
Sure, that’s a pretty bold statement, especially given the success of console games such as Call of Duty. But Google’s Ingress combines the shift in video game design dollars toward mobile devices with Google’s massive pile of geo-referencing data to produce a game that pushes players to explore the real world. Google spokesman Evan Dexter says there are now more than “9 million registered users in over 200 countries and over 3 million portals created, which have been visited nearly 180 million times.”
The major difference between Ingress and other video games, and what makes it compelling, isn’t the graphics, which are actually quite rudimentary. It’s the gameplay. To get in the fight, you need to interact with other players in real space. If you want to control Vegas Vic, for example, you need to physically go to Fremont Street.
Developed by Google’s Niantic Labs studio, Ingress is an “augmented reality” (AR) game. That is, it takes place in real time on real geography overlaid with game elements, which are viewable on your phone or tablet through the Ingress app. There is no in-game advertising, and the only cost to play is the price of your mobile device’s data connection.
The game’s premise starts with mysterious portals of alien origin that have been popping up around the planet since 2012 and spew something called “exotic matter” (or “XM”). There is a complex storyline involving conspiracy and murder that serves to polarize players into two factions: Resistance and Enlightened. The Resistance (blue team) believes the portals are harmful and seeks to defend humanity against their influence. The Enlightened (green team) believe they hold the key to evolving and improving humanity.
Almost all portals are located at sites of human endeavor. The Las Vegas Valley has approximately 5,000 portals. The Strip and Downtown are thick with them, but so are many suburban parks. Every post office has a portal, and UNLV boasts well over 100. If you live and work within the Interstate 215 ring, you are rarely more than a few hundred yards from a portal.
Players are called “agents,” and when running the Ingress app, cellphones become “XM scanners.” The agent’s goal is to capture and control portals, then link three portals together to form triangular fields to cover and control territory for their faction. Agents can enhance and protect portals for their side, and attack and capture portals owned by the opposition.
The game is ongoing, and agents are constantly moving around, capturing and fielding. However, Niantic also generates game play with large-scale real-life worldwide events called “anomalies” that occur roughly every month. Anomalies enhance the storyline and bring people together to battle over specific areas during set times, and afterword to gather for beer and boasting at local watering holes. In February, Las Vegas surged with more than 1,000 agents who battled for control of Downtown portals, while others fought simultaneously in Texas, Italy, Spain, Colombia, Egypt and the Czech Republic.
The use of “gamification” to stimulate healthy habits has become widespread in apps such as Map My Walk and Zombies, Run! They spread a thin veneer of “fun” over the central activity: doing something unpleasantly healthy. Ingress stands gamification on its head by putting the gaming aspect first. The next thing you know, you’re walking more, finding hidden places in your own town, making new friends and, quite possibly, getting dates. Indeed, one player—Anlia Bolinger of Fort Collins, Colorado—happened to meet her now-fiance through the Las Vegas Ingress community, when she traveled here last year on vacation.
Agent @Dann0Reg, a Portland, Oregon, player who attended February’s anomaly event in Las Vegas and asks to remain anonymous, succintly describes Ingress as “a digital vehicle for experiencing the physical world.”
Says Las Vegas player Anthony Merryman: “Ingress is an addictive cocktail of social marketing [and] competition-driven personal achievements. This is a game played worldwide that has forged friendships—and sometimes enemies—thousands of miles away.”
There are other augmented reality games out there, but most of them are tightly confined to tabletops or small areas. Google is betting the success of Ingress is a sign of things to come. In fact, its descendent is preparing to launch.
Niantic Lab’s next global augmented reality gaming project, Endgame, will be ready for deployment this year. While details are unavailable, it’s being pushed as a “fully integrated, multimedia experience that will combine a trilogy of young-adult novels, 15 original e-book novellas, YouTube videos, search and image results, mapping coordinates, social media and interactive gaming.” And if Google can figure out a way to make Endgame, and by extension the whole AR model, an income generator, you can bet others will be right behind.
See you online … and off.
HOW TO PLAY
Download Ingress for free to your Android or iOS device at Ingress.com.