What Google should do to make Ingress more popular

Google released a new smartphone game called Ingress late last year.

It’s extremely sophisticated, and very addictive. But it’s also very off-putting and not that popular.

Let me explain.

I downloaded the game knowing nothing about it . I was looking for a puzzle game to occupy a few neurons, and the Google Play Store suggested Ingress. 

I opened the app and it said to navigate to the nearest “portal.” “Walk,” it told me. I tried shaking the phone, dragging the icon, double-tapping, everything I could, but I couldn’t get my icon to move. 

Then a realisation dawned. Walk meant walk.  It wasn’t really a puzzle game at all.

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Near a blue portal

The game is an augmented reality game, built on top of Google Maps. You have to move around in physical space to play. Part of its appeal is getting people out there in the world interacting with “portals” that are almost always on public art or historic parts of the city. There’s an elaborate back story about exotic matter spilling into the universe.

But the game is dreadfully designed for mass-market impact. It is absurdly complex and hard to learn. In the first hour I played it, I twice put my phone back on my pocket out of frustration, swearing to never again play. (Obviously, these sworn oaths wore off).  

It’s a team game. The portals I mentioned have two functions. First, you use them to get items you need to play. But second and more importantly, you can convert the portal to your team. There are blue and green teams and they compete to capture these portals. 

My computer-game obsessed friend (who works for a computer game company and spends his life playing games) says he finds it not too complex. But I took a couple of days to feel like I knew what I was doing. Then it took over a week to no longer make mistakes. It does not fit the chess mould of “a moment to learn and a lifetime to master.”

There are six different actions you might take at a portal (hack, deploy, recharge, mod, link, fire). There are also around 40 different items you can collect from a portal, and rules about how and when you may use them. The game grows even more complex, verging on annoying, when you first try to learn how to link portals to make some “fields”. (Ostensibly this is the primary goal of the game.) Check out this YouTube video on field theory if you want to be put off forever.

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How Melbourne looks through the eyes of Ingress

The language of the game is wholly foreign too. You need to learn about resonators, XM, AP, XMP bursters, multi-hacks, glyphs, and portal keys. The way they all work is not intuitive. Once you’re over the learning curve, of course, these are terrific fun. But that curve is very steep and the language is off-putting in another way.

 

The game is inherently nerdy. The set of people willing to scale the learning curve will be limited to those who are interested or experienced in gaming and science fiction. 

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One of over 200 items in my inventory

Trying to describe the game dynamics to others has led to a lot of blank stares (blank with judgmental characteristics). Just the words “hack the portal” are enough to turn 99 per cent of people off. But the fundamental concept of walking around, visiting new parts of your neighbourhood and capturing territory is something that could appeal to anybody, young and old, male, and even – wait for it – female.

All this is relevant because the game works best – is most competitive – when there are lots of players. This is a concept known as the Network Effect. As the number of people involved in a network rises steadily, the usefulness of that network rises exponentially. The game at the moment – in Melbourne at least – is a little static and features a few names popping up time and again. 

And for Google, the more players the better. The game’s secret purpose is to discover better pedestrian paths and send them back to the Google Maps HQ, to improve the operation of way-finding.

Google could win over a lot more players quite easily. And that’s why this blog post is more than just a whinge on a fringe topic, but an idea that could be quite powerful.

Imagine an interface for Ingress that, instead of Enlightened vs Resistance, was Kittens vs Pirates.

Instead of “portals,” you’d have castles. Instead of “hacking” you’d “visit.” Instead of links, you’d build walls and instead of fields you’d build Pirate Lairs or Kitten Sanctuaries.

Instead of “resonators” you’d have kitten guards, to guard your kitten castle. Weapons would not be XMP bursters but a sardine catapult, to distract the kitten guards. Make the graphics cute and that would also go a long way to giving the gameplay more appeal.

The game mechanics needn’t even be simpler, because the familiar and more welcoming tropes would help people come to grips with them. This would be an example of Skeumorphism (like using a picture of an envelope to represent an email). A proven technique for acclimatising users to a new interface.

If Google brought this in as a new “skin” for Ingress they could break into larger demographics. The best part is that they would not have to lose the original skin. The two games could be wholly integrated. The original players could still see Kitten players as Blue and Pirates as Green, and have no idea they played the game quite differently. 

If that helped broaden the appeal, even more skins could be launched. Beatles vs Rolling Stones. Manchester United vs Barcelona. Plants vs Zombies, or Democrat vs Republican. Whatever. The bulk of the coding work must be in the game mechanics (which is excellent and rarely crashes). I’m sure inventing a new interface would be a relatively minor challenge.

The concept could be extended to other areas in which big data might be useful.

A game that entices people to submit driving data, for instance, diet data, or maybe shopping data. You could multiply the number of interfaces available until you have a good sample of people involved. Games work beautifully for data collection because they are wholly opt-in. Companies or organisations that want certain demographics to do so could tweak the front end until they find a recipe that lures them in sufficient numbers.