Last month, Google unveiled its first mobile game, an ambitious, experimental thing called Ingress. The experience hinges on the narrative that an exotic energy has been discovered on Earth, and two factions, the Enlightened and the Resistance, are respectively scrambling to cultivate it and/or suppress it. It’s kind of boilerplate sci-fi, but the novelty lies in the way the game is played: After players choose their allegiance, they’re tasked with going out into the real world and visiting various destinations to claim territory for their squad. It’s something like what you’d get if you threw geocaching, World of Warcraft, and J.J. Abrams in a blender–a massive multiplayer experience that transpires not in a virtual world but in a slightly warped version of our own.
So, yes, it’s a bit different. But John Hanke, the man Google tapped to head the project, thinks it represents nothing less than the future of mobile gaming, a new paradigm that will privilege real-world activity above immersive virtual engagement. Here are three core principles his team followed while creating Ingress–ideas that could well change mobile gaming as we know it in years to come.
Video games have long been the province of the sedentary. But Hanke sees that more as a consequence of the limitations of technology than something inherent in the medium. “The game console had to be hooked up to your television and a power outlet,” he says. “After that you had to have your connection to the Internet.” But now, with devices that keep us connected no matter where we are, Hanke believes that gaming and the real world are ready to mingle. If Wii and Kinect were designed to get us up off the couch, Ingress aims to get us out the door entirely.
In fact, that simple, convention-demolishing ambition drove the development of the entire game. “The whole group started with this idea of, ‘How can we get people out into the world and seeing things that are there but they didn’t notice before,'” Hanke says. The goal was to use technology to bring people in touch with the real world, rather than distracting them from it.
Most of the mobile games we’ve seen thus far have been based on “creating a bubble around people,” Hanke says, cutting them off from the people, sights, and sounds surrounding them. “We wanted to flip that around and see if we could use technology to kind of lure people away from their desks and off their couches out in the world and get them to look up and notice things.”
It’s a tough proposition. Couches are comfy. But Hanke’s confident that games like Ingress can preserve what we truly enjoy about games–not their veg-out factor but the sense of achievement they give us–while combining it with another dimension of fulfillment altogether. The hope is to take that fundamental video game thrill of overcoming obstacles and making progress and marry it with the endorphin rush you get from moving around and getting exercise and having cool experiences in the real world. “I think they’re stronger together,” Hanke says. That doesn’t mean that everyone is going to retire from their Halo career in favor of a global game of high-tech capture the flag, but Hanke might be right in that real-world adrenaline will be hard for players to resist.
While the Ingress team was adamant from the start about users having to move around to play, they realized that they couldn’t ignore the role casual games are increasingly playing in our lives, not as concerted pastimes but as here-and-there distractions. That was the basis for the team’s second core principle: It had to be a time-waster. “It needed to be something that could be done while you’re standing in line,” Hanke says. It’s a recognition that people can’t always make time for gaming, and thus a successful mobile game has to be something people can use to occupy the lulls when they do come around.
It’s true that the amazingly capable mobile phones we have today are central to realizing Hanke’s idea of real-world gaming. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be the central component of that gaming experience. Hanke doesn’t simply want you to be sitting in a park, playing a game on your phone; he envisions a game that actually takes place in that park, with the phone merely serving as a tool for getting you there.
Thus, Ingress was designed to keep players’ eyeballs off the phone and on the sights around them. Hanke says the designers put just as much effort into the sound design of the game as its visuals, laboring over elements like high-fidelity sound effects and a comprehensive audio track that narrates the game’s action. “In a way, the most awkward thing about the game is the fact that you still have to look down at your screen and in some cases tap the screen in order to play,” he says.
The spartan, high-tech aesthetic of the game’s visuals were intended to be more utilitarian than graphically impressive. “What we found is that it’s hard to see your screen outside,” Hanke explains. “There’s a glare; the light’s not optimal. And we wanted to keep the pixels we were putting on the screen clean. It’s not like a console game, where you’re really immersed in the visual that’s in front of you, and that’s the full experience. This needs to be almost like a GPS application that’s helping you get from Point A to Point B.”
But for the Ingress team, development wasn’t simply a matter of trying to think of ways to move gameplay off the phone. It was about trying to conceive of how games might look in a future when we’ve left smartphones behind entirely. One of Hanke’s common refrains is that “the phone should melt away,” but when he says that it’s already in the process of doing so, he’s not talking about the phone taking a secondary role in our lives or the games we play. He’s talking about the erosion of the entire idea of the mobile device as a candy-bar-sized object we carry around in our pockets and purses.
“It’s a relatively recent occurrence that we think of the mobile experience as being this little brick that you hold,” he says. “But I think that’s going to become less and less important as various pieces of that become wearable adornments on your body,” things akin, perhaps, to the connected fitness bracelets we’re seeing from Nike and Jawbone, or beyond that, futuristic wearable displays like Google Glass. “We’re really designing with the idea that there will be things like Google Glass in the future,” Hanke explains, “where you’re really augmenting the user’s perception of the world rather than simply portraying things on a screen.”
Ingress, which is currently in an invite-only public beta, is free to download, but there’s no in-game economy that lets the developers collect real-world dollars, and you won’t encounter interstitial ads that jerk you out of the energy-collecting action. Still, from the beginning, Hanke and his team were mindful of the challenge of making their experiment a self-sustaining one.
They had considered a virtual goods model–the type of freemium system that Zynga has exploited so effectively with its big titles–but ultimately the team decided it wasn’t the way to go. “I personally feel like that model is kind of at a dead end,” Hanke says. “You’re seeing games that are less and less fun to play. They’re really just hooks to get you to that point where you have to start plugging in quarters for more.”
Instead, his team opted for a more experimental approach, tapping a half-dozen advertising partners that the designers have been working into the narrative. The brands are big and small, from the forward-looking auto rental service Zipcar to a San Francisco-based bag and apparel outfit called Chrome (no relation). They recently rolled out their first efforts to work a more subtle, meaningful style of advertising into the game, with objectives that directed players to Zipcar offices and Chrome stores to redeem in-game objects.
Finding that balance of integration that’s unobtrusive to gameplay while still being worthwhile to sponsors will be tricky, no doubt. But it’s hard to imagine companies not getting a little excited about a model that not only gets their name out there but actually puts bodies in their stores. Though those individuals might’ve come just to upgrade their energy scanner, there’s always the chance that they’ll cop a new messenger bag once they’re there.
Ideally, this new type of advertising will be something that’s not only neutral but a positive addition to the game. “I think we’re able to offer it in a way that makes the game more interesting,” Hanke says. Yes, they’re also necessarily exposing Ingress‘s demographically desirable consumers to the brands of these businesses, but, Hanke says, “that’s fine too … as long as it doesn’t take away from the game experience.”