If you'd been hanging around Kendall Square in Cambridge this weekend, you might have seen a brave freedom fighter lurking near MIT, battling nefarious paranormal forces, windchill and GPS problems. That was me.
According to the developers of Google's new augmented reality game, Ingress, there were several invisible portals present near that august establishment of higher education, linked together in order to form a field designed to assist in the mind control of innocent civilians. As a member of the Resistance faction, it's my job to disrupt these fields (placed there by players in the opposing Enlightened faction) and create some of our own, which protect people from the pernicious influence of the opposition. You're welcome.
So, armed with my old Nexus S, I made the rounds, attempting to "hack" portals belonging to the Enlightened. Like the game itself, I met with mixed success.
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Augmented reality is a high-flown description of a relatively simple concept -- thanks to the growing ubiquity of location-aware smartphones, advertisers and game developers can now offer content that changes based on where you are. And if you just pictured a world where everyone's wearing Google Glass and seeing ads literally everywhere they look, you're not alone.
In the case of Ingress, developed by Google-owned Niantic Labs, what this means is that the game simply overlays virtual locations onto a real-world map, and decides what you can and can't interact with based on your apparent proximity to said locations. When you do away with all the viral marketing, conspiracy-theorist plot points and slick science-fiction interfaces, Ingress is basically an elaborate king of the hill game, based on controlling territory via teamwork and coordination. Players expend an in-game resource called "exotic matter" or XM (gained simply by walking around) to attack opposing portals, reinforce their own, and create links and fields.
Broadly, the idea is to connect three or more portals (generally located near local points of interest) to form a field, which covers the area between them. This then provides a "mind unit" score to your faction based on the population covered by the field. So controlling, for example, a big chunk of downtown Boston would be worth more than the equivalent area of a sparsely populated suburb. New portals can be submitted to Google, though the approval process takes upwards of a month.
I completed a tutorial in about 30 minutes, meandering through a residential neighborhood. I hunted and pecked at unfamiliar commands, and enjoyed the robotic beeps and boops that accompany most actions in the game. The game seems to require that you have the phone open and unlocked while walking around to gather XM, so the best option seemed to be holding it in a roomy coat pocket, hearing periodic notification noises as I snapped up resources.
Playing Ingress, particularly when you don't really know what you're doing, has an element of social awkwardness about it -- I felt a little like a tourist in my own neighborhood, walking toward uncertain destinations, constantly glancing at my phone. Still, the speed at which Ingress will have you learning new ways around even the most familiar of areas is startling, and highlights how immersive the game is.
The technology, however, is still fairly embryonic, a fact clearly demonstrated by the frequent glitches I experienced when playing Ingress. While I admit that my aging phone is probably not the ideal platform for the game, it was still quite frustrating for it to continually plot my location as much as half a mile away from where I actually was.
The game wouldn't let me interact with a portal placed at a statue of Dante Alighieri, insisting that I was somewhere over by Kendall Square Station despite the fact that I was leaning against Mr. Alighieri's stony plinth, and placed me several streets away from a big cluster of hostile portals that I was actually standing squarely in the midst of. It was made all the more frustrating by the news, relayed to me by the game's messaging feature, that some clever Enlightened agent had nuked a huge series of friendly portals across the river in Boston while I fiddled and diddled. Not that I could've done anything about it anyway, but still.
It's important, of course, to recognize that Ingress is very much a work in progress -- currently, it's only available via invite to a private beta, though "#IngressInvites" trends regularly on Google Plus.
What's more, many have noted that the true purpose of Ingress may not be to provide a fun gaming experience at all, but rather to act as a source of pedestrian geolocation data that Google can monetize in some way. Time, obviously, will tell.
Beyond the technological problems, however, there are other pitfalls for Ingress. For one thing, it seems like it could easily turn into a pretty severe grind, particularly for more enthusiastic players - given the lengthy approval process for new portals, the competition could quickly devolve into a battle of which team gets more players to spend their lunch breaks attacking a key strongpoint. (Kind of like Foursquare meets World of Warcraft.) This and a rudimentary leveling system give Ingress some of the more unpleasant hallmarks of modern MMORPGs.
What's more, it seems unlikely that businesses will fail to recognize the opportunity presented by the player-created portal system -- if all it takes to get a nearly guaranteed boost to foot traffic is a simple photograph sent to Google, who wouldn't give it a try? Thus, Ingress could quickly become a walking tour of local bars that were sufficiently quick on the uptake, rather than a conspiracy-inflected adventure game.
It would be somewhat unfair, however, to criticize a game model that isn't fully established, nor an obnoxious commercialization push that hasn’t actually happened. Ingress is an ambitious project with expertly created atmosphere, polished packaging and the biggest possible backer in the form of Google. The game is already groundbreaking -- and if it avoids the aforementioned pitfalls and sands down its technical rough spots, it could easily become a classic.