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Deep Dive: 5 lessons learned from 10 years of Ingress

What happens if you ask your players to go outside?

Michael Romero, Contributor

April 4, 2023

21 Min Read

Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren’t really that simple at all.

Earlier installments cover topics such as the scientific modeling behind the irrigation and water systems of Timberborn, how the 2D art of Songs of Glimmerwick benefited from a 3D art pipeline, and how the synergy between art and audio disciplines and a solid base of real-world data formed a surprisingly faithful televised broadcast experience in F1 Manager 2022.

In this edition, Ingress engineering director Michael Romero looks back at ten years of development on Ingress, Niantic's predecessor to Pokémon GO, to tell us what community-driven game design has taught him.

Ten years ago, long before Pokémon GO was a gleam in anyone’s eye, Niantic Labs, then just an autonomous unit inside of Google, released Ingress, a territory control game that requires going out into the real world.

It was a challenge to encourage players to walk outside and play a game in the real world, but we found there were people who seemed to be looking for a reason to go outside, while others were excited by the fact that there were only two teams. These social connectors then set out to build a network of players for their faction. Since the game is played in the real world, these networks also grew into face-to-face interactions. Quickly, the Ingress team realized this was something special, and we turned our attention to supporting this new community.

Developer: Niantic Labs
Publisher: Niantic, Inc.
Release Date: November 15 2012
Platforms: Android, iOS
Number of Developers: About 12
Length of Development: 10 years and counting
Budget: Not disclosed
Development Tools: Unity3d, Niantic Lightship

An image from the Netflix page for the Ingress anime.

Fast forward ten years later, the team spun out of Google, rebuilt the client, and even released an anime: Ingress: The Animation on Netflix. We’ve hosted live events with thousands of players and maintained an engaged community across the globe. In celebration of our 10th year, we’re excited to introduce Machina, the Red Faction. Though we’re changing the game, the core remains. Ingress is still a live, social-competitive game with a tight, engaged community.

How did we get here, ten years strong with a passionate player base? Through many adventures along the way, with players that taught us about themselves and about our own game. 

An image of three Ingress players gathered around a bicycle.

It feels good to go outside, but hard to tell the players that

Ingress is played in the real world. You have to go outside and visit real-world locations. You can walk outside in your neighborhood, visit a park, or maybe the local commercial strip, but there is usually not much to do sitting on your couch at home. There is more to do at home now than at the beginning, but still, Ingress is for exploring the world.

Before Pokémon GO, it was quite difficult to convince a player that you want them to go outside to play your game. They wouldn’t believe you. “How do I walk?'' became a meme in the early days of Ingress because that is what players would post to the chat. They could not figure out what button to press or how to swipe to make the avatar move. How do you convince someone to walk when they think you are asking them to do something on the screen?

That changed with the release of Pokémon GO, but it is still a hard sell and represents our largest onboarding drop-off. I wish I could share with those players who won’t go outside the stories we hear from Ingress players, and how the game has made their lives better. From meeting a new friend group (or even a partner), to overcoming anxiety, players have benefited in meaningful ways just from going outside to play.

A screenshot of a Tweet from the official Ingress account, depicting a group of players enjoying the game outdoors.

The other story we hear from players is that they discover new places in their neighborhoods: the park they passed by thousands of times but didn’t know existed or the historical marker that changed how they saw their neighborhood. Players keep trying to find this in their neighborhood, and we do everything we can to support them. There is a badge in Ingress for unique portal visits, and many players use any arrival in a new town as a way to grow that stat. We often find that players explore a new city, discover interesting places, and associate their travel experiences with Ingress.

We have a stat to track walking distance, and we recently added a crafting capsule powered by distance walked. Players love that, so the Ingress team integrated Adventure Sync to track distance walked in the background. We always reward the player for walking, whether the app is open or not. To receive the award, the player must open the app and acknowledge how awesome they are.

However, when Ingress first started, there weren’t many interesting places to walk to. Changing that started with a database of U.S. post offices and the Historical Marker Database, HMdb. Then the team added images from Panoramio, a short-lived Google photo sharing experiment, which were tagged with GPS coordinates. Eventually, players could submit locations through the Ingress app to become part of the game board, so long as they followed our guidelines.

Ingress isn’t just a location-based game. Location is central to Ingress in every way and affects not just gameplay but art style and lore as well. In the lore of Ingress, the game is about using a newly discovered form of matter that influences humans to make us smarter, more creative, and able to work together more efficiently. This new substance is called Exotic Matter or XM. The places this XM leaks into our world are places people tend to gather, so the Portals are at locations of historical or cultural interest.

Players quickly began to discover these places of historical or cultural interest and created a gameboard of interesting locations, all of which are consistent with the Ingress lore. There are so many benefits to this, for the players and for the game. The game gets the benefit of every town having at least some places for religious observance and “culturally interesting” plaques at parks and locally beloved businesses. Players get places to play, and the game spreads across the world without us developers having to understand the whole world. Turns out the world is very, very big and hard to understand!

This large database of interesting locations, built one submission at a time by Ingress players, was used for every Pokéstop and every Gym when Pokémon GO launched in 2016. When Niantic spun out of Google, we couldn’t necessarily afford a room of contractors approving submissions so submissions stopped until we launched Operation Portal Recon (which crowdsourced voting on player location submissions) two years after our spinout from Google.

Operation Portal Recon has since grown into Niantic Wayfarer. Niantic Wayfarer curates Niantic Wayspots that are not only GPS coordinates with a photo and a story but also include 3D mapped areas added through Niantic’s Lightship VPS. Ingress feeds into this system by allowing players to “scan” portals which are processed by Niantic’s mapping team to generate fast AR localization and 3D maps of the area.

A group of Ingress players in Yokohama, Japan.

Players complicate things for the better

The rules for Ingress are simple. Destroy the Resonators of the other team and place your own to capture the Portal. By linking Portals together to form triangles, you save all the conscious minds who live under the triangles. All true, of course, since humans figured out how to use off-the-shelf cellular technology to measure and manipulate XM.

The players who are drawn to Ingress understand that they should control their nearby locations, called Portals. To them, it is self-evident that if you can make a Portal in your neighborhood captured by your team, then you should. From there, players look at the geometry of the neighborhood and link the Portals together in a tight array of triangles.

Once we had players doing this around the world: smashing, building, linking, and creating Control Fields while competing to do it, they invented strategies and methods that we didn’t anticipate. Even though links can't cross and there are millions of Portals in the world, players would perform operations to create giant Control Fields over cities or even states. This has to be a well-planned, coordinated effort of dozens of players. And the coolest part is they would publish their SITREPs (situation reports) to the whole Ingress community.

Players find their creativity within the constraints of Ingress and they find different play styles depending on their location. In a dense city, they may try to get many small triangle fields alone, or they may join a fielding group to make larger, more difficult fields, or they may be part of a response team to stop those fields.

Spreading these simple rules to the whole planet, where different people are trying different tactics, creates a complex and interesting ongoing game for our players and one where they continue to surprise us with their creativity and ingenuity. From making many small multi-layered fields in their neighborhoods to working together to cover a whole city, the players found interesting gameplay beyond what we expected, just by being creative humans with a simple ruleset. It does help that there are other humans adapting to their tactics and trying to stop them.

Ingress players posed for a large group photo.

It’s better with friends (and frenemies)

Ingress is a social-competitive game.

The early prototypes of Ingress placed everyone on the same human team, and a single player could make the highest-level L8 Portals. Once we changed that dynamic to have two human teams battling against each other and require eight players to make a Level 8 Portal, Ingress became a lot more fun because people are unpredictable, weird, and wonderful.

Requiring multiple people in order to create a Level 8 Portal, the strongest in the game, creates asynchronous and co-located social gameplay. Since we couldn’t always expect players to be in the same place at the same time, the cooperation here is asynchronous. Each of the eight players can  drop only a single high-level item, and when there are eight, from eight different players, the Portal becomes Level 8 and gives the best gear and can link the farthest (at least until the other team comes by and smashes it).

When this competition is fierce, it can be easier to create Level 8 Portals with co-located social gameplay, with all eight players moving together as a squad. Players organize meetups and raids together so they can move together as a group.

A screenshot of a Tweet regarding an Ingress group meet-up in Northern California.

And that is what happened: first, the Portals were built slowly, one player at a time. Then players formed networks and began to gather and farm gear. After that, we followed the players and developed “Portal Mods” or modifiers that increased hack output and lessened cooldown. Players could now go to a location (which does not have to be a bar but often is), prepare the Portals and quickly farm them to get the best gear. This regular farm meetup was affected by the pandemic but is now returning. Players call these “flash farms,” as opposed to “standing farms,” which are always vulnerable to the other team smashing them.

The networks started with farming but also grew to the players that wanted to make large Control Fields that capture the largest area. Since links cannot cross, anyone who wants to make long links needs many other players in between the endpoints to smash any blocking cross-links from the other team. These networks must move with precision and observe operational secrecy so they naturally become trusted friends.

From a game design standpoint, by requiring multiple players to cooperate towards a collective goal, we didn’t originally anticipate the global scale of coordination initiated by players. After all, there are only two teams: "are you with us or against us"? What is more social (or anti-social) than that?

The competitive part comes from the same place, that there are only two teams. At the beginning of the game, players can join the Resistance or the Enlightened, blue or green; from then on, they have allies and adversaries. Sometimes they find friends and maybe even a nemesis, which is quite engaging. In fact, an early code name for the game was Nemesis, and this describes part of the draw of Ingress. To be able to play in the space where we all have a nemesis, Ingress does a smart thing. You can never attack another player in the game; you can only attack or defend the Points of Interest. Players battle over Portals, but they do not battle each other directly.

There is also a regional score, one for every region on the planet, that shows which team has Control Fields (triangles linking Points of Interest) over the largest population. The score is calculated only at checkpoints every five hours, and there is a winner for that scoring cell every "Septicycle" of seven 25-hour days. The odd day length means that the time of checkpoints and end of the cycle will move throughout the day and will do so for every region of the world.

The fact that the score is checkpoint-based means there is an incentive to tear down the other team's work before it can be scored and to throw up new scoring Control Fields at the last moment before the checkpoints. This has spawned player networks with sophisticated planning and operational capabilities. Remember, to get the most points, players need to work together to drop blocking links to make the largest fields. Working together builds relationships, and relationships hold players in the game.

Our high-level player retention is very good, but they also are very focused on what we do and let it be known if they think we are making mistakes. Both parts are very good for the game. We have passionate players as the base of the community who provide the most gameplay across the map, but we can't relax or phone it in because the players will notice and will tell us.

And now that the Red Faction Portals have entered Ingress, players discuss their investigations of the phenomena across all social channels. At first, players were crowdsourcing the locations, sending each other out to scout them, and investigating affected Portals. They tried every type of interaction and recorded the results. Within a week, they understood most of the initial parameters of the feature and were quite accurate. I suspect Machina is going to start growing in power, and I expect players will document every change.

A large outdoors group photo of Ingress players.

Give players a reason to meet in person

From the beginning, Ingress was all about real places in the world that players wanted to highlight, and drawing more players to those special locations. One of the initial announcements was an event that interrupted San Diego Comic-Con. The lore says this all started on a certain date at CERN Research Center in Switzerland. Each Portal’s location matters, both for what it is in the real world and how it can link to other Portals on the Ingress gameboard.

So it made sense to the players when Ingress announced that at UNESCO Site 198, Cahokia Mounds, there would be an XM Anomaly live event, and players would have to battle over particular Portals that would be scored at certain checkpoints. Players came and battled, and the Ingress Anomaly was born.

The Anomalies grew to events in each quarter in APAC, EMEA, and the Americas. Each would host a primary city and two satellite cities. Niantic sells swag, the players sell swag; there is a competitive event for four hours on Saturday and Mission Day on Sunday featuring a tour of the historical and tourist center of the host city.

These live events drive engagement and revenue and move the story forward while allowing the players to meet up in person.

An outdoor group photo of Ingress players in Denmark.

The shutdowns for COVID were a challenge for our in-person events in 2020. We added a drone item in-game so players could still farm gear and get their daily hacks, even when stuck at home. First Saturdays, a local Ingress event to connect new players to experienced players, moved to online over video conferencing tools. Even though it was more like Zoom school, online First Saturdays were good for helping keep the communities together. Players would compete in a puzzle based on locations of Portals, talk, and take a group photo.

But even with all these mitigations, being discouraged from traveling and meeting up with local communities was a blow to the team, player base, and Ingress as a whole.

A picture of a dark colored Ingress-themed van.

In mid-2021, it looked like things were starting to open up, so we jumped. Ingress was very excited to travel and meet players, so in that small window, we decided to take the van out and hold meetups. Yes, Ingress has a van. It’s all very logical. See, Ingress was leaked by the National Intelligence Agency to collect information on people’s interactions with Exotic Matter, XM, which we figured out how to manipulate with off-the-shelf cellular technology. However, our players, XM Sensitives, formed the two factions and took Ingress and XM for themselves. The NIA is still trying to research XM, so that is why the van is branded NIA and is an XM collection vehicle.

We covered much of the western and central United States with the van, stopping in cities that had active Ingress communities. It was so great to be out with the players. All the meetups were outside. We sold merch, traded bio cards, and shared stories with players. I went to three of the meetups, and the main thing I noticed was that players were really excited to see each other, even more than seeing us. The pandemic was hard for many in-person communities, and it hit Ingress for sure.

Since early 2021, we have been consistent with traditional live-ops, where we change the game or add a new badge to earn, but players can just keep playing where they normally play, and we do not ask anyone to gather for those. Live-ops are fun and have been good for Ingress, but they are not the same.

At the beginning of 2022, we launched fully automated battle events. However, without any of the other parts of a usual live event weekend, they failed to gain traction.

We finally had our first classic Ingress Anomaly event since the “before” times in the summer of 2022 in Munich, Germany. Then we followed up in the other two territories with Los Angeles, California, in November and Yokohama, Japan, in December. These were all so good for the players, the game, and our team.

Munich was the first one, and only the live events team traveled from Niantic. For Los Angeles, it was in the development team's backyard since we are almost all in California, most in LA. That was a coming home celebration for both the players and us. The team and the players celebrated, competed, celebrated some more and ended with Mission Day, a walking tour of the most interesting cultural or tourist parts of the city. The players and the team left the weekend cautiously optimistic that live Ingress XM Anomalies were back.

An Epiphany Dawn XM Anomaly event in December 2022 in Yokohama, Japan shows a large crowd in a dark, dynamically lit room.

I write this following my time in Yokohama, Japan. The event was four times larger than in Los Angeles. We were covered in the local press, we had large sponsors, SoftBank, Ito-En, and Sony, who presented at our after-party. The players were passionate and fierce competitors (I would know because I was a boots-on-the-ground player for the Resistance in the XM Anomaly). And it was so good. These live events are the lifeblood of Ingress, so we plan to bring them back strong for 2023.

We anticipate that 2023 will see many cities around the world experiencing XM Anomalies for Ingress players to gather.

Never stop moving forward: Red Faction announced at Year 10

Through all the twists and turns of Ingress, there have only been two factions, Resistance and Enlightened, blue and green. So almost from the start, players would ask us about the Red faction. This always felt like too big of a change to consider lightly, and when we looked into it, we found that creating a third faction that players could join would be very challenging due to some original design decisions. But then, a few months ago, an engineer realized a simple way to fool the legacy server that could be combined with a translation layer so only the client would fully understand the third faction. We realized we could make a third faction in only a few months, and we only had to decide the rules. Of course, since the Red faction is a mind virus that invaded the Portal Network, we were all being mind-controlled to think we made it up.

The Red Faction is called Machina, and it appeared the night of the Los Angeles Epiphany Dawn XM Anomaly. It seems to be drawn to Portal-dense areas where there has not been much gameplay lately, and, if not smashed, will spread and even create blocking links that could stop large fields. Someone has to go out there and capture those Portals! Ingress wins when our players win.

Back in 2017, we lost players when we paused features to rebuild the client, and as a team, we were not as inspired since we were just recreating what was. Now we understand the value of large features that don’t change the core game but add something new and interesting that is layered on top of the core game. And the release of Machina was a perfect example of the new way.

We quickly added something new to the game, something players wanted, but we thought it through in the Ingress way, so it would benefit the game as well as the players. Then we surprised them with it in a delightful way. At the after party, our producer Brian Rose said from stage, after being distracted by someone off-stage, “No, there is no red Portal at Dodger Stadium!” Of course, players looked on their Intel Maps, sent their drones, and sure enough, there was a red Portal at Dodger Stadium and reports from the international community that they had appeared all over the world. It was the talk of the afterparty and sparked a bump in re-engagement.

A screenshot of a Tweet from a Japanese Ingress player who took pictures of the Epiphany Dawn event.

Never one to stop, the team found a way to have an invasion of Machina portals in Yokohama after the competitive anomaly, so players could see and interact with them. Or at least, I think that is why they did it. Machina did not tell me its reason. Ingress is not a game.

Over the last ten years, we learned a lot, mainly that Ingress is not our game, it is a global community of players who come together for new and emergent gameplay. And the more we can play outside with each other, the stronger both the community and the game will be.

Meet you out there, Ingress Agents!

After shipping console and mobile games for over 15 years, Michael Romero joined Niantic at Google to work on Ingress in 2014. He was part of the Niantic spinout from Google, the development and launch of Pokémon GO, and founded the Niantic Game Platform Developer Experience team. The Engineering Director for Ingress since January 2021, Michael is still an active Ingress Agent and attends Ingress XM Anomaly events.

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