John Hanke of Niantic Labs discusses Ingress

March 29, 2013
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Ingress

Ingress, that cult-popular product released by Google’s Niantic Labs, could quite possibly be its most desired. Invitations are highly prized, as the game is still in beta testing. The surprise hit has the team at Niantic working diligently to not only satisfy those who are already playing, but get it ready for the rest of us.

Why is Ingress still in ‘beta’? What about all those weird stories of people being arrested playing the game? We sit down with John Hanke, Director of Niantic Labs, to talk about Ingress and get answers to those (and many other) questions.

What makes a good Portal? Which ones have the best chance of being approved or. conversely, rejected?

It should be in a public place, accessible and safe. Things like Statues, cool architecture, outdoor murals, and historic places of interest work really well.

The basic idea is that, if another person were to go to that location, would they find something cool and interesting? Now, obviously that’s relative to where you are. What’s interesting in your neighborhood my not the same as what’s interesting in downtown Manhattan or London. But the point is, there is something there, something noticeable, and preferably something that is worth noticing in some way. We love the overlooked, the thing that you pass and ignore a hundred times but Ingress causes you to notice and when you do, you think, “wow, that’s kind of cool.”

What’s the strangest/weirdest/coolest thing you’ve seen from users (huge coordinated portal take-downs, dominating an entire city, etc.)?

First, probably The battle to free Misty in Lake Geneva, WI and Austin, TX. More than 200 people showed up on site to help Misty break free of the confines of the Niantic Lab. People drove from Delaware, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Dallas, Seattle, and Detroit to be part of the event.

Another one that comes to mind is The battle to determine the fate of Klue at Wallace Monument Scotland. In this case, people came in from all over the UK and Europe to keep Klue from the clutches of Roland Jarvis and the Shapers.

Oh! Let’s not forget Valerie Wallace who has walked more than 300 miles playing Ingress since November. That’s just amazing.

What are the challenges in building Ingress out?

Ahh… we love the challenges! Mobile imposes a certain set of constraints for a network based game. Dealing with those who seek to skirt the rules of the game in various ways is a challenge. Dealing with the scale of the game and the growth rate has also been challenging at times. But we’ve learned a lot and are now busy applying that to the evolution of the game.

How is a balance between sides achieved? If it were out of whack, would you “assign” anyone to a side?

So far, just by user choice. Players seem to gravitate to the side that needs help. Or perhaps this is Shaper influence. Whichever the case, it’s worked out so far.

project-niantic

There have been stories of people being arrested or detained by police while playing Ingress. What’s your take on that?

Obviously, when you read story like that, you want to understand what’s going on. I think it’s something we look at with interest to make sure users understand how to play and not put themselves in situations where they shouldn’t be. Part of it is that Ingress is a new kind of experience, and people may behave in unexpected ways for law enforcement. I think people will get used to it. I think as it goes on, and becomes more popular, people will start to understand what’s going on. We’re not hugely concerned, because the majority of players are smart about how they play. We want the players to be safe, and for nothing to happen to them. the game is setup to ensure safety, which a large part of why where you play is public places. More than that, we want the places to be interesting and fun.

There have been a few cases, and it’s interesting, but by and large it’s isolated.

When do you plan on removing the “beta” tag? Why hasn’t it been done already?

You know, I don’t know when the beta will be lifted. We release updates every few weeks, and we’re growing the user base. Based on how we’re handling server load, we throttle up or down. I would expect it to be a continuous process of refining the product, improving capacity, inviting more each day, and someday the tag will come off. In terms of when, I can’t say. We’re moving towards that each day, but we want a great product first and foremost.

Does Niantic have plans to thwart the “phantom location” issue?

There are definitely people who have tried various things to use false locations, which is both unfair and against the terms of service. There are things we can do about it. We actually have a pretty interesting system in place to identify those who are doing it. We obviously don’t catch all the offenders, but it does take care of a majority of them. It’s a bit of a cat and mouse game for those who try to break the rules, and things we can do to stop that.

There are definitely systems in place, and it’s much harder than it used to be to cheat. We’ll continue to invest in that as we need to to keep the game fair. It’s been a learning experience, and some people are dedicated to finding ways to break the rules, but I think we’ve done a good job in getting that under control

So I could get kicked out for doing that?

Yes. We would probably warn you first, but it is possible.

What’s next for Ingress? What direction do you see it taking, or hope it takes?

We are eager for the coming wave of wearable devices that will enable people to play games like Ingress in a more natural way with less time spent staring at their phone screen. That is a natural evolution of mobile computing and will be a great thing for mobile location-based games.

The real-world social interaction that we are seeing is awesome. We love to see people out in the world, moving, exploring, and having fun. As a parent, I love to see parents and kids playing together. Expect to see our story evolve and the interplay between real-world gatherings and events and the fate of our characters continue to grow. The game will also get a bit deeper for the higher level players. We have a book coming out soon that tell’s a part of the backstory. There may be more things like that. It’s going to be a fun summer!

Final thought

Altering reality is not easy, and Ingress takes that task on admirably. John’s passion for Ingress was evident, and mentioned to me he had his teenage son in mind when designing it. Like Field Trip, another Niantic product, Ingress is meant to give us a reason to interact with the world around us, and to do so in a way we hadn’t considered before. Both products already succeed in doing so, and we’re excited to see what Niantic has in store for our future.

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