John Hanke of Niantic Labs discusses Ingress

by: Nate SwannerMarch 29, 2013


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.


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.

  • Great work, Nate.

  • Hi Nate.
    can you please elaborate what this game is all about.
    i got the invite and tried to play it once or twice but i wasn’t exactly able to figure out the game.
    Do we need to wander here and there to find out portals or find energy sources?

    • Vito Johnson

      you can see all of the portals here>>> also there are several Google+ communities to help with strategy, how to play, etc. and yes, it is an outdoor game, that requires travel, you cant play from your pc or inside.

  • MasterMuffin

    What’s this?

    • Phil Nolan
      • MasterMuffin

        Pretty good reviews! How have I missed this o.O

  • Valerie Wallace

    Thanks for mention! (I am over 400 miles now :) )

  • ingresswidow

    This game seems cool, but it has the potential to ruin lives. It already has destroyed my relationship – my former significant other does nothing but play this game, all day, every day, into the middle of the night – he acknowledges he’s addicted but doesn’t care because its just a game. He even broke things off with me for a girl in the area that plays the game, and is willing to go out until 2 in the morning capturing portals and pretending they’re actually “seeing the world” around them in a different way. They think they’re being “tourists” – but they simply drive to a location, hack and deploy, and then move on. It is honestly very perplexing to me. And I haven’t even gotten into the money he’s put into the game. Niantic has come up with a great product – they can mine the crap out of all the information the players send along, and the truly addicted players live on the edge of their seats waiting for these highly paid google employees to make the player’s lives just a little more interesting. I’ll never understand how a person can be as addicted as my former significant other is – but I know I’m not alone in what has happened to me.

    • kru

      There are now Widows (or Widowers) of Ingress, just as there were of WoW. *shrug* It happens.

      • ingresswidow

        *shrug* it happens is a lot easier to say than to live with. This game was deployed in November. Its now the end of March – literally in about 4 months my life went from happy to destroyed. Its been about 3 1/2 weeks since he left. I wish I could shrug it off, but I can’t – I put several years into that relationship. What am I left with? The knowledge that this is a phenomena? I guess I just feel like if I put my story out there, it can make a difference for someone…anyone…maybe something positive can come from the hell I’ve gone through.

        • codexian

          I’d be more inclined to blame your ex than the game, honestly. It sounds to me like he’s off with a new social crowd and the game’s just an excuse.

          • ingresswidow

            Oh don’t get me wrong, I blame him – and I blame her (she knew I existed), but the fact remains that the game was a catalyst. And it is incredibly addictive – I caution people who lack basic self control against playing this, or any of these open ended games. When there’s no clear end game, if you’ve got even a slightly addictive personality, you’re screwed the second you put your toe in. And unfortunately there are always going to be casualties in the people you love.

          • Grimmjow

            fuck you troll.

          • Dobbey

            lemme guess, you are Jim’s ex? if so I feel sorry for you. I’ve somewhat heard the stories

          • ingresswidow

            Someone deserves a chicken dinner. I am, and despite his desire to keep hidden the truth (and to blame me for everything), I decided to tell my story and not fade away like I never existed. Funny thing is, I don’t know who you are, and I haven only told my story here (so far…) – so it is comforting to know that other people are as disgusted by his actions as I am – enough so that they’re talking.

    • Saintdorkus

      I understand completely! Same bs happened with my ex. Together almost 5 years, then this game comes along and he’s spending hours upon hours playing, wasting thousands of dollars towards gas and batteries for his phone, sneaking out after I’ve gone to sleep, missing dinner with his family…it’s insane! You have my support hun! The game is the worst!

    • Amps

      you have to help me, I feel like I’m going to be in the same situation soon. My boyfriend and I both play, however now hes obsessed. I cant stand it anymore. hes made a fun game into a horrible time consuming chore. I really liked the game too :(. Now he plays while he is driving which is dangerous (hes putting m in danger by doing this, hes almost rear ended people multiple times because of it). I try to tell him hes gotten a little too obsessed, but he just denies it. Its literally ruining our relationship. We cant go anywhere without stopping for an hour to farm. I just want a nice date without sitting there for an hour while he plays, or listening to it every minute, or worrying about getting hurt in a car crash.

  • Phil Nolan

    I’d like to know how many current players there are roughly. It would help to encourage friends who might be on the fence about playing.

  • ian

    I would love an invite excursel@

  • blob

    ingresswidow I mean not to disrespect or insult you in any way or form but i have to some what agree with kru. Look at it this way if you’ve been together in or around two years and this has happened be glad to not waist anymore time with someone who cant manage to balance there life for the one they love or bother to even try for them and if its been longer, maybe the game isn’t the true issue and and more of an excuse, me and my other half have been through alot worse than my addiction to ingress over the last year and at times i would of left me, but here we are stronger than ever

    • ingresswidow

      I’m only a few weeks out from him not showing up and letting me know over the phone that I no longer mattered. I’m sure in a few more weeks I’ll feel like he did me a favor. But like I said in my other posts, this game is dangerous for certain people – he’s one of them. It is totally his fault for being sucked in and unable to separate reality from Ingress. That doesn’t mean that other people won’t be affected like this, and if one person can learn something from my posts (be it someone who might become too easily detached from reality, or their significant other, who might be able to head off a downward spiral), I feel like telling my story is beneficial.

  • Amber

    “As a parent, I love to see parents and kids playing together.”

    Sorry Mr. John Hanke, but kids can’t play along with their parents. Terms of service say that anybody under the age of 18 cannot play.