Google goes outdoors to see if location-based games have legs

The web search giant is seeking to combine game play with exercise and non-virtual exploration

Google’s Ingress: Niantic Labs took 18 months to develop the game from initial idea to rollout

Google’s Ingress: Niantic Labs took 18 months to develop the game from initial idea to rollout


Video games are locked in a constant battle with misperceptions and stereotypes, but there is one cliche that is hard to deny: playing such games is a sedentary activity.

Google’s Ingress, a product of the internet search giant’s Niantic Labs, tries to move gamers outdoors.

“It’s a global game of capture the flag that you play through your mobile device,” says Niantic product vice-president John Hanke. “I’d describe it as somewhere between Risk, World of Warcraft and Foursquare.”

Hanke says Ingress took 18 months to develop, from initial idea to rollout. Now it’s all over the world.

“It’s played in over 200 countries and I’m surprised every time I look at the map and see people would play in places that wouldn’t occur to me,” he says. “There are people playing in Iran, Vietnam, various parts of Africa. I’m surprised at the breadth, more than anything. The pick-up in Europe has been especially strong. The game is designed for those walking and biking – it fits naturally the way that people normally go about their lives [in Europe].”

Many Dubliners don’t even drive. “It’s a great game for that kind of environment: it’s made for people who want to see a bit of the city and have a little bit of fun at the same time.”

How does Google work in getting projects from back of the envelope to fruition?

“Every project is a little bit different. In our case we set up a group to work on apps in this area involving mobile and city formation with an entertainment and gaming aspect to them,” says Hanke.

“It started very small. Initially it was just me and a couple of other people in the group and we built a prototype that had some things in common with Ingress, but was very different and much cruder. But it was a way for us to quickly get something up and running that we could take outside on our phones and experiment with. There was about four to five months of working on that and fleshing out the concepts of location-oriented games.

“From that grew the design from Ingress. We built a bigger team and worked on it from that. We focused on getting the concept up and running and play-testing and adding features to it, then expanding it to other people we knew in Google. Over the course of a year we expanded it to make it available to people within Google and we ran that test for about six months.”

It has, he says, been a progression of adding more and more people to the game’s development to improve it.”

“That’s similar to how other groups in Google work,” he says.

Gruelling process “We didn’t do what some games developers do. With a typical console game development model you only have one shot. People in the industry [call that] the ‘death march’. It’s a gruelling process leading up to the complete game that includes all the playability it’s ever going to have when it’s released. The different thing about a service or game like Ingress is a new function appears every week. So it’s constantly getting new functionality and improvements,” he says.

What sort of barriers and controls do Google have to test an idea’s viability?

“There aren’t a lot of barriers,” he says. “We have a set of guidelines for once we go outside of Google, regarding people’s privacy, that would apply to all Google products. Other than that there aren’t really any barriers.

“At the end of the day it’s all up to Larry [Page, Google’s chief executive] in terms of what areas he wants to pursue. He may not dictate a specific product, but in the case of Niantic Labs it was his decision to have the company invest in this area. By investment I mean people, time and energy. And we didn’t bring the specific idea of Ingress to him, but the thing he signed off on was mobile, location-based games that have local information in them. He signed off on the concept and then we had the freedom to explore our ideas within that area that we thought would work,” he says.

New frontiers “We’re looking to do things that are truly innovative and that other people aren’t doing. Ingress and Field Trip, the other project from Niantic Labs, fall into that category. They’re not copies of things other people have done – they’re exploring new frontiers and trying to move the industry forward. We’re looking to deliver unique benefits and experiences to our users. You see that with self-driving cars and Google Glass and other things we do,” says Hanke.

“With Ingress and Field Trip the unique experience is to encourage people to get outside, exercise and have a gaming experience that isn’t sedentary. It’s combining exploring a city – whether it’s where you live or you’re travelling – combining exploration with exercise and game play and meeting other people in the real world. We were interested in how the intersection of online and offline communities would work and that’s one of the breakthrough things about Ingress.”

Do the ideas always have to interconnect – Ingress and self-driving cars, for instance, are both related to Google maps; and Google Glass relates to the search engine. Does it always have to sprout from a seed that’s already in Google?

“Often we’re looking to invest in things where Google can do a uniquely good job,” says Hanke. “That means building on strengths we already have. Ingress and Field Trip were outgrowths of Google Maps. It’s not uncommon for us to take an area where we think we’ve developed expertise unique to us and do more with that. If you look at Google X or flying wifi access balloons around the world with Project Balloons, they’re pretty out there!”

Endgame Ingress seems to be just the beginning of Google’s ambitions when it comes to location-based mobile games.

“We have a project coming up called Endgame which is unique,” says Hanke. “I guess you could call it the next generation of Ingress. It will be a book that’s launching in 33 countries around the world by an author named James Fry and there’s a contest imbedded in the book whereby people can solve a puzzle and win a prize of $500,000 [€374,000] in gold, and there’s a movie version as well. The story will be told through the book, the mobile game and through online social clues by characters within the story. It’s a big project that scales up what we started with Ingress.”

Much like Amazon’s plans with its Tesla car, Google intend to make much of its technology freely available to fuel innovation.

“The plan is to make this platform that we developed for real-world social games available for other developers without having to invent everything we’ve done,” says Hanke.

“We hope to see hundreds of games that you can play in the real world. Hopefully we’ll see lots of unique ideas.”

“You look at the thousands of websites built on Google Maps – we’d like to see the same thing happening with our game platform. We’d love to see that genre take root and grow.”

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