The Niantic Project

At Comic-Con 2012, several videos were released involving a long haired comic book artist named Tycho. Although there was no record of the individual anywhere else, everyone seemed to know him. People came to Comic-Con to find Tycho. Big names in the business praised his amazing skill and describe him as someone who, “Whenever a franchise is lagging, they bring him in behind the scenes… And the franchise starts selling again.” Past employers seem to include Marvel, Batman Beyond, and more. Tycho has been found in videos throughout Comic-Con, handing out posters and spewing lines about Portals and Shapers. He was last seen being taken away by security during the Buck Rodgers panel. These videos went widely unnoticed.

Fast forward to November 2012, new YouTube videos are released. These are a trailhead to a larger investigation. The Niantic Project, shapers, the NIA, XM Fields, what does it all mean? 

Google’s super top-secret Niantic Project has been picking up plenty of buzz lately around the interweb. Since November 1st a Google-hosted investigation board has been posting some cryptic videos featuring ominous voiceovers that drop phrases like “There’s more to the world than you can see.” A poster featuring encoded text superimposed over photos taken near CERN is another early post on this “Sphere of Weirdness.”

Google has revealed that Project Niantic is in fact tied to the launch of a new location-based mobile game called Ingress. The game has been in development within Google for many months by a small group known as Niantic Labs, headed up by John Hanke. Hanke is the CEO of Keyhole Inc. Perhaps better known as Google Earth. Hanke now leads the group that developed Google Maps, StreetView and more.

It started out innocently enough with an app called Field Trip. The app is described as your guide to the cool, hidden and unique things in the world around you. It reportedly runs in the background on your phone and when you get near something “interesting,” you receive a notification with details about your surroundings.

Ingress’s gameplay builds on the fiction established in the Niantic Project alternate reality game. There is a “world within our world.” Portals are beginning to open up all over the globe. These portals begin pouring out exotic matter. Is this the next step in human enlightenment, or are these portals something dangerous that should be resisted? Your answer to this question determines whether you play Ingress on the side of The Enlightened, hoping to awaken more citizens, or The Resistance, hoping to protect the population from these forces.

These portals exist in real world locations like libraries, museums and other “interesting public spaces,” defined automatically by Google’s extremely extensive database of locations. Gameplay revolves around capturing and controlling these portals for your faction before the other side can get their hands on it. Capturing a portal is as simple as being nearby and hitting a button on your phone. But the catch is that you truly do need to be nearby. Ingress uses your phone’s GPS to know if you truly are at the location that you claim to be at. John Hanke said:

“The concept is something like World of Warcraft, where everyone in world is playing the same game. Players are on one of two teams: “The Enlightened,” who embrace the power, or “The Resistance,” who fight the power. Anyone can play from anywhere in the world, though in more densely played areas there will be more local competition for resources."

Outdoor physical activity is a big component of this, though driving between locations isn’t banned. “You’re like a rat in a maze on the phone,” Hanke said. Then, back at your computer, you can review the larger area and gameplay.

Rather than present gamers with the standard bright and friendly Google Maps interface, San Francisco is instead represented by a dark grid of roads and buildings. Transparent vector graphics overlay the real-world map, representing the various portals and power nodes players are struggling to control.

As for the tactics and strategy, although Ingress might make it simple to capture a nearby portal, capturing the nearby citizens is a more complicated matter. The game features a complex system for taking over entire square blocks (and later, square miles) of territory for your faction. Once three portals have been captured by your faction, if they’re in range of each other and no enemy-controlled portals are nearby, the triangulated area is filled in with your faction's color. Teams of players can work together to box out entire neighborhoods for their faction.

The total score each controlled area contributes to your team is determined by the location's size and population density (another bit of data Google has easy access to). Every action players take, from hacking a neutral portal, to attacking an enemy-controlled portal, to reinforcing your own portals with items like shields, expends Exotic Matter, or XM. Gamers collect this XM just by moving through the world.

When playing on your mobile device, your view is limited to just your immediate surroundings (although special items do allow you to peek at the game state in far away places). But Ingress also includes a web client that lets gamers see a more tactical view of what’s happening across the entire nation or even the entire globe. This information asymmetry is intentional – the Ingress team envisions a scenario where one player sits at a desktop, dispatching orders to “agents” in the field instructing them which portals to power-up in order to complete a link and take over a territory. Only someone in front of a deskop can see the big picture and know where resources are needed.

The Ingress App is available only on Android for now, with iOS to follow. The app is a free download, with Hanke insisting that it would remain truly free.