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MMObility: Google's Ingress shines light on the good and bad of ARGs


If you're turned on by augmented reality gaming or games that occur at least in some part within the real world, then you have probably heard about Google's latest experiment, Ingress. Google has been in the MMO game before. Years ago the company created a sort of social sandbox called Google Lively. It was a very interesting project, but its disappearance did not exactly fill me with confidence that Google could pull off another one. Still, this is one of the country's largest experimentation-driven companies with some of the smartest people and greatest access to information, so an ARG might just be the perfect fit.

I was just given access to the current stage of the game; be aware that everything I talk about or show you is most likely going to change over time.

Ingress screenshot
In Ingress, players use a real-life location to determine what happens in the virtual world. In this case, my small city will have a certain number of portals spread throughout it, and it's the job of one of the two factions -- The Enlightened or The Resistance -- to "hack" the portals (sort of like checking in) and to link those portals. It's all very top-secret-like, and Google has pulled out many of the stops. There is a teaser site that acts as a sort of library of past and current events; there, players can read up on the details. I am enjoying reading a bit at a time and checking out some of the videos, but mostly I've been trying to figure out just how fun this game might be to a person (like yours truly) who lives outside of a major city.

For example, there are a handful of portals that pop up in this smaller town of mine. One is at the local police station and fire house, another is across the street at the library, and the last one is inside the post office. So while going out for doughnuts one morning, I stopped by the local library and attempted to hack a blue portal. Then, I drove across the street to hack the police station portal but was initially prevented from doing so by the fact that the city would rather citizens avoid blocking most of the entrances. I sneaked in anyway and attempted to hack the green glowing portal but was damaged in the process. It would take at least several minutes before I could try again. I had to leave because, well, fire trucks needed to leave as well. Then I moved on to the post office, attempted to hack it (unsuccessfully), and was told to wait several minutes.

Let me know if you can see the glaring safety issues that might pop up while I drive around, dodging public safety vehicles and glancing down at my tablet. There are audio cues, sure, but a player still needs to touch the screen to play. I would have used my Galaxy Note phone, but the screen turned black every time I tried to access a portal.

Ingress screenshot
In larger cities, players are busily keeping after each other by literally running up and down the street, hacking and creating protective shields. Here in my town and in (I'm guessing) most towns in the United States, players will probably quickly grow tired of competing with players from the same team to get to the handful of portals in the town they call home. I took my tablet with me as my lovely wife and I ran errands on the weekend, but I couldn't find a single portal to do anything with, even at a shopping mall. I'm wondering whether the game is basing the number of portals on population density, similar to other games like Shadow Cities. While using a mechanic like this is cool to those who live in downtown San Francisco, for most of us the game will feel empty. To emphasize my point, here's a quote from a player on Google+:
Probably going to stop playing Ingress until the recent gameplay changes are undone or fixed. For rural players it's literally impossible to maintain any more than five to six portals thanks to less XM, higher decay rate, and the damned app needing a constant Force Sync every step of the way just so I can remote recharge. Half my portals were 10 to 60 kilometers away, and I'm not driving that every other day just to play Ingress. /ruralplayer
OK, so I can't say that the game makes me feel this angry, but you get the point. It's important to point out that "rural" players are not always country-bound farmers who live in 200-strong communities. In my "little" town there are roughly 100,000 people... hardly a tiny place. Does this mean I'll have to drive 20 minutes south to downtown Dallas just to have a good time?

I tend to prefer gameplay like the kind you find in Parallel Kingdom. Not only does it base information in the game on real-world locations, but it also allows players to teleport around the map and create buildings. Granted, the world inside Parallel Kingdom is not dependent enough on the real world, and Ingress is going for a much more involved game, but surely there's a sweet spot in between? There is also a safety issue to be concerned about, as competing for portals in Ingress could fire off more than a few heated arguments that are combined with relatively precise real-world locations. The game doesn't broadcast your location to the world, but your actions in the game seem to. If I deactivate a portal up the street, will it be that hard to spot me? After all, I'll be the guy standing still on the sidewalk, looking down at his device. It's a minor concern, but for those who are already at odds with even sharing a general location online, it could be too much. In the Parallel Kingdom universe players can have a heated argument and even attack each other in game, but there's no guarantee that those players actually live anywhere near the location of their in-game avatars.

Ingress screenshot
Where this project really shines is in the P.R. department. The teaser website is good fun, and I can only imagine the sort of mischief Google could help create. However, as more games attempt to create some sort of real-world connection, many issues will have to be solved before all players will feel involved and valued. As it is right now, Ingress is a basic game with interesting gameplay that rewards mostly those who live in larger cities or who are willing to drive or walk sometimes for good distances. If the game allowed players to contribute in other ways -- perhaps by checking in at local shops or favorite restaraunts -- then I can see myself enjoying this game. I am fine with other players doing all of the heavier lifting like hacking or creating protective shields across the city, so long as I can do something for my side. Otherwise, I'll be visiting the same handful of locations over and over, and that's only when I find myself out for other reasons.

I should note that players can submit real-world locations to the Ingress team in the hopes of getting a portal added to the game. There are some pre-set criteria to go by, but I can't help but think that there must be a more fair way to build portals into the game. After all, if I can see all sorts of information from population density to street names on a typical Google map, why are the players asked to submit? Wouldn't player-submitted locations also bring up issues of fairness?

I can't wait to see what Google's designers do with Ingress, but I think that without addressing the fact that most people in the United States are not really willing to, you know, walk anywhere (if the player is even able to walk, which leaves disabled or home-bound players out of the mix) and will be bored in their cars only while in traffic, the game is bound to suffer. I've heard similar promises from other ARGs before, and yet the only ones that have really come through the genre's infancy are PerBlue's series and Red Robot's Life is Magic. Either way, I'll be keeping an eye out for more developments.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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