Since smartphones have become more and more location aware with GPS signals, and high-res camera's, augmented reality (AR) has been something of a gimmick. It's fun to show off interesting things like Layar, or there may be a simple game based on collecting things around town. But, with its first foray into game development, Google is looking to reboot AR with Project Niantic and a game called Ingress. The biggest difference? Google isn't just bringing augmented reality, its bringing a different AR: alternative reality.
You may have heard about The Niantic Project because for the past 15 days, Google has been slowly adding more and more information on the topic. Some will call it viral marketing, but really it is world-building to set up the game. The game itself, which will be called Ingress, is more than just a location-based game, there is a mythology and characters behind it all. There is a mysterious cell phone, a psychologist with extremely odd patients, a possible artificial intelligence called ADA, characters called Shapers who control something called a "Mind Virus", a defunct governmental agency called the National Intelligence Agency trying to suppress the information, and even a trip to Comic Con. You can walk through the entire run of info at The Niantic Project website, or get a quick breakdown from the Niantic Project Wiki page (although we would quite strongly suggest the former). We'll drop the teaser here just to give you a primer:
This is a huge departure from what we have known as augmented reality. This is a story with mystery, suspense, and intrigue. Even if the game itself turns out to be terrible, the story alone has been worthwhile so far. The story has been building through videos, audio clips, encoded messages, chat transcripts, and "leaked documents" since November 1st, and the timeline on the website ends on November 30th. So, today marks the halfway point, and it marks the day Google has actually released the game component, called Ingress. Right now, Ingress is in closed beta, so you have to request an invite. And, once you get an invite, the game is Android only, although it will work on Android 2.3 and higher, and there is an iOS app in the works.
The game was developed by John Hanke, who came to Google through the acquisition of his company Keyhole Inc. The Keyhole team became the team to build Google Earth, and Hanke became the leader of the Google Maps and Street View projects. Most recently, he known as the guy who wanted to leave Google to make his own company, but was convinced to stay and his idea became the new Field Trip app. All that to say that Hanke is obviously a fan of augmented reality, and the possibilities of building on top of maps data.
In the alternative reality of Ingress, will come across Portals which are gradually opening up around the world. Portals are the points where Shaper forces and Exotic Matter is coming through to our world, and you have to choose if you will be part of The Resistance, who believes humanity needs protection from these energies, or part of The Enlightenment, who want to form an alliance with the Shaper forces. Once you choose, you can join the communities (Google Groups) dedicated to allow people to join together and make their factions stronger.
This push to bring people together is a key to moving through the game, because as you travel to the various Portals and nodes, and capture them for your faction, you can work together with others to take over portals and nodes close to each other and control territory. Your team score is based on the size of the territory controlled both in size of physical area, and population size. Portals can be reinforced using Exotic Matter (XM), and factions can attack enemy-controlled Portals to attempt to take them over. This game is huge and has a lot of different options, which are somewhat described in the Ingress Basic Training help website.
The game will also be split between the mobile component and a web component. The mobile version acts sort of like the ground troops, and only gives you access to your immediate surroundings and what can be done there, while the web component will allow you to see more of an tactical overview of the game. The idea being that a few people take command of "agents" and move them strategically to advance the team.
Overall, the game looks to be a huge undertaking. Google and Hanke are working hard to really build the world of this game, so that the story will be just as interesting as the game itself. The game sounds like it has the potential to be more of a Live Action Strategic Role-Playing game than just a simple go-here-and-tap-your-screen type of game that AR has tended to be. Just the amount of information that Google has created to support the story of the game is incredible, and the game itself sounds more robust than many mobile games tend to be. Suffice it to say, we're excited.