Disclosure: Google paid for my flight and lodging for the Recursion event.
The morning of March 29th, two rival factions gathered at Los Angeles’ Grand Park in anticipation for a pitched battle. As noon approached, it became obvious to any passerby that something was going on. Hundreds of people prominently wearing blue and green streamed in through the park steps, conspicuously segregating themselves into colored clumps: blues to the right, and greens to the left. To any random passerby, it must have looked like the staging area for a flash mob. But look a little closer, and you’d see the telltale signs of the virtual battle about to take place. Headphones tapped into private communications channels to coordinate movement. A row of cyclists primed and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Pennants proudly bearing faction insignia. And more smartphone chargers and batteries than people.
This gathering was an Anomaly event, one of the live events organized by Google’s Niantic Labs team for players of their geo-locative mobile game Ingress. Since early February, 25 Anomaly events took place in countries including the United States, Mexico, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Croatia, Egypt, Israel, and India for a series of events collectively referred to as the Recursion Anomalies. Los Angeles was the final Anomaly event in the series, and Google invited me out to Los Angeles to experience Google’s approach to designing a live event for a massively multiplayer game. Previously, ARGNet explained how Ingress is played at a more casual level. This article explores how gameplay changes for its most ardent fans.
Ingress at a ZipCar location in Philadelphia. Sorry Ingress players, this is not a new passcode.
It’s been over a year since Google introduced the world of Ingress. At its core, the project is a locative mobile game spawned out of NianticLabs@Google, an internal skunkworks team based out of the search giant’s San Francisco office. In Ingress, players compete to capture and connect virtual portals situated at real world locations to control the globe for their team. Ingress isn’t the first game to explore this geolocative game mechanic: games like Plundr and Shadow Cities paved the way for Ingress by conditioning “field agents” to take mobile gaming out to the streets. What makes Ingress distinct is Niantic’s narrative ambitions: in the past year, daily updates from the production team through an alternate reality game have introduced players to a sprawling narrative told across websites, videos, novels, live events, and even hidden within the game itself.
Ingress recently opened up to all Android users, and plans to expand out to iOS devices in 2014. With over a year of story to catch up on, entering the world of Ingress may seem daunting. Familiarity with the story isn’t essential to gameplay, but it does add staying power to a game that runs the risk of turning tedious over time. For those looking to take the plunge, here’s a few helpful pointers.
Comic-Con has served as the launch platform for more than a few alternate reality games in the past. At the San Diego convention, Why So Serious held its first live event promoting The Dark Knight at the convention in San Diego, using attendees as the Joker’s patsies by getting them to don the criminal’s signature clown make-up and stage minor crimes. Showtime kicked off its Dexter-themed ARG with a scavenger hunt leading to a grisly kill room, while Disney’s Flynn Lives campaign transformed a nearby warehouse into the End of Line Club from Tron: Legacy. While most of these affairs have been major events centered around entertainment properties, Google appears to have shaken up that trend by slipping their Comic-Con launch of the Niantic Project under the radar, only to have it resurface in force this month.
On July 12th, self-proclaimed “ghost comic book artist” Tycho started working the crowds at San Diego Comic-Con near Artist’s Alley, handing out flyers inspired by his inexplicable visions, dominated by scenes of global landmarks and enigmatic encrypted messages about parasitic “Shapers.” As crazy as Tycho seems, the folks at Niantic seem interested in his ramblings.
These visions drove Tycho to confront Flint Dille about hidden messages regarding extra-dimensional portals implanted for decades in Buck Rogers stories, before security threw him out of the convention. A few weeks later, a university professor teaching his students about visualizing portals with cell phone cameras was escorted away from his inattentive audience, but that was largely the end…until earlier this month, when mystery blogger P.A. Chapeau started updating his virtual conspiracy theory corkboard at NianticProject.com.
Editor’s Note: Daniël van Gool, an administrator at the Unfiction forums, was on the scene at PICNIC ’08 on behalf of ARGNet. We were impressed with Daniël’s work covering PICNIC ’07 and, as media partners of the annual cross-media festival, were invited to a number of special events in addition to the speaker sessions. This is the sixth and final part of Daniël’s comprehensive look at this year’s event in which he outlines the highlights of day three of PICNIC ’08. All pictures are courtesy of Daniël as well.
I arrived at PICNIC early on Friday the 26th. When I arrived, the main conference hall was mostly empty, but it was filled with the ambient noises one would expect at a picnic — crickets, a flowing creek, and the occasional buzzing fly. This is why I love PICNIC so much! The smell of fresh coffee slowly filled the building, even though PICNIC’s Espresso Factory was closed for the morning, and life was good.
The focus of day 3 of PICNIC ’08 was on the collaboration within the creative industry, which mean that there would be a ton of showcases by different entrepreneurs that are developing several innovative concepts that provide means for creativity and/or collaboration. Before this ‘parade’ of mostly very ingenious commercial concepts, Matt Costello gave a speech presenting his thoughts and ideas on creativity in games in a highly entertaining form. Costello is mostly known as a games-designer, having worked on The 7th Guest and Doom 3, and on several novels and games for TV (PBS, BCC, the SciFi channel). He introduced himself as somewhat of a cross media schizophrenic.
He started out by talking for a bit about the concept of Story, by telling a tale about a personal encounter with a shark that he had while diving. He then read a passage from a novel he co-wrote that used that personal experience to base the storyline upon and engaged the audience in a conversation about the differences.
He stated that the audience often knows something that the protagonist in a story doesn’t know, a point he illustrated by bringing two members of the audience on stage. His point was that a good story creates the illusion that something is going to happen, but then causes something else to happen, making the audience the surprised party instead of the protagonist. The unexpected and the unknown are two important factors in storytelling, interactivity and games.
Costello went on to demonstrate a lot of his other points by having members of the audience perform several tasks. Again, it is very hard to convey his points by merely describing what happened. During his address, I was chatting with people on IRC following along through PICNIC’s live feed, and I said the following:
<Gisk> yeah, Matt Costello is a fun guy
<Gisk> very good points he made about storytelling and gameplay
<Gisk> unfortunately, almost impossible to write up… you need to see his interaction with the audience and the creation of illusion to convey what he was talking about
<Gisk> which is exactly his point
<Gisk> so, figures
I guess this is the best summary I can give, so I’m afraid it’ll have to do.
Editor’s Note: Daniël van Gool, an administrator at the Unfiction forums, was on the scene at PICNIC ’08 on behalf of ARGNet. We were impressed with Daniël’s work covering PICNIC ’07 and, as media partners of the annual cross-media festival, were invited to a number of special events in addition to the speaker sessions. This is the second part of Daniël’s comprehensive look at this year’s event, still focused on the first day of conference speakers (the first part is here). All pictures are courtesy of Daniël as well.
Next up was Aaron Koblin, a software developer and artist who works for Google’s Creative Labs and whose work is internationally renowned. He specializes in data visualization, which was another recurring theme through PICNIC’08.
There’s a revolution going on in data visualization, departing from pie-charts and graphs and taking on quite a different, creative route. It took a while for me to figure out why this topic, while interesting, was featured so prominently at a conference like PICNIC, but the theme became apparent after several speakers made it clear that one of the biggest trends on the internet nowadays is the connection between the digital and the physical worlds. Manipulating “virtual objects” online is a thing of the past: interacting with real objects and real data and input from the real world is what’s becoming big. And this is why data visualization is rapidly becoming a hot topic.
Koblin showed us several examples of interesting ways to portray data, including a display of oil production in the form of oil blobs crawling on a map and a very cool graphical representation which illustrated which portions of New York City were communicating via email with recipients around the world. I could write about these demonstrations for a long time, but I realize that, apart from hardly being interesting, they do Koblin’s work no justice, so if you’re interested, visit his website and check out some of his work.
Lorraine Twohill, Google‘s Marketing Director for Europe presented an excellent keynote address on how Google has leveraged its original core search service to expand existing and create new marketplaces on the internet, packing what seemed like two hours worth of information and anecdotes into a half-hour presentation. She discussed the rapidly changing user experience within the networked environment. Users were originally “pushed” information in similar fashion to traditional media such as television or newspapers. Technologies such as RSS feeds and improved search engines allowed consumers to “pull” only the information that they wanted or needed. Most recently, newly innovated sites and resources have enabled those average citizens to join the content creation marketplace and to publish their works to a global audience.
Google’s mission has always been to assist its users in finding the information and resources they want as quickly and as easily as possible. Ms. Twohill stated that Google’s goal with the search site was all about getting the user off of the site as soon as possible; if they are able to point a user in the proper direction in a fast and simple fashion, it is more likely that user will return again later and become more loyal to the service.