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: The Game Behind the Event
Ingress is a mobile game for Android devices that taps into the Google Maps API to transform the globe into a battlefield between two factions, the Resistance (blue) and the Enlightened (green). Key cultural landmarks and locations are marked with virtual portals. “Hacking” these portals provides helpful items like resonators (used to claim and reinforce portals for your faction), XMP bursters (used to attack your rival faction’s portals), and portal keys (used to connect two portals together). Each portal has eight slots for resonators, and a single Agent can fill every slot. However, there are limits to the number of high-level resonators a single Agent can place on a portal, so factions need to coordinate to build higher level portals that yield higher level items when hacked. Once a portal is filled with resonators, players can link it to other portals to form a triangle of influence that claims the underlying region for their faction, securing the area’s “mind units” for their team’s overall score.
Players level up by collecting Action Points, gaining the ability to use more powerful items. The leveling curve in Ingress is severe, with players needing to double their Action Points for every new level. The current maximum level is 8 which requires 1.2 million Action Points: with most activities earning anywhere from 10 to 1,250 points, most players take a few months to make the climb up to level 8, although local factions have helped players finish the grind in a single day of non-stop gameplay. As with many massively multiplayer online games, the gameplay dynamics in Ingress change when you reach the top level. And while Ingress recently announced plans to increase the maximum level to 16, level 8 is still the key inflection point for many players.
When the push to increase individual statistics tapers off, the focus on the community becomes greater. Since the game depends on a network of active players upgrading and reinforcing portals to keep the supply of high level items flowing, many of the local networks work to actively recruit new players to the game and to help them by giving advice, providing them with items, and helping weaken rival portals to speed up the leveling process. Players also start to get involved in larger strategic initiatives, chasing “epic wins” setting up multi-state or multi-national control fields, securing portals in particularly hard to reach locations, and collaborating with rival factions to create field art. For other players, the focus shifts more towards coordinating the strategic placement of links and control fields to increase regional and global mind unit scores for their faction, block rival factions from forming links, and take down key structures. Others dedicate more of their efforts to decoding the game’s deep narrative backstory. Anomaly events, particularly the Los Angeles Recursion event, are designed to cater to all of these player types.
The Elite V and #NL1331
To celebrate the achievements of Ingress‘s players, Niantic Labs held a contest to reward five of the game’s most active global players with a trip out to California to have a conversation with the Niantic Labs team in San Francisco before going on a road trip to Los Angeles for the final Recursion event. Five players were chosen: Enlightened Agents Vicinext from Russia, Morka from France, and fourfootseven from Australia, and Resistance Agents Portalyst from the United States, and Agent TheBaMs from Germany. These were not necessarily the five players with the highest Action Point scores: these were players that had made themselves essential to their communities in a variety of ways.
I arrived in San Francisco just after 1AM on March 28th so I could join up with the Elite V for their road trip to Los Angeles later that morning. Out of curiosity, I opened up my Ingress app to check the COMM feed, an ongoing feed of local player activity and noticed that Agents fourfootseven (Rai Molki) and Morka (Damien Mórka) were still awake, carving out a swath of local portals for the Enlightened faction. Both players are active members of the Enlightened community: Mórka put together a French-language tutorial for Ingress, and Molki helps coordinate global initiatives like the international transportation of Jarvis Shards during the 13Magnus Anomaly event, where factions were tasked with moving special items from portal to portal by strategically placing links. But that night, the two were out taking down portals to bolster their Action Point scores and capture more unique portals to increase their overall statistics, which help earn virtual badges that recognize accomplishments above and beyond the initial 8 levels. This was such a regular occurrence along the trip that Resistance factions along the van’s route passed on word that the Enlightened members of the Elite V were devastating everything in their paths.
The next day, I met the Elite V as well as Agent Toxyd (Anton Khudozhnik) and his wife. When Agent Vicinext (Vitaly Kabernik) found out he was selected as one of the Elite V, he organized a crowdfunding campaign to bring along his friend and faction rival along for the ride. For one of Khudozhnik’s expeditions, he had to request permission from the Russian Secret Service to reach Anadyr, a remote city in eastern Russia. This was not the only crowdfunding campaign to bring an agent out to an event during Recursion: players flew Agent Palko from California to Tennessee to help with an Anomaly event a few weeks earlier. Kabernik’s own focus leveraged his work in cyber security to create local and global portal strategies.
For the caravan down to Los Angeles, the Niantic Labs team used its #NL1331 XM Collection vehicle, a van that doubled as a mobile portal in the game, manifesting a new location every time the van stopped. Ingress‘ Marketing Lead Bill Kilday was behind the wheel, with the team’s product marketing lead Archit Bhargava close behind. Along the way, Flint Dille called in to speak with the Elite V, in character.
In Ingress‘ narrative, Niantic Labs serves two divergent roles. In the real world, Niantic Labs is a branch of Google that built the mobile app, developed the alternate reality game, and created additional transmedia pieces to the narrative in the form of novels, comic books, and reams of documents. In the story’s fictional universe, Niantic Labs and many of its employees still exist, but with a slightly different context. In Flint Dille’s case, as a Niantic Labs employee he is the Creative Lead on Ingress, drawing on his experience working on everything from video games like The Chronicles of Riddick to television shows including the GI Joe and Transformers cartoons. In the fictional narrative, Flint Dille was pulled into the experience when a crazed comic book artist interrupted his panel at Comic-Con. Since then, Dille has independently investigated the Niantic Project as a member of the Enlightened faction. It was the fictional Dille who called, giving players a chance to bounce theories off of him.
Explaining the distinction between the factions, Dille described the current divide as being between the Enlightened’s focus on alien influence, and the Resistance’s press towards artificial intelligence. “It’s kind of a Batman, Superman question. You like Superman, you want to have superpowers, be born on Krypton…you like Batman, you have a bunch of devices and the Batmobile, and feel like you have control over your destiny.”
As a member of Operation Essex, the collective of players dedicated to piecing together Ingress‘ narrative, Agent Portalyst (Linda Besh) was particularly eager to prod the in-character Dille for clues to some of the loose threads of a narrative unfolding across piles of often contradictory information. The day of our call, Ingress released a new comic book combining three previously published comics into a single issue. Players scouring through the new release noticed a number of modifications to information conveyed in some of the panels, and even some new artwork, that might indicate a turning point for the story’s narrative. Besh also helped create Ingress-themed charm bracelets so that players could have a tangible record of their involvement in Ingress‘ Anomaly events. Agent TheBaMs was less interested in the narrative elements of the game, and more focused on the gameplay: at every stop, the #NL1331 van’s portal would change hands a few times, with TheBaMs and Morka in particular keeping up a friendly rivalry.
Along the way, the van stopped off at a number of locations to give local players the chance to meet the Elite V, pick up a portal key for the #NL1331 van, and chat with some of the creators of their beloved game. At the Madonna Inn, members of the local Resistance faction came out to chat, and I had the chance to speak with Agent triplett about gameplay in a more rural setting. With many of the portals in the area located on top of the local hills and mountains, the trek out to capture a single portal could be a formidable task. But that was nothing in comparison to his trip out to the Point Conception Lighthouse, a key strategic point for control of the California coastline. In order to reach the Point Conception Lighthouse, players have to wait until low tide creates a land bridge to the lighthouse, keeping a lookout for the wild hogs that roam the area.
The trip down to Los Angeles was framed as a victory tour for the Elite V, allowing local Agents in California the chance to meet prominent members of the community who dominated Google+ discussions, internal faction chats, and planning sessions for events created by Google and those crafted within the communities. Many players mentioned the distinction between “soft 8’s” — players who reached level 8 and rested on their laurels, and “hard 8’s” — players who continued to engage and give back to the community, redoubling their commitment after reaching the top level. The caravan to Los Angeles was a celebration of those “hard 8’s”.
Anomalies and Prologue to Recursion Los Angeles
Ingress featured a strong underlying narrative even before the mobile app launched, but live events emerged organically through local Ingress communities who wanted to put together time-sensitive challenges between factions. This tradition of informal events continues: the Enlightened faction held Ingress Enlightened Games to coincide with the Winter Olympics, and players in countries like Russia and Mexico have created their own narrative spin-offs of the main plot to give context to some of their unofficial events. So when the Niantic Labs team started running their own official Anomaly events, it wasn’t seeking to supplant what had already emerged: it merely provided an additional opportunity for players to meet with the game’s creators and characters, enjoy specialized gameplay mechanics, and potentially even influence the game’s narrative. Niantic Labs’ head John Hanke mentioned that one of the key takeaways from the player summit with the Elite V was providing local groups with the tools to run informal local and global events more efficiently.
Every Anomaly event follows the same basic structure: after a brief introductory speech, players are given a map of the field of play, divided out into different clustered regions. At pre-scheduled times, each cluster is scored for points, and “volatile portals” worth additional points are revealed. The faction with the most points wins, and the factions go out to celebrate or commiserate. Often, plot points expand events into a broader challenge.
For the Recursion Anomaly, that broader challenge involved the transportation of special artifacts that served different purposes for each faction. The artifacts provided Enlightened Agents with an opportunity to break their ally Hank Johnson out of a violent cycle of death and rebirth. The same artifacts could be used by the Resistance to help their ally Klu finish merging with the artificial intelligence that serves as an interface with the Ingress mobile app. Winning live events helped factions secure virtual artifacts that had to be transported to locations across the globe through a daisy-chain of portal links. During the events leading up to the final Recursion event in Los Angeles, the Resistance swept the live events.
Rio5 (Ruth Shepherd), one of the Floridian players to make it out to the Recursion event in Los Angeles, explained that the process of moving artifacts hundreds of miles could be a challenging one. After ensuring there are no links or control fields blocking the way to its intended destination, Agents at the source portal use a special link amplifier to extend their portal’s reach to its target destination. A group of Agents waiting at the destination portal then quickly repeat the process to the next chain down the line, preventing the rival faction from taking control of the artifact and moving it away from its intended destination. By the time the Los Angeles Recursion occurred, 5 of the 17 artifacts had been delivered to their target destinations by the Resistance.
The Los Angeles Recursion Event
As a member of the Resistance faction, I joined up with Team Lazuli, a combination of the Elite V Resistance members and a group of Agents from Portland who previously teamed up for the San Francisco 13Magnus Anomaly. While the team’s leader Ethan Lepouttre stayed in communication with remote Operators directing events from around the world using a remote communications service called Zello, our team was tasked with defending a small group of 4-5 portals. Knowing the stakes, it’s still a fun way to spend a few hours: the real fun happens behind the scenes.
But for the players directing the action remotely, commonly referred to as “Operators”, the live event is like playing a game of Starcraft, knowing that each unit is a living, breathing person. After the Recursion event concluded I spoke with Agent d0gboy, who served as an Operator for the Enlightened’s efforts in India that helped his faction win the event: “Part of the game is plotting out a link from Point A to Point B. And it’s easy if it’s a portal that’s here and across the street. But if it’s a portal that’s [in Los Angeles] and a portal in Seattle you need someone to help you, on a computer with multiple screens who can tell you there are enemy agents near you, or you’ve got this blocker near you.”
Once the Los Angeles Anomaly completed with an Enlightened victory, a two-hour long endgame commenced where the Enlightened had the opportunity to transport two artifacts from Texas and Hawaii to a portal in Los Angeles. Players of both factions used this as an opportunity to hang out and chat, unplugged from their Operators and free of the competitive edge. I met the Pyles, a family of seven with three generations playing the game. As a sign of solidarity, their in-game usernames all ended in “lite”. When I had the chance to talk with John Hanke about the game, he was very excited about the game’s ability to bring a wide variety of players together:
There’s this older woman up in Seattle, Agent Nana: they all know her. Her favorite portal is an American Indian [cultural center], and she takes people to the set of portals and she walks them around and gives them the tour, telling them all about it…she’s walking 2 miles a day, and it’s helping her control her [health condition] without her medication…and what I’m thinking when she’s telling me about the benefits of the game is there are all these 20-something and 30-something people are coming up to her and giving her hugs and high-fives.
The Enlightened won the Los Angeles Recursion event and the Resistance won the larger Recursion series of events, but the official Anomaly event was about the same thing as the unofficial community events: people coming together to play a game outside together. The rival factions leads to competition and secrecy between groups, but the trash-talk I overheard at the Recursion event was the most congenial I’ve ever heard. In describing the social aspects of the game, Hanke added, “part of that is the design. It’s not a head-on-head combat kind of game. You are competing directly over the portals, but never attacking you as an individual. Even playing card games where you can take a card from another person…in Ingress, it doesn’t build that animosity.”
The Future for Ingress
Over the coming months, Ingress will be rolling out additional levels, badges, and missions to flesh out the current game, as well as an iOS release. Later this year, James Frey is launching a new franchise, Endgame, that will play out across a HarperCollins book series, a film through 20th Century Fox, and as an app built on Ingress‘ platform. Agents interested in experiencing an Anomaly for themselves can check the locations for the Interitus Anomaly, with events running through June 21st.