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Q&A: Google Glass and the future of geo-location game  Ingress
Q&A: Google Glass and the future of geo-location game Ingress Exclusive
October 31, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

Google has a game studio. Ingress, the first game from Niantic Labs, is a cyberpunk-themed geo-tagged hunt, in which two factions compete for resources that just happen to be co-located with public works of art in the real world. If you approach a public statue, for example, you can tag that statue and bring its resources over to your team in-game.

Niantic Labs product manager Brandon Badger explains his team's plan to let other game developers create their own games on the back of the tech that Niantic is developing, and also how the game may utilize devices like Google Glass.

I've been following the experiments Google's made into games over the years. Nothing's really taken off. Can you talk about why Google keeps trying game stuff, and why Ingress seems to be the one that's caught on?

Brandon Badger: Games are an important application for a new technology. So if you think about something like wearable computing, devices like Google Glass, you see the new smart watches coming to market from Samsung... I think there are productivity apps, where you can get a notification when you get an email, or someone sends you any other type of calendar update or whatnot. But I think it's natural for people to want to play games with that type of technology. I think games are important for building great software experiences and to support that type of technology that Google is invested in.

You alluded to Google Glass. Have you done anything with Ingress on Google Glass?

We haven't announced anything at this point, but it's definitely something the team has been exploring. Google Glass offers that ability to explore the world in a heads-up type way, where you're able to keep your head up, use your physical eyes to go about your daily life, but use the Glass display to augment what you're seeing, and where you're seeing it. I definitely think that could fit and be a great experience with a game like Ingress.

We also have an application from our team called Field Trip. The Niantic team, we built Field Trip. It's all about serendipitous discovery where you are. It's a different way of exploring a city. Instead of buying a tour guide and exploring a city, you just take off in a certain direction and walk through the city, and then it knows where you are, and then it buzzes you when you walk near something cool.

So we actually launched a Field Trip version for Google Glass specifically. That's a great application where, you're wearing Google Glass, you walk near a historical marker, Field Trip recognizes that, knows that you're interested in history and that you haven't seen that before, and sends that notification, and then you see it as a card on your heads-up display on Google Glass.

Our team is definitely thinking about Glass, and we have some experience building applications for Glass. So I think as we continue to evolve Ingress, I think it's something we'll explore.

It seems like it brings together a lot of things Google is good at and then gamifies them. Gamification is one of those words that is overused and could potentially lose all meaning if you overuse it, but as you said, you started with Google Maps. Stuff moves in -- notifications, GPS location data, whatever. It ties it all into a game layer.

Our vision for this, from Niantic Labs, is really to build a platform and to help other game studios, other developers, build similar types of geo-games on top of this infrastructure. The idea was that Ingress would be a proof of concept. Because when we started this, it was not clear-cut that people would want to play this type of game. But we've taken this leap of faith, that this is a fun way to use this technology, we've built this game, and we have gotten this validation that there is enthusiasm behind this type of experience.

Our goal is to then continue to build out the foundational pieces but then open that up, so that when you want to build a cool zombie game or vampire game where you run around the city, that instead of having to start from scratch, you could take elements that we've built and build on top of that.

People can write apps that call Google data, but this is more than that. This would be an Ingress API?

That would be the goal. If you think about the core building blocks of a game like Ingress, one is that geo-data layer. What are all the locations of public art, and are there photographs of them? If you were building your vampire game, you might want to use the data layer of where all the blood banks are, or the hospitals, or the cemeteries. So you can imagine us as a platform making available different slices of geo-data to suit your game, and then you could use those as building blocks to mix and create your game.

Another component might be our communications channel where it's geo-based and you're sending messages and it's scoped by where you're located. That seems like a core utility you might want to use in any type of game. So maybe we might offer that as part of the platform. Another might be our system for taking user submissions of the data and processing that. Another, of course, is just the map layer -- rendering out an alternative version of Google Maps, being able to draw the roads and overlay your data.

Ingress on smartphone

We're still in the early days of building out the platform, but now that we've seen some validation from the game of Ingress, the team is actively looking at developing the pieces of the infrastructure for the development platform with the goal of hopefully, in the future, being able to offer that to game developers as a service.

So then you could say that Niantic is bigger than Ingress, but also bigger than necessarily being a studio that's just going to make games.

I don't think that we could have been successful if we had just announced a platform for this kind of game without building a proof-of-concept game and showing that it could have an enthusiastic fan base. I think it was key to build a proof of concept with Ingress, and so we're going to keep developing that and push the boundaries of this type of genre of game. But then, that can be something that people can sort of model other games off of and hopefully build interest, so that people can then use the platform.

This isn't the first geotagged game of this type that I've seen, but I understand what you're saying now -- that you could enable people to pull different slices of data and build quite different types of games from it.

My hope is that there would be hundreds of these types of games. We're playing a sci-fi secret agent game, but there could be fantasy games, superhero games, zombie games -- we could all be playing these games in the same physical space, but in different virtual worlds that are overlaid on top of the physical world.

It's sticking to Android right now, right?

Right now it's on Android, but our vision is to do an iOS version of Ingress, and a lot of that is with this vision of building this into a platform for these types of games. We feel like if we're going to offer a set a tools for other game developers, there's going to be that demand for reaching the iOS audience as well.

It seems like this is important to Google.

I think it's important to Google. I think if you think about Google investing in things like Google Glass, which Google is putting resources behind, you can think of this as the software experience for devices like that. We have our Field Trip app for Google Glass. The technology isn't compelling just on its own. You need those great user experiences to really make the most of that technology.

You can think about also exploring new ways of doing geo-located advertising as well. It's a new type of thing. At that Jamba Juice portal location, being able to get a realtime offer, I think there's something interesting there.

So it is exploratory in some ways. But it's something that Google has taken seriously to invest as much as they have.

I guess you can't really talk about what you're hoping to do with Google Glass.

Not yet. But we have launched the Field Trip app for Google Glass, so our team does have experience building real software for Google Glass -- and I think to gamers, it just seems like an obviously great idea, to play a game like Ingress using Google Glass.

I think a lot of people see a lot of potential in Google Glass. Of course the first thing the first thing people in the game industry think when they see Google Glass is: "Okay. What kind of game could you do with this?"

Yeah! I think we're just starting to see, and people are just starting to experiment with it. There's a lot of creativity out there, and I think you'll see a lot of fun games. We don't even know what they'll look like, necessarily. But over the coming years, as technology like Google Glass goes from a developer tool to something more mainstream, I think you'll see lots of interesting experiences. Who knows what they'll be like?

We're in this juncture point. The inflection point was around when iPhone launched, where suddenly everything started exploding out into different platforms. Today I had a meeting for a game for Oculus Rift, and one where we've talked about Google Glass.

The game industry can change very quickly. Sometimes there's just a new type of technology. If you think of the Nintendo Wii controller, all of the sudden there's a new type of game you can create using that technology.

As a kid you played games running around in the streets. You played capture the flag, you ran around, you made up your own games -- "I'm a cowboy, you're an Indian" -- cops and robbers. I think this is coming back to that kind of world, where you can play games while you're out moving in the real world in a different type of way.

Not that I think there's anything wrong with your approach, but it'll be interesting to see if there's a way to incorporate more creativity on the user side: thematic, or rules, or setting.

We're creating our own events and crafting some rules, but players themselves can create their own events. So they can do something like, "I bet you 20 bucks that I can control that portal by midnight." And we're seeing some of that. Or they're creating their own event -- "Let's create our own event, and battle over these five portals" or "let's see who can earn the most points in the game in the next five hours."

I definitely see this as more of some of the tools, and in a lot of ways Ingress is a freeform game. People kind of create their own games out of it. Kind of like how with basketball, you have a basketball and a hoop, and there's an official way to play basketball, but you can also just create a game of horse or create your own games, and that's the kind of thing we want to encourage.

I would imagine there was a game people organized around PAX, people flying in from all over the country.

They do their own meetups. We have our official meetups, but people are organizing their own meetups as well. They create their own Google+ communities as well, so there will be an East Bay Enlightened group, or a South Bay Resistance group. Sometimes you have to prove your identity. You have to meet up on a street corner, and show them the scanner, that you're really Resistance, and then they'll let you into the group as they trust you more. There are fun elements like that as well.

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