I stand before you today as a recovering Ingressoholic. Oh, the Ingress obsession had its spindly teeth buried deep in my gaming side. So why did it spit me out so decisively and so easily? The same reason that MMO designers struggle with maintaining player subscriptions, month after month; the elder game. That, and a less than ideal implementation of some gamification elements. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Ingress is a mobile game. It’s augmented reality, basically meaning that it uses real-world locations as part of the game via GPS. It’s made by a team within Google, and it’s been referred to as a giant game of capture-the-flag. You choose a team, green (Enlightened) or blue (Resistance). Then you navigate to nearby landmarks such as statues, historical markers, churches, post offices, and cemeteries. On such locations you’ll find “portals” which can either be hacked for items and AP (experience points), attacked if they belong to the other team, or taken over if they are unclaimed. You deploy a resonator (a kind of shield generator) on a white portal, and boom, it belongs to you and your team. You can also link portals of your color to each other, creating triangular fields for additional AP and… well, bragging rights. As you level up, you can use more powerful weapons, and deploy stronger resonators.
Yeah, that’s me, attending an official gathering for this game I’d only started playing days before that. I first heard about Ingress mid-July, through a friend who knew I was interested in designing a very similar augmented reality game. It had just become available for the iPhone, so I installed it, and was instantly captivated. Ingress does a whole lot of things really well. The companion storyline is wonderfully X-Filesy, there are lots of real-world locations involved as well as a great crowd-sourcing mechanism to create more via player submissions. I dove in with gusto, searching for portals everywhere I went, and attacking enemy portals like a rabid weasel. I leveled pretty fast. The maximum effective level is 8 (that’s the max level of the items you can use), and I was at 6 after the first few weeks. I was voracious.
As I hit level 8, I did ponder in the back of my mind whether I would lose interest. I’ve played too many games not to recognize the thrill of the level chase. But I figured I would be powerful, and it would be fun to fight with the very active big guns in my area. And it was. I even had a back and forth real-time battle for a couple portals at a local shopping center with one of the top area agents for the Resistance. I never saw him, but we exchanged emoticon pleasantries via the app’s messaging system. It was a fun experience. I have some allies, I even have an arch-nemesis. The social part of the game is good. The tactical part is awesome. I spent a lot of time pouring over the www.ingress.com/intel map planning my next take-down. I even bought a t-shirt.
But a couple days after hitting L8, a switch flipped. It just suddenly hit me that yes, I could take down any portal I really set my mind to. And then, an hour later, or maybe a day later… an enemy agent would just go ahead and take it back. And I would swoop in, and take it back again. It is what it is, and greater permanency would probably be boring, but what else was there to do? I participated in “ops” where my team would go in and destroy as much of the enemy team’s area of control as possible. Hours later, they would have taken it back and things would be right back where they started. The futility of that, paired with the sudden lack of character leveling to chase, hit me like a ton of bricks.
There are other elements to entice me to keep going, of course. There technically are levels above 8. There’s a level 9, with some pre-requisites neatly tied to the achievements system. But if there’s anything I can point at and say I disagree with the implementation of in Ingress, it would be the achievements. There aren’t a lot of them to be had, and sitting where I am right now, at level 8 with 2 3rd-tier achievements and a couple 2nd-tier ones, the road to acquire the next two 2nd-tier achievement badges I need to qualify for level 9 is way out of whack from where the prior achievements were. It will take AGES to attain. The carrot is too far away to be enticing. You don’t want achievement tiers to be uniform, and you don’t want them to be too easy, but you want them to feel attainable with work. And in this case, we’re talking months of the same frenetic and time-intensive activity I’ve been doing for the past 2 months.
And the thing is, hitting level 9 doesn’t appear to actually do much for me. In a way that’s good. The game’s been out on Android for like a year. If the power curve didn’t halt at 8, newcomers would be utterly left in the dust. So I actually think that level cap is a great thing for new players. But it certainly impacts the elder game.
The game is doing wonderful things in a social sense. It’s helped shy people get out and meet each other. It’s helped inactive people get out and walk more (though the reality of it is, most people are driving to most portals, and Zombies, Run! does a much better job of actually getting you to do some walking). But it does some bad things. It tempts people to drive distracted, though not as bad as texting and I haven’t heard of any major accidents involving Ingress. I found myself going through tanks of gas faster than before, driving out of my way just to hit portals not on my normal route. That can be good, too; I learned a lot about the sculptures and historic spots near my local library. By and large, though, I just didn’t feel like investing the time anymore for a zero sum game. And once that feeling of futility hit, boom. The magic’s gone. Maybe it’s just a brief lull, MAYBE. But I have very little desire to open the app anymore, even when I’m passing portals I could easily capture. I’m not quite to the point of deleting the game, mind you. I’m hoping I just over-did it and can come back at it with a more leisurely approach.
Ingress is a GREAT game, but it’s not immune to that same old sustainable gamification quandary I’ve met so many times before. Maybe there’s just no solving that unless you’re Blizzard. If I’m wrong, though, and there is something more to do once you hit level 8, I would love for some of you Ingress veterans to “enlighten” me. 😉