drwex (drwex) wrote,

Beta test report: Google's Ingress

A number of people have asked why I'd stop playing the game just as I'm hitting level 8, the max level. The game is also coming out of beta soon, though I still have a bunch of invites if you want to try it out. I'm warming up for a gaming/storytelling panel at Arisia next month at which I may talk about Ingress. Writing this down helps me organize my thinking.

Ingress is an artificial reality game played on Android devices in the real world - the game app presents you with layered information relevant to the game overlaid on top of physical spaces and objects. You play as an agent for one of two sides - Resistance or Enlightened - trying to cope with the sudden influx of something called XM (eXotic Matter) into the world. I played as Resistance in part because the Enlightened philosophy creeps me right out and appears to be recapitulating Dr Frankenstein's error. More on this in the final paragraphs.

If you just want the punchline, here it is: Ingress is a great experiment and a terrible game. Google have put together a remarkable analogy for WWI-era trench warfare in which a lot of energy is expended for no actual gain. There's a reason why successful games avoid this part of the reality of warfare - it's boring and pointless.

Ingress's largest success is that it exists at all. Artificial Reality games have been done before but nothing approaching this scale. Ingress is global and the work to support the synchronization necessary for real-time city-scale events over cellular networks you can't control has to be frightening for mere mortals.

Ingress is a very successful proof-of-concept. It tells the world "this kind of thing is possible", which we did not know before. It's unclear yet whether this would be possible if you didn't have Google's resources, but the door is now open for a major game developer to develop in this space. If Google is smart they will package the underlying infrastructure in such a way that third parties can build their own games on top of it, with both license revenue and sales of Android devices flowing to Google. (There's an iOS app "coming soon" - my bet is it'll be out not long after the game goes public.)

To understand why Ingress is a bad game I need to explain a little more about the game's mechanics. To start with, you have a personal "score" that accumulates as you accomplish in-game actions and this score translates to your "level". Increasing your level means you get to ... well, here's our first problem.

In many games increasing your level unlocks things. You get access to talents, powers, gear, areas, or something that lower-level players cannot get. Not so in Ingress. You start at level 1 and have level 1 gear. By level 8 you have level 8 versions of the exact same gear. This is not terribly exciting. Higher level versions of gear are more efficient (do more damage, are harder to destroy) but that's it. No new powers, no unlocks, no cool rewards. Just more of the same.

Many games structures (zones, instances) naturally separate higher-level players from lower-level players or adjusts their levels so they can play together (City of Heroes' "sidekick" mechanic remains the best implementation of this I've seen). Ingress has no separation or adjustment so lower-level players are forced to compete against higher-level players, who naturally dominate. In an effort to help with this, Google recently introduced an attack-side buff so that lower-level players can do more damage.

But that just emphasizes another problem. In theory, Ingress is built around a "capture-the-flag" style mechanic. You control locations (called portals) and link them into triangles called "fields". Your side gets points based on the size and population density of the field area, adding to a global game score. However, both controlling locations and building fields turn out to be meaningless, because anything you take can easily be retaken and your side's score goes back down. With the buff even by lower-level players can destroy anything you build, so there's little point to doing what the game claims you ought to do - staking out and holding territory.

Areas with active players can see control of portals flip back and forth multiple times per day. Maintaining any significant ownership is impossible and even if you do your contribution to the global score is insignificant. This is Ingress's next problem: global scores are in the hundreds of millions and your individual area is in the hundreds. When most players' actions are lost in the noise there's little incentive to continue acting.

Worse, the global score is itself meaningless. Making it larger doesn't get you any closer to winning. This is contrary to every other game I can think of. Even a game like basketball, where the lead can go back and forth several times a minute, still cares about the score because both teams are in a race against a shared known clock. That's lacking in Ingress. As far as we can tell, if every single player from one side just up and quit one day the game would still go on.

Recently Resistance-side players executed a huge operation involving dozens of people. We created fields that spanned the North American continent and links that went 3/4 of the way around the Atlantic. At the completion of this action our side's score was triple that of the other side. People took months planning and coordinating this action and many spent real dollars on travel and other expenses to be in the right places to participate. The entire effect of this on the game was zero.

Compare with, say, Eve Online where massive coordinated actions also happen but have the effect of toppling empires, or changing long-term control over huge swaths of game space. You may like or dislike Eve as a game, but from a game mechanics standpoint they've gotten it right - big actions have big risks and big payoffs. In Ingress they have neither.

So in summary as an Ingress player you do a lot of small and maybe a few big actions, but nothing you do is going to have any effect on the outcome of the game. You can advance yourself personally, but in doing so you don't get anything you didn't have before. There's no "endgame" - neither in the sense of 'finishing the game' or in the sense of 'having activities that are geared to max-level players that provide unique challenges and rewards to keep people interested when they can no longer increase their level.' Endgames are a standard feature of most good games.

For all these reasons, Ingress is a failure as a game. But there's more thing to note.

Earlier I mentioned the reason I chose the Resistance side - it has to do with the game's story. What appears to be happening is that Google's actors are performing a script within which they interact with a tiny fraction of the Ingress player base. It's possible to argue that Ingress is not a game, but a large story for which most of the "players" are actors - a vast Greek chorus if you will. If so, bully for them but count me out. Part of the appeal of Ingress is supposed to be its global nature but if most of that is an illusion and really only the actions of a selected tiny fragment of the players are going to have any actual impact on the outcome that's even worse.

I should close by saying that I'm not rage-quitting. I'm not going to delete my account or anything. Part of what makes an experiment good is what it reveals and I plan to hang around and see if Google can fix the game's flaws sufficiently that I'd want to be an active player again.

ETA: I wrote a short follow-up covering a couple of common objections to this post.
Tags: games, thinky stuff
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