Talking two years of Ingress, smart watches and more – John Hanke Interview

Ingress How-to guide screenshot

Frank Whelan

John Hanke found his way into Google when his company, Keyhole, was acquired by the data giant. Keyhole’s main product was renamed Google Earth and Hanke found himself as Vice President of Product Management for Google’s Geo division. Hanke currently runs Niantic Labs, a start-up within Google and creators of the mobile augmented reality game Ingress. had the chance to chat with John about two years of Ingress and what was in store for the product in the future.

Has the game developed the way it was initially conceived and if not, how has it differed?

“In some ways, in other ways it’s fulfilled our expectations. I would say the biggest way it’s diverged is in the way it’s turned into this global social network, which wasn’t really anticipated, but as it turns out one of the things our players have found the most enjoyable about the game is meeting other people through the game and going on operations with them, including road trips across countries, international boundaries in some cases and forming those human bonds. It’s been a real eye-opener for me. I’d like to say ‘people like other people’ is the big learning from this for us, we didn’t really expect that. It wasn’t something that was designed into the game too much. We put some incentives into the game for people to work together [...] but it’s gone far beyond what we expected.”

In terms of the events and meet-ups, was that something that was built-in from the start or did it come along later as the social element emerged?

“It came along later. We launched the game in a closed beta in November of 2012 and in early 2013 we saw players were meeting up on their own, trying to find other Ingress players in their city and we said ‘hey, let’s do a meet-up!’ and then we had the idea that we’d make it part of the game and just write in that a certain thing was happening at this place.

This was in Cahokia Mounds, outside of St. Louis, Missouri. That was in February, it was cold and rainy and our expectations were zero in terms of whether people would actually go. This was a state park out in a rural area, so people would have to drive to get there and there were actually sixty people that came out and spent the entire day wandering around this state park playing Ingress. That was the start of it, we got a lot of positive feedback from players and it seemed like people fun and so we started building on that.”

“We’re just continuously surprised by people’s willingness to get out there. The second one we did was split between Austin, Texas and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. We did it on a weekend because SXSW was happening in Austin and in Geneva they were having this convention called Gary Con, it was the guy who invented Dungeons & Dragons and they have this very geeky obscure convention and we thought this would be a nice homage to one of the legendary guys who created so much that people build on today. Lake Geneva was -10 degrees Fahrenheit , it was frozen, snow, ice and we still had sixty or seventy people running around running around Lake Geneva, Wisconsin playing Ingress in the middle of winter in the snow, freezing. With those early successes we started planning them and the events kept getting bigger and bigger.”

“In terms of our biggest one ever, it’s finishing on December 13th. I’m going to Tokyo next week and we’ll have the finale in Tokyo, Barcelona, and Charleston,  all in one rolling twenty –four hour period. Looks like we’ll have 4,000+ people in Tokyo and similar big crowds in Barcelona and Charleston.”

Was the narrative already in place or did it evolve with the events?

"The narrative evolved. As I said, when we had the first one we thought it would be kinda cool if the narrative was tied to the event. We weren’t aware of anyone doing that before with a game and certainly not a mobile game like ours, so we just tried it.

We held it at Cahokie Mounds, which is this Native American site, with these big mounds that were build in 1200 or so, and we connected that with Hank Johnson, one of the characters who did his graduate work there. It was tied to all this ‘shaper’ energy thing and it kinda worked, so we kept that theme of basically writing the story around the events and having the outcome of the events shape the story. It’s become this kind of branching story where the players themselves and which faction wins determines the course of the story. It keeps our writers on their toes, because they have to be prepared to break either way depending on what happens.

It’s been fun and it’s kind of like a big experiment in story-telling and gameplay.”

And while we’re on the topic of writers, are there full-time writers in the company or is it contracted out?

“I initially hired them as contractors because I didn’t know how well it would work out, but they’re now employees. We have an office in Los Angeles and most of those guys work out of that office, but we have a creative stand-up every morning where we’re basically plotting out the next event, the story and the game anomalies. We have a long weekly meeting on Mondays where we deep dive on the story and plot things out for the next week or two.”

Want a chance to win some Ingress gear? -

The two-year report states over 8m downloads. Do you have any figure on what percent of those are actual players?

“We haven’t put out a stat on that, but it’s a big chunk, I’ll say that. A surprisingly large number of people stay engaged with the game, but we’ve not released a specific number on that.”

Is the biggest challenge that initial download or trying to keep users engaged?

“I’ll tell you this, and it’s not something I’ve talked about with anyone, but I’ll answer that question. The biggest challenge is getting people to visit that first portal, because a lot of people download the game and, based on our conversations and research, a lot of them don’t understand it’s a game you have to go to places to play. Some people are confused, they download the game and we’ve actually had people asking for help on our message boards and asking ‘where are the controls? How do I make my character move around’ and they’re referring to the little marker on the map that shows your location and they’re looking for the little directional arrows to drive around. It’s that leap to ‘oh that’s a GPS tracker of your location’ or ‘to move your guy you have to move yourself’, so once we get them to visit that first portal then our retention goes up significantly. So that’s something we focus on.

We’ve added things in. The end of your training phase is to go out and visit the closest portal. We find that and we put the call-out in the scanner display, with a vector out to that location. We’re also working on a new feature where if you don’t feature a portal in your initial game session, you will get a push notification reminder the next time you’re nearby a portal, to help people take that first step.”

What additional features are coming down the pipeline for Ingress?

“Well I just mentioned one, which is the background notification when you’re near portals. A second focus for us is continuing to expand missions and to add capabilities to missions. That has introduced a whole new kind of gameplay, both in terms of offering missions – which frankly I find as much fun as going on missions – and then also the missions themselves . We’re gradually allowing more and more people in to the authoring of that. It’s now at level 9 and above, we expect to go to level 8 and above any day now and we expect to expand access in to that authoring community.

We also have a new set of achievements that will be coming out soon. We have a new Spec Ops medal coming out based on the amount of missions you complete and a new medal around installing mods on portals.”

Craving a game of Ingress?

What can you tell me about bringing Ingress to smart watches?

“That’s something we’re actively working on and we hope to have something to show for that work soon. I’m a big fan of the Android Wear API, which is the basis for this new wave of smartwatches. I’ve been using the Motorola 360 for a few months now and I think it’s a great, it’s a nice looking watch and I enjoy the functionality and I think devices like that from Moto and all the other manufacturers coming out with them, we’re going to have stylish, useful and affordable watches.

For games like ours it’s a godsend. Being able to take a game action, to see that you’re near a spot that’s valuable and just swipe your watch and get some action in the game, without having to get your phone out and start and application and all that. We want people to be able to intersperse gameplay with their walk to work, for when they’re waiting on the subway or dropping your kids off at school, to be able to continuously drop in and out of the game, that’s the idea. To add a little fun and diversion to the drudgery of the routine that you’re in. I think it’s great, a much lighter way to experience Ingress, to get in for maybe a few seconds and then get out and pick up your coffee and go.”

So it’s not really intended for full day events?

“I think for people who want to play intensely, they probably will go ahead and pull out their phone, because you just have more room for the user interface to see what’s going on and more flexibility to control your actions in a fine-grain way. But we’ll see, these anomaly tend to have folks getting very active, running around and riding on bikes, so I think there may be a role for the watch in situations like that. “

Is there any plans for Google Glass?

“The Android Wear API is available on Glass, so as we work on making Ingress Android Wear compatible, we will get Google Glass compatibility at the same time.

How long do you foresee Ingress lasting?

“I’d like to see the game evolving and we may swap out technology and the story arc may draw to a conclusion and be reborn with a sequel in terms of the narrative arc, but the game itself, man I would love to see it run for a decade or more. I really feel like we’re at the ground floor of a new genre, so I look at pioneering games, like Flight Simulator or Doom that came in and defined a new type of game that had very long life-spans. So that’s what I’d like. Ultimately our users and players will determine if that happens or not. We’re two years into it and we’ve probably done 20% of the features and game ideas that we came into this with, so I think there’s a lot of room to grow and expand and evolve this concept and keep it going for a long time. “

From asking the Ingress Reddit forum, there seems to be a lot of issues around portal submissions and the wait times?

“We would call that a ‘success failure’ in Google. The portal submission concept has been extremely successful, we have over 3m portals in the game that are live and many many millions more than that have been submitted to us, some of which have been rejected and some that are in a queue. It takes several months between the time a portal is submitted to the time it’s evaluated and given a yes or a no. We are hard at work trying to speed that up, both by making the process more efficient for the humans who evaluate the submissions, but we’re also investigating more about a crowd sourcing approach where our on-the-ground local players can help make a determination about ‘is this sign or statue in a park in Dublin worthy of being a portal or not’ and let the people who know the community and the neighbourhood weigh in on that. That should help us make both better decisions and also improve the velocity. That’s not something that will be available until sometime in the first half of next year, it’s going to be a fairly complicated system to build, but it is something we’re working on.

That’s good to hear, because crowd sourcing was one of the solutions that cropped up on Reddit.

“Yeah, I’m excited about it. I definitely want to improve the time, but I also want to make sure that we’re getting the really worthy portals and giving the truly unique and special places that people value in their communities, that they want people to discover and know about, the kinda cool little secret corners of the neighbourhood, I want to make sure we’re pulling those up and above and showcasing them. I’m really interested in it from that discovery concept of playing the game as a way of discovering cool things and cool places that you didn’t know about already.

Curious about the Helios event in Dublin?

How does Ingress fund itself now and can we expect new revenue streams to come in to the game, such as advertising?

“I’m a big believer that for advertising in games and for any online product, the ad system needs to be designed to work hand-in-glove with the product. An example for that is Ad Words and Google Search, where you have an advertising medium in the form of the Ad Words that is really symbiotic with search and fits together with search and doesn’t feel like something that’s been grafted on. I mean, you can imagine if Google Search had instead of Ad Words ran banner ads or 30second video spots before every search, it would be a much worse experience. With Google Maps we’ve gone through many iterations of thinking about ads that are compatible with Google Maps. One of the mistakes we made there though is we didn’t introduce those at the beginning when we introduced Google Maps, so there’s always resistance amongst users if you launch your product without any monetization like that and then add it in later, so for that reason with Ingress we conceived of an ad system and launched our first set of partners when we initially launched the game. These are the sponsored locations within the game where a business’ locations are a portal within the game. We’re going to continue to add that type of monetization into the game, so you can expect us not to diverge from that and we have no plans for in-app purchase or other things, but that model of having business locations as portals is our preferred strategy and one we launched in the beginning and will continue to evolve and work with.”

Sitting as a start-up in Google, does Niantic Labs have its own culture and personality, or is it more of a mini-Google?

“I think it’s a hybrid. We’re all proud to be part of Google, I love Google, I love the fact that Larry is trying to use this powerful company to do good in the world and to really truly be innovative and be a risk taker, so we definitely don’t shirk away from being part of Google. Within our own group I would say yeah we have our own culture to a certain extent. Many of us came from start-ups before joining Google, so we try to be nimble and aggressive and I guess the main thing is we’ve just been really selective with the team, so that everybody on the team is 100% committed to our mission, which is to get people off the couch and into the world, exploring and moving and going places and meeting new people. That’s our mantra or guiding motivating principle and the team’s really rallied around that and are motivated by that, so in terms of culture that is the thing that unifies us, that vision. We like to be active, we go to the anomalies and a lot of us are active in other ways, biking, walking, hiking, exploring, travelling, so that’s the unique thing about us.

We have a way of running our group in terms of daily stand-ups and sprints and it’s an agile-based team system, but you do find that in other parts of Google as well.”

As the interview neared an end, we began talking about the many big events that had occurred, such as Ode to Joy and Spinnaker2, where players created massive coloured fields that covered whole countries.

What do you make of the emergent gameplay, where players are working together to draw pictures and send messages with these massive colour fields?

“It’s great. Ingress, in a way the gameplay is pretty straightforward, it’s simple in that you’re conquering portals and linking them together to create fields. We had hoped that it would scale up and you’d get this sort of emergent complexity as people tried to form ever larger links and ever larger fields and it would drive a kind of co-operation in between players and it’s been wonderful to see that play out.  To see that something that works on a scale of linking portals that are 100m apart to people making these graphic designs across entire cities, sometimes they’re political messages ‘Stop War’ comes to mind, where a group got together to spell ‘stop war’ across a city.

The big fields are the thing I love the most because it’s groups of people, self-organising and making plans and you see these great pictures of them having these big dinners afterwards at restaurants with food loaded up on the table and drinks and everybody is proud, a sense of a job well done, they’ve completed their mission. Everyone is kicking back and sharing their stories. I guess it’s like people would feel after a military mission, but without the military part of it."