3 Principles For The Future Of Gaming, From A Google Game Designer

John Hanke, the man at the helm of Google’s experimental game, Ingress, charts the course for the future of mobile gaming.

Last month, Google unveiled its first mobile game, an ambitious, experimental thing called Ingress. The experience hinges on the narrative that an exotic energy has been discovered on Earth, and two factions, the Enlightened and the Resistance, are respectively scrambling to cultivate it and/or suppress it. It’s kind of boilerplate sci-fi, but the novelty lies in the way the game is played: After players choose their allegiance, they’re tasked with going out into the real world and visiting various destinations to claim territory for their squad. It’s something like what you’d get if you threw geocaching, World of Warcraft, and J.J. Abrams in a blender--a massive multiplayer experience that transpires not in a virtual world but in a slightly warped version of our own.

So, yes, it’s a bit different. But John Hanke, the man Google tapped to head the project, thinks it represents nothing less than the future of mobile gaming, a new paradigm that will privilege real-world activity above immersive virtual engagement. Here are three core principles his team followed while creating Ingress--ideas that could well change mobile gaming as we know it in years to come.

1. UPROOT THE COUCH POTATO

Video games have long been the province of the sedentary. But Hanke sees that more as a consequence of the limitations of technology than something inherent in the medium. "The game console had to be hooked up to your television and a power outlet," he says. "After that you had to have your connection to the Internet." But now, with devices that keep us connected no matter where we are, Hanke believes that gaming and the real world are ready to mingle. If Wii and Kinect were designed to get us up off the couch, Ingress aims to get us out the door entirely.

In fact, that simple, convention-demolishing ambition drove the development of the entire game. "The whole group started with this idea of, 'How can we get people out into the world and seeing things that are there but they didn’t notice before,'" Hanke says. The goal was to use technology to bring people in touch with the real world, rather than distracting them from it.

Most of the mobile games we’ve seen thus far have been based on "creating a bubble around people," Hanke says, cutting them off from the people, sights, and sounds surrounding them. "We wanted to flip that around and see if we could use technology to kind of lure people away from their desks and off their couches out in the world and get them to look up and notice things."

It’s a tough proposition. Couches are comfy. But Hanke’s confident that games like Ingress can preserve what we truly enjoy about games--not their veg-out factor but the sense of achievement they give us--while combining it with another dimension of fulfillment altogether. The hope is to take that fundamental video game thrill of overcoming obstacles and making progress and marry it with the endorphin rush you get from moving around and getting exercise and having cool experiences in the real world. "I think they’re stronger together," Hanke says. That doesn’t mean that everyone is going to retire from their Halo career in favor of a global game of high-tech capture the flag, but Hanke might be right in that real-world adrenaline will be hard for players to resist.

While the Ingress team was adamant from the start about users having to move around to play, they realized that they couldn’t ignore the role casual games are increasingly playing in our lives, not as concerted pastimes but as here-and-there distractions. That was the basis for the team’s second core principle: It had to be a time-waster. "It needed to be something that could be done while you’re standing in line," Hanke says. It’s a recognition that people can’t always make time for gaming, and thus a successful mobile game has to be something people can use to occupy the lulls when they do come around.

2. THINK BEYOND THE PHONE

It’s true that the amazingly capable mobile phones we have today are central to realizing Hanke’s idea of real-world gaming. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they should be the central component of that gaming experience. Hanke doesn’t simply want you to be sitting in a park, playing a game on your phone; he envisions a game that actually takes place in that park, with the phone merely serving as a tool for getting you there.

Thus, Ingress was designed to keep players’ eyeballs off the phone and on the sights around them. Hanke says the designers put just as much effort into the sound design of the game as its visuals, laboring over elements like high-fidelity sound effects and a comprehensive audio track that narrates the game’s action. "In a way, the most awkward thing about the game is the fact that you still have to look down at your screen and in some cases tap the screen in order to play," he says.

The spartan, high-tech aesthetic of the game’s visuals were intended to be more utilitarian than graphically impressive. "What we found is that it’s hard to see your screen outside," Hanke explains. "There’s a glare; the light’s not optimal. And we wanted to keep the pixels we were putting on the screen clean. It’s not like a console game, where you’re really immersed in the visual that’s in front of you, and that’s the full experience. This needs to be almost like a GPS application that’s helping you get from Point A to Point B."

But for the Ingress team, development wasn’t simply a matter of trying to think of ways to move gameplay off the phone. It was about trying to conceive of how games might look in a future when we’ve left smartphones behind entirely. One of Hanke’s common refrains is that "the phone should melt away," but when he says that it’s already in the process of doing so, he’s not talking about the phone taking a secondary role in our lives or the games we play. He’s talking about the erosion of the entire idea of the mobile device as a candy-bar-sized object we carry around in our pockets and purses.

"It’s a relatively recent occurrence that we think of the mobile experience as being this little brick that you hold," he says. "But I think that’s going to become less and less important as various pieces of that become wearable adornments on your body," things akin, perhaps, to the connected fitness bracelets we’re seeing from Nike and Jawbone, or beyond that, futuristic wearable displays like Google Glass. "We’re really designing with the idea that there will be things like Google Glass in the future," Hanke explains, "where you’re really augmenting the user’s perception of the world rather than simply portraying things on a screen."

3. INNOVATIVE GAMES REQUIRE INNOVATIVE ADS

Ingress, which is currently in an invite-only public beta, is free to download, but there’s no in-game economy that lets the developers collect real-world dollars, and you won’t encounter interstitial ads that jerk you out of the energy-collecting action. Still, from the beginning, Hanke and his team were mindful of the challenge of making their experiment a self-sustaining one.

They had considered a virtual goods model--the type of freemium system that Zynga has exploited so effectively with its big titles--but ultimately the team decided it wasn’t the way to go. "I personally feel like that model is kind of at a dead end," Hanke says. "You’re seeing games that are less and less fun to play. They’re really just hooks to get you to that point where you have to start plugging in quarters for more."

Instead, his team opted for a more experimental approach, tapping a half-dozen advertising partners that the designers have been working into the narrative. The brands are big and small, from the forward-looking auto rental service Zipcar to a San Francisco-based bag and apparel outfit called Chrome (no relation). They recently rolled out their first efforts to work a more subtle, meaningful style of advertising into the game, with objectives that directed players to Zipcar offices and Chrome stores to redeem in-game objects.

Finding that balance of integration that’s unobtrusive to gameplay while still being worthwhile to sponsors will be tricky, no doubt. But it’s hard to imagine companies not getting a little excited about a model that not only gets their name out there but actually puts bodies in their stores. Though those individuals might’ve come just to upgrade their energy scanner, there’s always the chance that they’ll cop a new messenger bag once they’re there.

Ideally, this new type of advertising will be something that’s not only neutral but a positive addition to the game. "I think we’re able to offer it in a way that makes the game more interesting," Hanke says. Yes, they’re also necessarily exposing Ingress's demographically desirable consumers to the brands of these businesses, but, Hanke says, "that’s fine too … as long as it doesn’t take away from the game experience."

Find out more about Ingress here.

[Images: Hands and Glass via Shutterstock]

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21 Comments

  • vivek vardhan

    its poor poor tech-journalism. Google didnt invent this genre and infact it has been there for some time now. i am one those who has spent the last 2 and half years of my life working on research projects and games doing the exact same stuff that Google supposedly is claiming to have invented and revolutionized. 

    Google didnt make anything new or out of the world, which the location-based gaming world hasnt already seen and honestly the idea of portals isnt new either. U can check out Shadow Cities for that matter and it has the same idea about portals and stuff.. all google did was put millions into making a fancy ad using all its money and make people believe that it has a new genre of games, which is for the future.. and unfortunately people who dont knw about it, believe it to be true, since its Google.. !!
    it makes my blood boil to see someone take credit for something that they didnt do..

  • CJEH

    Most of the commentors have obviously not actually picked up the game and played at all. 

  • Corey King

    This is very much like some of the core concepts for a game we (ZenFri Inc) been developing for over a year called 'Clandestine: Anomaly'. We received funding from the Canada Media Fund well before google announced this. We've have been working hard for year starting from nothing to get these ideas into the game space. It's pretty disheartening to read this.   

  • Andrew Mason76

    I'm sorry, but I'm not playing a game where I need to go to real location (worse yet a paricular store) to advance in a game.

    Still the article did make me consider the potential for using mobile devices and apps in more organized site-based activities like LARPing.

  • Lance Mingle

    There are no stores you have to go to in this game. Right now, its fire houses, police stations, libraries, historical, and architectural locations...

  • Boner

    Have any of you nay-sayers even played or seen the game...?

    If not, then STFU.

    Been playing it for the past month and this is the future of gaming.

  • Max_Spectrum

    I question this premise: "The goal was to use technology to bring people in touch with the real world, rather than distracting them from it."

    I think most people who play games are doing it precisely to be distracted from the real world. Do they really think someone playing Halo or even Angry Birds, isn't trying to disconnect from the real world on some level...

  • Aceostar

    Did any of you actually read how they are doing the ads? These arent ads forced in your face during gameplay, these are ads that are being done via storyline and taking the initiative to act on these ads. If you dont follow the story closely, you'll never know of an Ad.

  • Mercedes

    I agree with Andrew completely:

    "2) When it comes to portable gaming, the core gamer - again the one
    that spends the most money - is going to stick with a dedicated gaming
    device. They might have a smart phone with Angry Birds on it, but they
    still want a deeper experiences phones right now still don't come close
    to providing.

    3) Ads? No gamers - core or casual - want ads. "

    Gaming is a "little bit" more than playing on a phone.
    Maybe they should call it something else, not gaming.
    Like... phaming....

  • jonsenc

    Yeah I'll listen to Google's advice on game design when I listen to Facebook talk about user privacy

  • Justin Agai

    "Innovative ads?" WTF? I guess I shouldn't be surprised this comes from a Google exec.

  • The_Doorman

    I agree - the Douglass Rushkoff quote comes to mind. "Advertisements are themselves psychologically violent acts – part of the
    escalating arms race between public relations and the public."

  • Alvaro Bernedo

    With all due respect..
    First, I think one needs to establish himself/herself as a gaming authority BEFORE even trying to pen the principles for the future of gaming.
    Second, this is typical of Google, overpromise and underdeliver. Let’s see some actual results first ok guys?
    Third, I find it a bit hypocritical that someone who works for a company that plugs ads and sells user’s info to advertisers, criticizes a gaming company for being greedy, come on.

  • Simon

    You can already do this by picking up a ball/bat/racquet/club/what have you, and going outside.

    Sometimes I think game developers are so far out of touch, and then someone comes out with stuff like this and confirms it.

  • Andrew

    Wow.

    1) Core gamers - the ones that spend the most money - like to sit on a couch. That will not change. They are the ones that complain the most about Wii and Kinect. 2

    2) When it comes to portable gaming, the core gamer - again the one that spends the most money - is going to stick with a dedicated gaming device. They might have a smart phone with Angry Birds on it, but they still want a deeper experiences phones right now still don't come close to providing.

    3) Ads? No gamers - core or casual - want ads.

    You sir, are an idiot.

  • Lance Mingle

     1) Then the definition to what a core game is about to be changed. People said the same thing about World of Warcraft. They said EQ was the pinnacle of success of the MMORPG,, but they were about 8.3 million off.. Just a tad I guess..

    2) again, then they wont be core gamers. You seem stuck with the current definitions. What you dont get it is the industry is about to completely change. Your Core Gamers are not going to be the same ones as before. Things like google glasses are going to change these definitions.

    3) Gamers dont care if ads are in games, if the game is still fun to play.

  • Gwe

    Quick correction: core gamers use PCs. Real, tangible, world-class prize winning gamers. Casual gamers do use consoles and fit into another profile.