According to the Niantic Project’s Facebook page, something is very wrong. The world is changing, and we haven’t even noticed. What we know about this confusing and sometimes frightening project comes from partially redacted secret documents, often containing references to two distinct factions – the Enlightened and a Resistance, and of individuals known as Sensitives; along with the discovery of unusual prototype devices that use technology we don’t quite understand. Dig more and you’ll hear bizarre conversations about XM satellite signals, portals, and even abductions.
What’s this all about? Is it a leaked government project, the ramblings of a paranoid maniac, or the plot of a future episode of Fringe? Nope, it’s all part of a rich universe created by Niantic Labs, a Google-funded company building a location-based, augmented reality, multiplayer game named Ingress. Augmented reality, now there’s a buzzword that has been around so long it can get an eye roll, but there are no rubbish aliens overlaid on your camera screen here.
The Niantic Project has been slowly revealed over the past months through a website, a Google+ account, and a variety of YouTube videos. Exactly what it’s all about is still something of a mystery to those on the outside, but we know portals are discovered around your city and can be claimed for your team or attacked if they’re already owned by the enemy. But the game is almost inconsequential next to the storyline the team has built around it, one which owes more of a debt to sci-fi film and TV than it does to games, and goes way beyond standard mobile game marketing campaigns. So much so, that if it continues to grow and evolve, it could become bigger than the actual game it advertises.
The story begins at Comic-Con earlier this year, when an artist named Tycho, who was handing out posters with images he said came to him in a vision, was ejected from a panel by security after talking about portals to other dimensions with the creators of Buck Rogers.
Then we have Ben Jackland, a regular guy who posted several videos on YouTube, cataloging problems he had with a used phone he purchased through an auction. The phone wasn’t registered with the manufacturer, had been stolen by the seller, and wouldn’t work properly either, going haywire next to certain buildings and monuments. Upon breaking the phone down, Ben discovered a Niantic Project chip, and was last seen after his apartment was broken into – the phone and chip were taken.
Almost all of the leaked information on the Niantic Project come from two mysterious people: Roland Jarvis and P.A. Chapeau. There are numerous internal documents and audio clips which talk about the project, plus survey data too, often discussing objects from other worlds being brought into our own and a mind-virus spread by Shaper portals, which could have been tested on Sensitives by Niantic operatives.
As one goes deeper into the mythology, you learn about Resonators, XMP Bursters and your own part in the conspiracy. But most importantly, how to hack portals in the real world.
Movie-style viral marketing
A creative backstory for your MMORPG is one thing, but Niantic Project’s storyline goes well beyond what’s expected for an apparently straightforward, albeit unusual mobile game. It’s an evolution of traditional Web-based viral marketing – create something cool, and let the public spread the message for you. But Niantic has gone far beyond a flashmob video or adapting a popular meme to gain attention, instead taking inspiration from some of the very best viral TV and movie campaigns of recent memory.
Lost is an obvious influence, and there’s a definite similarity between the stories, but the way the information has been presented, encouraging us to go and find more, better resembles The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Super 8, District 9, and The Dark Knight. All of these films created a world that was similar to our own, then the teams perfectly infused their mythology into it.
It’s also reminiscent of Lonelygirl15, the YouTube series featuring a teenager named Bree, whose stereotypical videos gradually introduced a storyline filled with the occult and secret sects. It eventually spawned its own games too, but this wasn’t the original intention.
Wonderful creativity aside, Niantic has also adopted one of Google’s most beloved viral campaign tools in its quest for international recognition: the invitation. Restricting access may seem like an odd thing to do, and sometimes it’s done for legitimate reasons, but often it’s there solely to build buzz. Invitations to Gmail were once like Internet gold, as were Google+ invites to many people, and by only letting a few people try out Ingress, Niantic are hoping their invitations achieve the same degree of desirability.
Overall, it’s a quite astonishing degree of effort and detail to put into a mobile game. One has to wonder if we have been shown the complete picture yet, or whether Niantic has more to come.
Is it working?
Well, we’re talking about it and you’re presumably reading about it, so it’s not doing too badly. A Google search of Niantic Project returns nearly 550,000 results, and there are thousands of tweets referencing both Ingress and Niantic Project on Twitter. A Wiki has been set up to help guide newcomers through the story, and Niantic’s Google+ page has been shared upwards of 16,000 times at the time of writing, and its official Facebook page has more than 7,200 Likes. Both good numbers, seeing as content only began at the beginning of November.
However, a check of Alexa’s ranking data shows Niantic Project’s homepage traffic has been falling after the launch spike, and it’s the same story when it comes to Google Play’s Ingress installations, with the graph showing a sharp drop off after the first set of beta users downloaded the app. This could be Niantic’s signal to send out some more invitations. The level of interaction at the beginning of the campaigns is also fascinating, as it was before Niantic was revealed to be a game, and people were genuinely intrigued by the story. Sadly, much of the recent conversation revolves around begging for invitations.
Ingress the game “transforms the real world into the landscape for a global game of mystery, intrigue, and competition,” but the backstory is fascinating enough that even if you don’t care about the game, it’s still enjoyable to discover. We’re really hoping Niantic continues to build the mythology, which could go on to transcend simple viral marketing and inspire people to add their own story strands (fan fiction, if you like), as Ingress becomes more widely known. If this does happen, Ingress‘s advertising campaign could become more successful than the product it was supposed to be promoting, which means Niantic is right about one thing, the world really is changing.
Ingress is currently available as a closed-beta app on Google Play, and there is an iOS app in development.