Sunday, June 23

How to Gamify Data Collection: Watch Niantic and Ingress

Over the past few months, my free time in between going from home to work has been taken up by a strange and often unusual-looking game called Ingress.

For the uninitiated, Ingress is a product of the founder of Google Maps in a company called Niantic Labs (found at  Initially, you had to vie for an invite (reminiscent of GMail invites) and could win an invite by doing all sorts of intriguing things (e.g., bake a cake int he shape of the team logos).

The premise is simple - two teams (Enlightened and Resistance) are vying for the mind units of Earth.  Once you join a team, you learn about Portals (physical locations that have been identified by other members and approved by Niantic), Resonators (essentially batteries that power the Portals for your team) and XMPs (eXotic Matter Pulse bombs that drain Resonators, and thus Portals until there is no energy left in the Portal to become neutral -- which then you could take over with your Resonators).  As you begin to create Portals with your team, you can connect them with Links and three links in a triangle shape can become a Field which essentially "captures" Mind Units (read: people) for your team.

People liken this game to geo-caching, Capture the Flag, and even Risk.  And, what I find amazing is the number of people that both play the game and are actively participating in the game.  In London, I am constantly invited to create "farms" (higher level Portals that people can farm for Resonators and XMPs) all across the city and even outside.  And this weekend had a great deal of us across London, Paris, Dover, Scotland and Belgium working together on an interesting competition against the other team.  We got shirts and badges and even some neat kit if we were able to take a photo of one of the Niantic "agents" toward the end of the game.

Gamification and the Ingress Game

One of the interesting things I have been doing since I joined the game has been looking at what and why this game even exists.  There is no money to be made (e.g., Niantic does not charge for this), there is a huge cost to this game (see these pages for the amount of equipment you may need to purchase to play) and even the impact to your battery when playing (this game uses your GPS, your wifi and your data plan insanely).

So why would Niantic be making such a game?  And why spend money on plans like taking over different territories in different geographies?

So - my thoughts are based on what Niantic is getting from this project and how ARGs are helping achieve goals of various companies - including Google.

Building a Volunteer Army

When I was young, I remember how Star Trek Conventions would be.  All sorts of people sharing some secret language with each other; conversing about shared experiences they saw on TV and how they understood some of the messages that were being presented (e.g., "Did you see that episode with the guys with the two-color faces?").  While the Conventions were of various size and shape, the people that came to them were all about a community sharing in the vision of the show.

Now, flash forward to 2013.  Yesterday, as I was walking around with five other Ingress players, one of the things that struck me was the similarities I felt when I was at Star Trek Conventions as a kid (or even recently at the Star Trek: London Convention last year).  We all were being a little nerdy, glancing at our Android phones conversing about Jarvis and ADA Viruses and how the "smurfs" were only "Level 4 and Level 7" and so on.  The fun part of it was that the group of us enjoyed the game we were playing and the fact that the rest of the world did not get the story was both fun and empowering (we knew something about the "world" that others did not).

What a way to build a community of volunteers in supporting this goal.  Another game - just like the Heroes and the Fringe ARGs - but being fully interactive and engaging with people in the community.  Instead of being a single player mode, in order to accomplish greater things, the individual members needed to come together to create their "reality".

Tweaks to Make Community Stronger and Behave As Desired

Niantic has been exceptional in creating incentives for the teams to bond together and create "links" between other players, using signaling and a simple IRC chat solution enabling the team member to communicate with each other.

By limiting what one player could do, and having to deal with people who could bring multiple players to bear on a problem (e.g., creating a Level 8 portal requires eight Level 8 players to be at the same physical location), Niantic has almost made it certain that team members will eventually connect.  And, by that natural meat-space connection, other friendships are made and the positive reinforcements are in place - costing Niantic nothing in building these tribes.

As they have seen individuals become stronger, Niantic has modified tools within the game (e.g., Portal Shields) and increased their strength to cause an even greater need for the teams to bond with each other.  And because of this bonding, the teams self-reinforce the need to engage in order to defeat the other side's efforts -- bringing the volunteers out again and again.

Building the Mapping Database

Ever wonder how Google keeps those Street View Maps current?  Ever wonder what the insane cost it could be to drive those Google Mapping cars are?  What if you could enlist a whole bunch of people to do your data mapping for you?

Niantic is creating a huge walking database of where people actually walk - and is crowdsourcing their data.  As I walk from my home to my office while Ingress is active, every step is being tracked by Niantic.  In order to know where the Portals are, I (and others) need to share our position to see where we are relative.  In addition, since I and others are continually walking/traversing these locations with our GPS on, Niantic is getting a rich set of data from all of us.

As a player, I can tell the best places to go since the XM (eXotic Matter) that I can collect shows up in greater density as I go along the routes.  The more people traverse, the more XM seems to show up in the path.  This information is compelling since Google Maps, while interesting for getting from Point A to Point B, are not always active and transmitting data back to the Google servers.

Load Testing the Data Servers for Pennies

One thing that any large transaction server company knows is that, while building a working solution on one server is easy, building one that can be scaled up quickly can be a bitch.  And I am not just talking about putting a load-balancer and scaling up database servers - I mean being able to have a high performing solution that makes the user think the delay is sub-100ms.  And that is a challenge with an application that could have thousands and hundreds of thousands of hits every second.

This weekend project (Greenwich Anomaly) was an excellent way to have a group of volunteers, already excited to engage with the game, test out the different scenarios and improve performance of the platform.

Just before the game, a new update of the software was pushed out (1.28.2) and at the times expected for being evaluated (at every hour from 4pm to 7pm GMT), the two teams essentially played capture the portal at different locations.  One of my favorite moments was at the end of the game where both teams were at Tower Bridge and both were trying to take over the single Portal.  The amount of activity that occurred between the eight players and the server which was serving us must have been 10 to 20x more than it had ever maxed out at before.  I laughed as I watched the screen refresh and the state of the Portal was different at almost every refresh.

Now, this might seem nerdy and all - but I thought it was an excellent way of crowdsourcing the load testing on Niantic's servers.  And, it also helped to identify some of Niantic's best volunteers in the game -- all for the cost of some shirts, some buttons and some virtual toys to be used in the game itself.

So What?

"So what?" you say.  I say that Niantic is one of the best gamification companies out there - even better than Foursquare and Zenga combined.

The world is going to move to this augmented reality space in the coming years - with Google Glass, I could easily see the implementation of Augmented Reality screens viewed like heads-up displays to play the Ingress Game as well as other efforts (e.g., how's the best way to walk to a notable location).

Niantic is either in Google's "pocket" or is making a play for this database and skill for ARG gamification.  If I were any VC or gamification fan, I would get an invite to this game as soon as humanly possible.

This is the future of gaming.

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