I hit level 17 in Pokémon Go earlier today. It felt pretty good! Leveling up isn’t that big a deal in this game — levels and XP are, for the most part, just markers along the mostly linear path of collect-em-all gameplay — so I didn’t really see it coming.
I caught a Pidgeotto in my office snack closet, and all of a sudden that shiny silver-blue icon swirled onto my screen, a mini haul of Super Balls and Hyper Potions added themselves to my inventory, and then the little ceremony was over. I was back on the endless gridded veldt of the Pokémon Go universe, a lime green savannah studded with turquoise cubes, waiting patiently for something to show up that wasn’t, dear lord please, another stupid Zubat.
How to keep player interest
Ten days ago, I hit level 7 in a different game: Ingress, the earlier release from Niantic, the Google-originating developer behind Pokémon Go. I’d flown up the leveling ladder in just five days of Pokémon, but making the leap in Ingress just from 6 to 7 took me weeks of dedicated play. It was a claw-scraping, hard-won level-up that meant not just a feather in my cap (metaphorical) and a flush of new items in my inventory (virtual), but also a whole new swaggering style to my gameplay. I had meaningfully stronger defenses, vastly more formidable firepower and was, on the whole, just way more of an asset to the rest of my team.
For a long time, Ingress felt like a secret; now, it’s on everyone’s radar, a footnote in the origin story of the Pokémon Go phenomenon. Ingress launched for Android in 2012 and for iOS in 2014; like Pokémon Go, it’s a massively multiplayer mobile game that uses real-world geography and location data as an anchor for its fictional narrative. Ingress is the reason Pokémon Go was able to spring into the world fully equipped with its delightfully idiosyncratic array of PokéStops and Gyms.
All those random graffiti details, odd architectural flourishes, and out-of-date photos of long-painted-over murals weren’t individually chosen by Nintendo; long before they were PokéStops, they were Ingress "portals," oddments crowdsourced by a million or so players over the first few years of the game’s life and then exported wholesale into the Pokémon universe.
The visuals for Pokémon may be sunny and cartoonish, and for Ingress they may be moody and Matrix-like (the palette is largely black, blue, and command-line green), but with their unmarked Google Maps overlays, those stops/gyms/portals, and the 20-meter-radius circle defining the limits of the player’s interactable world, the two games are built on the same foundation.
And yet, they couldn’t be more different — I’m sure I’ll be tired of Pokémon Go in a week, tops, but I’ve been wholly committed to Ingress for months, and I can see this relationship lasting for years. It’s checkers and chess: the game boards may look identical, but one is a kid-friendly diversion and one is a sport of kings.
This all comes down to game design. Pokémon Go is (can I safely admit this now?) not a terribly well-constructed game. The action is slow, there’s almost zero strategy, and I find that I spend most of my time in the app just waiting around for something to happen, doing what I think of as paperwork: fiddling around with my inventory, organizing and re-organizing my captured monsters, and long-term strategizing my evolutions to maximize their impact. You can’t trade, you can’t share and any interactivity is limited to asynchronous competition at gyms, endeavors which don’t even pay off very well in XP.
In contrast, the gameplay in Ingress is — and I’m not exaggerating here — spectacular. And I only truly started realizing that when I fell down the Pokémon Go rabbit hole.
Pokémon Go is fundamentally an individual game. You can play and be happy and level up without ever interacting with anyone, or — if you’re okay with not catching literally all of them, since there’s some geographic distribution — even really leaving your house. In a sense, the game’s geolocation is just a flourish, a shimmer of gold leaf on top of a pretty straightforward randomized collection-and-maintenance game. It’s like Neko Atsume, but you can attract slightly different cats if you play at your office, and a lot of the cats remind you of your childhood.
But you flat-out can’t play Ingress without moving around, because the game board is the game. There are two teams in Ingress, green and blue — okay, they’re actually called The Enlightenment and The Resistance, and there’s a really convoluted sci-fi plot behind everything that is just phenomenally pointless, so let’s just call them green and blue — and you join one as soon as you sign up. (Join the green team! We’re the best!)
The two teams are locked in an endless territory-capture struggle, like a real-time, real-space game of global capture-the-flag. The hundreds of thousands of portals that dot the world are all up for grabs, with your phone screen updating in real time which faction controls the portals nearest you. You can use your arsenal of weapons to take down a portal held by the other team, and then stake your claim to the neutralized location (using what the game calls "resonators," 8 to a portal) and set up shields to protect it. The higher your level, the more powerful your weaponry, and the less pregnable your defenses.
This is an international game, in the best way
The stakes get even higher, though. The goal in Ingress isn’t just to control individual portals; it’s to connect groups of three portals into closed triangles. Here’s where things get crazy: Those triangles can be just a few meters on each side, the corner church connected to the nearby subway stop connected to the owl painted on the door of the auto body shop, but they can also span hundreds — if not thousands — of kilometers. (The game is played globally, so everything is metric.)
The whole world is cobwebbed with tiny triangles of green and blue, but there are some massive areas that really demonstrate the scope of this thing: The blue team controls a pair of conjoined triangles that has points in Tonningen, Norway; Thule airbase in Greenland; and Canada’s Nunuvat Territory. The green team controls most of Pakistan; has a single, gigantic triangle covering central Russia; and covers the waters of the eastern Mediterranean with anchors in Gazipasa, Turkey; Port Said, Egypt; and the ruins of the ancient city of Itanos, on the edge of the island of Crete.
Unless you’ve got a lot of free time and a pretty spectacular data package, you can’t pull off these globe-spanning triangles by yourself. This is the other brilliant thing about Ingress: The game is designed in a way that requires you to collaborate with your team. You’ve got to coordinate across neighborhoods, cities, regions — even countries and continents — if you want to pull of the biggest captures and earn the hugest payoffs.
The higher your level, the more collaboration becomes essential: You can use as many Level 1 resonators at each portal as you can manage to fit, but for a Level 7 or Level 8 — the strongest, hardest-to-defeat defenses — each player can only contribute one to a portal. So whether you do it actively (in off-platform listservs, group chats, and secret websites) or passively (figuring out who your neighborhood allies are and shoring up their defenses here and there) you’ll have to play as part of a team.
It’s also local
The big, sweeping territory grabs are the sexy part of Ingress, but for me, the real fun — not to mention the real engine, the combination competition driver and dopamine delivery system that keeps me playing — is the daily battle for my neighborhood. There are a dozen or so portals within a few blocks of my apartment, and most days I make a circuit to check in on them, shoring up their defenses or rebuilding any broken triangles, tending my garden of virtual territory.
I’m not the only one — every day at around 5:30, I reliably get a barrage of notifications that this gargoyle or that stained-glass window is under attack from a particular player on the blue team, who I can only assume makes his rounds on his walk home from work at the end of the day. About half the time my team’s defenses hold; the rest of the time, he manages to take them away from us good guys on Team Green, and my neighborhood is bathed in blue for a while.
The whole world is cobwebbed with tiny triangles of green and blue
My husband plays Ingress too. He comes and goes at different times than I do, and not long ago he was standing outside a particularly architecturally lovely police station near our home, defending it against our regular attacker, when he realized that the enemy himself was standing right around the corner from him. He wandered over and they introduced themselves, did that awkward little social dance you do when you realize someone from your fictional alternate world is just a regular person like you, and made some small talk about the game and its addictive properties, and how fun it is to be part of a secret parallel universe.
"But you know what I’m really excited for?" the man asked my husband. "I really can’t wait for Pokémon Go."
I couldn’t wait either. And despite its flaws, I’m still playing — in fact, I took a break from writing this to fire up a Lucky Egg and cash in on some evolutions, and now I’m a muscular Level 18.
It’s not like the game doesn’t have its value — nostalgia is a great thing, and I love seeing all the little kids running around the park trailed by battery pack-holding parents, and few things have ever made me happier than using the AR to take pictures of Pidgey sitting on my friend’s dog. But being Level 18 isn’t much different than Level 17, and that wasn’t honestly much different from Level 2. I can already feel the allure fading, and even though I’ll probably make it to Level 19, and 20, and beyond (once a completionist, always a completionist), Pokémon Go isn’t what I think about when I reach for my phone, and it probably never will be.
I’m thinking about Ingress — the next battle, the next win, my whole corner of the world glowing a bright, victorious green.