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​What ‘Pokémon Go’ Owes ‘Ingress’

'Pokémon Go' might be stealing the limelight, but the game owes a lot to its nerdier predecessor.

Before Pokémon Go, a secret legion of agents would brave the world's streets to pursue their mission, pointing their phones at points of local interest and gathering to tap screens in unison and commandeer territory in a virtual battle the rest of the world was completely oblivious to. These were Ingress players, and they were frequenting the same haunts as Pokémon Go fans years before a squirtle or a bulbasaur appeared on anyone's handset.

A week ago, Ingress, the cyberpunk-themed mobile game previously made by developer Niantic Labs and released at the end of 2013, was the closest you could get to catching AR pocket monsters linked to IRL locations.

Ingress doesn't include any charmanders or pikachus (more's the pity), but Pokémon Go owes a lot to the gameand its community of players—which remains strong, if much more underground than that of its poké-offspring.

The idea behind Ingress is simple: There are "portals" tied to real-world locations across the game's map, which appear in AR when you get close enough. Players, known as "agents" join one of two global teams, The Enlightenment (green, sometimes colloquially known as "frogs") or The Resistance (blue, or "smurfs") and acquire portals for their faction by placing in-game items called "resonators" on them. They can link their team's portals to claim territory and gain points (or "Mind Units" in the game's narrative) and boost their team's score. Here's an example of what it looks like, with the Enlightened having a slight upper hand in Seattle:

A screenshot of the Ingress map in Seattle. Mind Units are tracked in the top right. Image: Wikipedia

On the Ingress subreddit, members are cautiously welcoming new players who have only discovered the older game in light of the sweeping Pokémon Go craze, apparently keen to share their passion but also wary of comparisons that could be unflattering to their augmented world. A sometimes-defensive tone is perhaps understandable: While Pokémon Go may be relishing the limelight, Ingress in many ways laid the virtual foundations for the game—in one way quite literally.

The most obvious shared element between Ingress and Pokémon Go is the landmarks used for, respectively, portals and pokéstops or gyms. These are the real-world locations players can visit to advance in the game; in Ingress, agents claim portals for their team, while in Pokémon Go, trainers drop by pokéstops to claim rewards such as poké balls, and gyms to train and battle their pokémon. But pokéstops and gyms are often in the same location as portals are—because Ingress players put them there.

Ingress started out with portals in obvious landmark locations but allowed players to add more where they thought there should be some. This is why, if you wander around East London with Ingress, you'll find many portals attached to random bits of street art that people unfamiliar with the area aren't likely to know about (one or two of them perhaps thanks to my own submissions). It's also why you may come across a pokéstop connected to something that no longer exists.

In an interview with Mashable, John Hanke, CEO and founder of Niantic Labs, said the company had received about 15 million location submissions and approved around 5 million. It's not always clear why some get approved when others don't.

'Ingress' can be seen as something of a prototype for AR mobile gaming

As the data was submitted by Ingress players worldwide, it covers a broad area of places where, presumably, people are likely to play. In addition to some portals becoming pokéstops, one Ingress player suggests on r/pokemongo that Ingress spots where you can find XM ("exotic matter," which appears in the game as white dots on the map) correlate with places pokémon are likely to spawn.

Not everyone's happy, though. On the Pokémon Go subreddit, players have been complaining that there are not enough pokéstops in rural areas, and you're now unable to submit new locations in either Ingress or Pokémon Go. Meanwhile, some Ingress players are miffed that their input into the other game hasn't been recognised.

A smaller and nerdier community (I think all would agree Ingress is less immediately accessible than Pokémon Go), Ingress players laid the groundwork for the new craze beyond building pokéstops. From a gameplay perspective, Pokémon Go very clearly builds on Ingress, but perhaps more importantly, Ingress can be seen as something of a prototype for AR mobile gaming.

In an interview with Gamasutra way back in 2013, Niantic Labs Product Manage Brandon Badger suggested that Ingress was meant to showcase that this type of game was possible. "I don't think that we could have been successful if we had just announced a platform for this kind of game without building a proof-of-concept game and showing that it could have an enthusiastic fan base," he said. "I think it was key to build a proof of concept with Ingress, and so we're going to keep developing that and push the boundaries of this type of genre of game."

And here we are now with Pokémon Go, whose enthusiastic fan base no one can deny.

For Ingress agents who go on to use both apps, there is one key advantage. They can see where the pokéstops are.