This week, millions of people got their first taste of augmented reality gaming with Pokémon Go. But for those who can’t stand Pokémon or would rather binge-watch campaign ads than capture another Zubat, there’s actually a much better AR game already out there: Ingress.
It’s easy to see why Pokémon Go, released a week ago, has already become one of the most popular mobile apps of all time. Partly it’s the nostalgia factor: Nintendo’s original Pokémon game franchise has sold more than 200 million copies over the past two decades, making the collectible creatures a major piece of many millennials’ childhoods.
For the first time, though, Pokémon fans and other players are discovering the pleasures of playing a game that takes you to local landmarks and quirky points of interest all in order to collect rare monsters. Some say they’re walking more than they have in years and discovering new places that aren’t on their regular commutes. Then there’s the unique thrill that comes from realizing strangers passing on the street are all playing the same game.
Another reason Pokémon Go is so much fun, though, is that its co-creator—Niantic Labs—has spent the past three and a half years honing its augmented reality skills with its flagship game, Ingress. Since Ingress’s launch in late 2012, it has gathered a small but devoted player base around the world. (It’s hard to tell how small; Niantic refuses to give out statistics. The game has been downloaded more than 11 million times, but then, so has “Pokémon Go.”)
There are many reasons why Ingress is actually the superior Niantic offering, despite its more cultish appeal. While Pokémon Go is a remarkably social game, Ingress takes this aspect much further. In Ingress, two teams—the Enlightenment and the Resistance—battle for control of portals akin to PokeStops scattered throughout the world. Stronger Ingress portals are more difficult to capture, but stronger portals can only be made from higher-level game gear, and getting that gear requires Ingress teammates to band together. Players must meet up in person, eight or more at a time, to build high-level portals and “hack” items from them. These events are frequently called farms, and many players use them as opportunities to share a meal, get drinks, visit interesting sites together and get to know other local players in real life.
But that’s really just the beginning. While Pokémon Go is a watered down version of the original Pokemon empire, Ingress has a complicated and social-minded narrative structure. The game is built around a sci-fi storyline involving otherworldly creatures called Shapers who want to control the world’s minds through an energy force called “exotic matter.” Players are encouraged to connect trios of portals together in triangle shapes the game calls fields, and the more people there are living under those fields, the more “mind units” are controlled by those fields. The team with the most “mind units” in each region is considered to be the winning team while their fields are active.
But there’s a catch: The connections between portals can’t cross other such connections, so making large fields takes an impressive amount of planning, coordination, and cooperation between teammates who may be countries or even continents apart. And because teams only get credit for controlling “mind units” at specific, timed moments in the game, these operations have to move quickly, before the opposing team catches wind and bungles their plans.
A few times each year, the Enlightenment and Resistance teams gather in massive numbers in cities around the world for “anomalies,” large-scale portal battles organized by Niantic. This takes in-game teamwork to yet another level, with player captains marshaling their teammates to contested in-game spots like generals guiding soldiers into battle. Niantic also doesn’t give out official attendance figures, but on forums players have estimated large crowds at anomaly events like one in the Dutch capital of Utrecht in 2015.
While it’s possible that some of the first urban “Pokémon Go” pub crawls will draw that many players, they’ll mostly be capturing Jigglypuffs next to each other but individually—not working together to triumph over the opposition. (There are opportunities to battle as part of a team in Pokemon, but the cooperative aspect is limited.)
Ingress, meanwhile, has many levels of social cooperation baked into the game. But it also offers more and richer opportunities for players to feel like caretakers of neighborhood sites. In its early days, Niantic encouraged players to seek out nifty spots and suggest them as portals. For a while, it was offering in-game badges to people who had many such suggestions approved. Today’s PokeStops are based on those portals, but its players can’t capture, build or maintain them. And the spots they can capture—the gyms where beefed-up Pokémon do battle—are even fewer and farther between. Ingress also gives out player badges for visiting unique portals. This encourages players to explore and even travel more, seeking out new sites and experiences both in the game and in the real world. Pokémon Go doesn’t.
To be fair, Pokémon Go is in its earliest stages. Niantic may eventually add features that will make for more social play. Ads for Pokémon Go suggest that players will eventually be able to participate in anomaly like events of their own; given Pokémon Go’s runaway popularity, those events are likely to dwarf attendance at Ingress anomalies by many orders of scale. It’s possible that, with time, Pokémon Go’s gameplay may approach Ingress’ richness.
For now, though, they are leagues apart. It’s rewarding to see what an instant hit Pokemon Go has been for Niantic and Nintendo, bringing in an estimated $1.6 million in daily revenue and leading Nintendo’s stock values to spike about 40% since the game’s July 6 launch. But as a gaming experience, Pokémon Go currently has plenty of limitations and it’s unclear how many of those limitations will persist as it evolves. Players who grow frustrated or bored with those shortfalls should consider giving Ingress a spin. There’s a whole world of teammates out there, ready to help them learn the ropes.