What an Ingress battle in Hong Kong tells us about the future of Pokemon Go

Pokemon Go shares many features with developer Niantic's previous game, Ingress -- so much so that we can use it as a roadmap for future updates.

“We’ve captured it. Point Three needs our help. Go! Go! Go!”

Sneakers scuffed on paving stones. Our squad took off like a shot, dodging between the statues of Hong Kong’s favorite comic book heroes, like Bruce Lee and McDull the pig. We tore out of Kowloon Park and hit Nathan Road, half-blinded by the floodlights, crowds, and video billboards that signal a Saturday night in the entertainment district of Tsim Sha Tsui.

Shoppers gave us weird looks -- who are these kids plowing through the street? -- but we paid no attention. Somewhere in this tangled ant farm of a city, maybe up in a tower or in a tunnel beneath our feet, another squad was trying to beat us to the next portal. It was the 2013 Cassandra XM Anomaly, we were playing Ingress, and I was having the most fun I’ve ever had playing a game.

And it was also, possibly, a glimpse toward the future of Ingress’s mega-hit successor, Pokémon Go. While Niantic has not developed team-based gameplay yet, that aspect can’t be far behind.

A Global Cyberpunk Turf War

A neighborhood in Ingress with nearby Enlightened (green) and Resistance (blue) energy fields. A neighborhood in Ingress with nearby Enlightened (green) and Resistance (blue) energy fields.

If you’ve played Pokémon Go, you’ve got a great starting point for understanding Ingress. To generalize, Ingress is a geocaching version of capture-the-flag with two teams, the Enlightened and the Resistance. While using the app, players can see “portals” at real-world locations, which they can hack for items (much like a PokéStop), then capture and defend (like a Pokémon Gym). However, that’s where the similarities end. Instead of catching wild creatures scattered in the world, in Ingress players try to link three or more captured portals to create an energy field. These fields -- which can range in size from a neighborhood to entire continents -- give teams control over the Mind Units (called “MUs,” basically meaning people) within that area. At any one time, you can see which side is winning by checking its MU score.

That was our problem that night -- we were taking part in an event called the Operation: Cassandra. New, volatile portals had opened in cities across the world over the past few days, only remaining open for a few hours. Over the course of each event, Niantic took three measurements to see who was ahead in capturing the most portals in the cluster. If the Resistance won, we could save friendly NPCs -- played by actors -- who appeared in dispatches on YouTube. If we failed one, or more, might die.

The Resistance had won the event in Manila a few days before, then gotten crushed in both Paris and Sao Paulo. Hong Kong was the final event in Asia, and it was starting off badly for my Resistance team.

Instead of combating us street-by-street, the Enlightened had cast a huge mega-field that stretched from Taiwan to Mainland China. It meant that no matter how strong our ground game was in Hong Kong, our portals were all going to fall under their net. Our only hope was to continue the attack and hope someone else managed to disable the mega-field. It was real Battle of Endor shit.

Resistance leaders, who kept in touch via an email list and social media, had assigned me to a quick-reaction force meant to sprint between soft spots, capturing the new portals and defending any that came under attack. It was the best way to view the frontline, but it also made me wish I’d kept up my cardio. They also had enough English speakers that I wouldn’t be totally lost.

We scrambled through a mall and threw ourselves in an elevator. It gave everyone a moment to check their phones. Our leader, a British-educated Hongkonger with a posh accent, checked the WhatsApp chat group the Resistance used to run command-and-control. Everyone else checked the status of the big, Enlightened-green mega-field that hovered over us.

“It’s down!” one said. I looked at my own phone and saw, indeed, the green aura had dropped.

Ding. The elevator door slid open and we rushed through. Hong Kong is a good city for location-based games. The verticality makes it an urban jungle gym, and the warren of alleys, footbridges, and underground pedestrian tunnels means that you can win a footrace via navigation as well as sheer speed. The rest of the night went by in a blur. The little squad ran along the waterfront, across a square with fountains, into and out of the precious, precious air conditioning that makes south China bearable in August. Once the Enlightened mega-field collapsed, we had a field day picking up portals. We even deployed our own field over the portal cluster -- and ended the night all in a mob, fighting face-to-face with the Enlightened to keep our field secure. We counted down to the final moment, and as if on cue, the sky opened just as we cheered our victory. As the rainstorm turned into downpour, Enlightened and Resistance clumped together under cover, swapping stories and staying dry.

One guy told me about a silent battle in a university library. Another recalled how he used to drive around the Midwest in winter, sometimes lying in the snow to stay hidden from enemy agents who didn’t understand why their field wouldn’t stay up.

The Resistance threw a victory party at a hot pot restaurant deep in Kowloon. Players milled around tables, dropping crab legs in bubbling broth and cracking beers. It was a classic Hong Kong party -- the kind you see for amateur rugby teams or hiking groups. Live in the city long enough, and you’ll grow familiar with the experience of eating at a near-empty restaurant that’s suddenly flooded with guys in jerseys or recruits from the police academy. Except here, everyone was reliving their best portal captures. One guy told me about a silent battle in a university library. Another recalled how he used to drive around the Midwest in winter, sometimes lying in the snow to stay hidden from enemy agents who didn’t understand why their field wouldn’t stay up. Everyone wore custom-made Hong Kong Resistance T-shirts.

To this day, I’ve never experienced a video game gathering quite like it.

Looking Ahead to Pokemon Go

The same region in Pokemon Go with a gym held by Team Valor (red). Both games share the same node map, but not areas of control. The same region in Pokemon Go with a gym held by Team Valor (red). Both games share the same node map based on local landmarks, but otherwise behave separately.

Anyone who’s struck up a conversation with strangers during a Pokémon-hunting expedition knows what I’m talking about here. Location-based games are an inherently social experience by virtue of taking place in the real world. They, quite literally, draw people together. And with Ingress’s track record of success in team-building and events, it wouldn’t be surprising if Niantic -- provided Nintendo lets them -- follows a similar model with Pokémon Go.

As for how team play will work, I’m not willing to speculate much -- but based on Ingress, I think there will be both area-based and global leaderboards to indicate who’s captured the most Gyms. It’s also tempting to wonder whether fields will make an appearance, and if so, whether they’ll be tied to in-game benefits like better items or more frequent Pokémon spawns. The field theory’s a bit of a stretch considering there’s no evidence for it, but it’s clear that the current “King of the Hill” system for capturing Pokémon Gyms doesn’t encourage team play. Unless there’s some kind of bonus for capturing Gyms as part of a coordinated effort -- or a way to link captured Gyms -- Pokémon Go will remain a single-player game people play in groups, rather than a true team-based experience.

And yet, look at the original launch trailer for the game. During the climax -- which looked overblown at the time, but has since proved eerily accurate -- a crowd floods Times Square and teams up to defeat Mewtwo in what looks very much like the confrontation I participated in during Operation: Cassandra. It could, of course, reflect a more individual pop-up challenge, such as a rare Pokémon appearing at a sponsored event. (You could see Coachella or South by Southwest, for example, paying Niantic to spawn a rare or unique Pokémon at an opening night party.) That being said, the mere presence of teams leads me to believe there will be some opportunity for strategic action beyond taking turns to wear down a powerful Gym defender.

As for group events like Cassandra, they are, to be frank, way too fun not to be a part of Pokémon Go. But the game’s incredible success might actually hobble attempts to organize similar get-togethers. Sure, several hundred people can sprint around Kowloon without causing major disruption, but could several thousand? Will Pokémon Go events follow the path of similar flash mob-style parties like SantaCon, which started out whimsical larks and grew into logistics nightmares? I have to imagine Niantic is working on this issue as we speak, and one hopes that the incredible amount of Google Maps data they can call upon may help them design events that can handle the playerbase. It would be a community management challenge that’s unprecedented in the game industry, but they’ve done it before, and have a great test bed coming up -- they’re running a new slate of Ingress live events starting next week. However, even if those large events prove too complicated, I could see teams organizing meet-ups, city walks, and “mission days” (essentially non-competitive, self-guided walking tours) similar to the ones Ingress teams already run.

Participating in these events, by the way, can earn you in-game medals that often count toward leveling -- so train up those ‘mon.

We can probably expect any future team-based communication to take place the old-fashioned way: through chat apps, email lists, and Facebook groups.

But for teams to coordinate, they require a communication platform -- and that gets trickier. Note that while Ingress did offer a function to show what was happening in the player’s area (and worldwide) there was no native communication system. I consider this a design feature rather than an omission. Providing a communications platform means you have to police a communications platform, and that’s problematic when you have a game with this much cross-generational appeal. Niantic doesn’t want to be responsible -- to get real dark here -- for a system that allows adults to interact with kids in their area. As a result, we can probably expect any future team-based communication to take place the old-fashioned way: through chat apps, email lists, and Facebook groups. That may sound onerous, but in reality it allows players to design their own engagement level and choose whether to be embedded in the community, drop in when they want, or stay at a distance. It’s honestly better that way.

Residents of an Australian suburb threw eggs and waterbombs after large crowds of Pokemon Go players continued to fill the area on several consecutive nights (image source: fonsii on Instagram). Residents of an Australian suburb threw eggs and water balloons after large crowds of Pokemon Go players continued to fill the area on several consecutive nights (image source: fonsii on Instagram).

Pokémon Go will evolve as it goes on -- that much Niantic has promised. But as I hear friends talk about the possibilities of trading and battling Pokémon, I can’t help but remember that mad rush through Kowloon, and the wafting smell of hot pot. I remember the guy who found out my SIM card was too small to install in an Android -- Ingress wasn’t on iPhone then -- and went out of his way to get me a converter so I could play on his team.

The Ingress community is a very, very special thing -- and my hope is that same welcoming, cooperative play is the future of the world’s new favorite game.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp