Niantic's Anne Beuttenmüller: "We see everything that goes on in the community"
The mobile augmented reality game "Ingress" has been engaging players around the world for a year now. The blend of geo-caching and roleplaying game has also found a solid user base in Vienna, Austria, where both factions, Resistance (blue) and Enlightened (green) will face each other at "13Magnus", a global series of clashes which is currently taking place. It is the first time, Austria's capital has been selected as battle ground for an official event. The game has been developed by Niantic Project, a startup company within Google. The GameStandard has talked to their representative for Europe, Anne Beuttenmüller.
From side project to main job
"We are a small team", says Beuttenmüller, answering the question about how many people work at Niantic and how many are maintaining "Ingress". Exact numbers, however, are kept secret. Beuttenmüller has joined Google six years ago and started working for Niantic shortly after "Ingress" was launched. At first she gave out invitiation codes on Google's social network Google+ as a side project. Those codes were given to players who submitted creative content related to Ingress.
"It was great to see what the users were doing - from shaving the logo into their hair or even knitting stuff". In June,she took the opportunity to work as product marketing manager for Niantic, representing the company in Europe. 70 to 80 percent of her work involves community management, her other duties are managing press and partner relations. Beuttenmüller hopes to receive backup by a new team member soon. Since she has engaged with the community for months, she is known to many "Ingress" players, who constantly keep submitting feature requests, ideas, and also criticism via Google+.
Zero tolerance for non-official software
A recent post by Niantic has sparked heated discussions. The company once again stated, that the use of modified game clients or alternative versions of the official "Intel map" (which is used to get an overview of the status quo in terms of portals), is against the Terms of Service and might lead to consequences for players. Especially the "Ingress Intel Total Conversion" (IITC), basically a collection of browser scripts which enhance the functionality of the official map by a great deal, is popular among players. It is often used to plan special in-game actions which often have been featured by the official "Ingress" page on Google+ as well as the weekly "Ingress Report" videos.
Despite users complaining, Niantic remains rigid on non-offcial tools, with punishment imminent. Penalties are ranging from warnings to account resets, temporary bans or even account deletion. Meanwhile, Niantic is working on opening the platform on which "Ingress" is running in 2014, so other developers can realize their own game ideas on the same infrastructure. Beuttenmüller emphasizes that the team continues to develop enhancements for the offical map.
"We have our own timeline"
Regarding new features and game content, the Niantic-represantative sticks with the company's "no comment" policy. But for a reason, she says. "This policy gives us a certain freedom to shift our priorities and change things quickly. That's why we are reluctant with announcements."
This way of handling things has often been critizised by players. The communty has been repeating the wish for an item overview to be implemented into the game client since 2012. This only just happened this month. "Almost every feature we implement is based on player feedback", Beuttenmüller explains. "But we have our own timeline."
Higher levels, missions and localization in the works
But Beuttenmüller did reveal two upcoming changes to the game when talking to the GameStandard. Niantic is definitely going to introduce missions and will raise the level cap, which is currently at level 8.
While the existing player levels are reached solely by gathering experience points (so-called "AP"), higher grounds will have to be climbed otherwise - for example through fulfilling missions. When those extensions are going to be implemented is, for now, known only to Niantic.
Localization is also work in progress. Until now, the "Ingress" software and story has been published in English only. But this is about to change. "Ingress" will be translated into other languages. Up to now, story and software were only available in English. Now videos offer subtitles, with other steps to follow.
"We see everything that goes on in the community"
For months a rumor about a third faction has spread within the "Ingress" community. The idea has also been discussed at Niantic, Beutenmüller says. "We see everything that goes on in the community", she explains. The developers are familiar with on-going discussions and memes that have been created around that rumor. "There are even speculations about a fourth faction", says Beuttenmüller with a smile, without disclosing anything about Niantic's plans for the future.
Dynamic story development
The background story of "Ingress", revolving around a mysterious type of energy, its possibilities, dangers and usage, is being developed dynamically. It is influenced by the outcome of events like 13Magnus. What is going to happen when the Enlightened or Resistance claim victory has already been laid out, but Niantic stays "flexible and open" for changes.
"We let players participate, offer hints and clues and watch what they are doing with them. Then we try to react." The faction winning 13Magnus in Vienna will receive items and documents relevant to the story.
A bar of chocolate and a crying smurf
Anne Beutenmüller does not only supervise the "Ingress" community, she is also an active resistance player going by the nickname "Anne". Due to her duties, she only rarely finds time to play. The last time she found some extended time to go on portal hunt was during her vacation, together with her husband. Else, she plays on her way to work and back and sometimes finds time to open up the "scanner" (Niantic's official wording for the "Ingress" app) when traveling around Europe.
Of course there is a portal at her workplace in Hamburg. It has been the target of a special suprise organized by local Enlightened agents. They made it Hamburg's first level 8 portal and left a "care package" for Beuttenmüller at the door. It showed a crying smurf and contained a few presents, including a bar of chocolate. Beuttenmüller enjoys the creativity and spontaneity of the players. "That was really sweet!", she comments.
Both factions have developed "pet names" for each other. While resistance agents are known as "smurfs" in the "Ingress" world, the Enlightened are called "frogs" - hence their colors.
No faction change planned
Beuttenmüller's choice to join the resistance was not based on the storyline, but made for "pragmatic reasons", she explains. Her workmates had started playing for the Enlightened. "I thought it wouldn't be fun if everyone were green", she argues. "So I chose blue." She has not been thinking about a faction change so far, also for very personal reasons. ""If I joined the Enlightened, my husband would file for divorce", she explains tongue-in-cheek.
Niantic "very much interested" in "Ingress" for Glass
Working for Google, Beuttenmüller is one of few Europeans to be able to experiment with Google's augmented reality glasses, called "Glass". This platform is quite relevant to Niantic, who have already released a Glass version of their virtual travel guide "field trip". According to Beuttenmüller, they are "very interested" in creating a Glass-compatible version of "Ingress" some day.
Disclaimer: The author is playing "Ingress" as Enlightened agent in Vienna, using the player name "peorg".