Interview with Niantic’s John Hanke

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John-Hanke

During the last cross faction meetup in Rome (IT), last July, I had the pleasure to meet John Hanke, and he kindly agreed to answer a few questions I and other fellow players had prepared for him. Here are my questions and his answers. Enjoy the reading!

An Insight view on Niantic

What is the most enjoyable thing about Ingress, from the point of view of somebody who is actually working on it, rather than playing it?

Seeing players enjoying themselves, out in the world, walking around, exploring, meet other players and having fun.  We hoped that the game would encourage people to get out and explore and meet other agents but we didn’t know if that would really happen.  It’s extremely gratifying to see it happening.

Your team is very present on the web/g+, in particular in those sites/communities where players voice their concerns. So it is safe to assume that you know very well what the users don’t like of the game. One thing we don’t know, however, is what you, personally, don’t like of the game. Is there a feature, rule or UI detail that you really hate and that, if it depended only on you, you would change?

Many of the things I don’t like (which overlap a great deal with what we hear from agents) all have solutions which are on our roadmap.  I just wish the enhancements could happen faster.
But we are working as fast as we can.  In terms of things that are outside of our control, I wish everyone had a Google Glass type device that would make experiencing things like Ingress easier and more ‘heads up’ vs. ‘heads down.’  That change in the world of hardware is coming but will take time.

The community of players has proven to be very reactive to changes in the game dynamics, adapting their strategies to new rules/items. Do you remember at least one particular occasion where the users surprised you? I mean: something that made you say “Wow look at what they are doing, we really weren’t expecting that trick”?

Ha.  Weekly.  Fields within Fields is one, although I understand that such computations may change in the future.  It’s cool to see people obsessing over Resonator placement to get maximum spread and defensibility.  Link art has been amazing, and even more amazing now that some of it is focused on Shaper glyphs.

What is the purpose of your meetings around the world?

Fun for me.  And I like to understand why people are playing and what they are getting out of the experience, or not.

The portal authorization process has come a long way since the beginning of the game. In particular the new in-game portal submissions appear to have considerably sped up the approval process (as well as improved the accuracy of the positioning of new portals). Can you give us some details on the portal review and authorization process?

The review process is in place to make sure that only authentic Portals with substantial XM flow are approved.  We don’t want agents wasting their time visiting low capacity Portals in uninteresting places which have failed to inspire works of art, architecture or historical significance in their proximity.  Human screeners review all factors to try to get this right.  Nevertheless, sometimes poorly performing Portals get inadvertently approved and we need to take them out.  Or we mistakenly identify a single Portal as several distinct Portals.  Now we have a way for agents to report such erroneous classifications so that we can fix them, as well as fixing less critical things such as names and descriptions.

How much of this process is automated, and what fraction is human-supervised?

The process is heavily reliant upon skilled XM capacity analysts.

Why do some portals take a few days to get approved, while others need weeks?

Work is divided into queues which don’t always get processed in a linear fashion.

There are cases of twin portals (two or more portals from the same object, very close to each other). Is this always a glitch of the approval process, or do you sometimes willingly choose to be less strict in order to increase the portal density in a given area?

This is a classification mistake by the analysts and agents who are confusing an abundant XM flow as multiple independent Portals.

 

Ingress, behind the scenes

Can you help us understanding the size of Ingress? How many active players are there around the world? How many new users join us every day?

There have been over 1M downloads and a large chunk of those are active.

How many portals are there, in total?

Over 1M that I’m aware of.  Probably many more that haven’t been discovered yet.

What is the Enlightened/Resistance ratio worldwide, from the point of view of global player count, as well as L8-only players?

Seems to be pretty balanced.  I can’t explain why.

Do you feel that the game would be damaged by a strong imbalance in the number of players per faction?

Yes, but strangely it hasn’t been a problem so far.  I can’t explain why.

 

Where to go now?

What goals do you have for gameplay to be at in 3 months, 6 months, 1 year from now?

Continued surprise.

What is the broader picture of Ingress in the future: will the game ever exit from beta? Will players ever be asked to pay money in order to play?

Yes it will exit beta.  We’d prefer to find an ad model that works, rather than charging players.

The UI of the client app has undergone a lot of improvements, and the amount of eye-candy that was added to it is impressive. The drawback, however, is that the performance on some relatively old devices is rather poor. What should we expect from the future? Will Ingress always be an app optimized for high-end devices, or some low-eye-candy, high-performance mode will be provided too?

We are trying to find a good balance.  Having some features as options might be a good solution.

On a similar note: to what extent the fancy animations are a way to entertain the player, and how much are they a mean to reduce the server-side workload? An example could be the recycle animation: is it just a way to avoid too quick recycle requests to your servers?

The visuals are intended to convey the behavior of exotic matter constructs as accurately as possible.

As the gaming experience becomes more and more complex, people are likely to spend more time with their client on. Unfortunately, in many countries mobile carriers limit their data plans to ludicrously small volumes, which sometimes becomes a limiting factor for players. Would you consider adding a low-bandwidth-option, which for example temporarily disables portal-pictures (in the portal detail view as well as on the portal key overview and as well as on the vectoring), and maybe even portal-key-details like status of the resonators, to reduce the risk of hitting one’s data-limit?

That is an interesting idea.  We are also happy that certain carriers such as Vodafone are interested in offering Ingress friendly data plans.

Vodafone Ingress Data Plan

Vodafone Ingress Data Plan

Rumor has it that Ingress on the phone is just a precursor to Ingress on the Glasses. Are you already actively working on porting Ingress to the Glasses, or to other devices besides smartphones?

No comment.

An additional, very persistent rumor is the one concerning the possible existence of a third faction. Is this really something you are working on, or we can rest reassured that in the near future Resistance and Enlightened are all we have to deal with?

It’s unclear to me what the relationship is between the current factions and some of the new private companies that have become involved in developing XM tech such as Visur, Hulong, and IQTech.  I also don’t fully understand the effects of so called ‘Dark XM.’  We are awaiting the release of further documents from researchers to understand how such things might affect XM polarity (which underpins alignment).

Knowing that many families are beginning to play ingress as a group, how does this mesh with the ToS and do you have plans to update it in the future? It seems clear that concepts like win-trade, or double accounts, or under-age agents must be somewhat reviewed to be applicable to these cases.

We strive to be reasonable and fair in reviewing possible TOS violations.

… and a wishlist, of course

Do you see any chance of developing player roles (much like player classes in RPGs) where one’s role would adjust one’s attributes and capabilities in the game (attackers, builders, linkers, farmers, etc, maybe with the possibility of growing multi-role characters)? Can we look forward to player mods/enhancements, such as increased damage from bursters, or longer resonator deployment range, or defensive player shields that decrease the damage taken from portal attacks?

Good ideas.

As beta testers, many agents understand we should be bug testing and improving as well as playing, would you consider implementing an upvote/downvote system on submitted portals (and/or corrections) and have this system available within the scanner? Similar to the thumbs up you have now, but more thorough.

Yes, we’d definitely consider.  But no promises on exact mechanics or when.

There are a number of requests that show up fairly often in the g+ communities and on the support forums: bulk dropping/recycling of items, upgrading mods like resos and possibly adjusting the position of resos when upgrading, exclude portal keys from item cap, more in-game missions, making the gameplay more interesting for L8 players, possibly with new levels, having extra separate comm tabs for different types of message (like notifications). Would you mind sharing your thoughts on at least a few of them? Is any of them in the works? Can you definitely exclude any?

We listen carefully to feedback on G+.  We are actively working to addresses some of the issues that are frequently raised.

About Author

Proud member of Enlightenment teams in Freiburg (DE), Geneva (CH), Rome (IT)

29 Comments

  1. “We’d prefer to find an ad model that works, rather than charging players.”

    Duh? Ad model? Charging players? Like the data we’re gathering for them isn’t valuable enough or what?

    • Hi fretje,

      well, I would definitely prefer a well defined ad program, or even explicit fees, rather than what we have now.

      To put it roughly, we are presently a product they are selling. We just don’t know when, to whom and for what price.

      I would not mind being promoted from product to client. Which implies, however, paying (directly or indirectly through ads).

      Cheers,

      Andrea.

      • I’m not sure I’m following…

        What do you mean with “what we have now”…
        I don’t see “what we have now” changing by having ads thrown in our face all of a sudden, or having to pay a monthly fee… It will still be the same game.

        What I mean is that they don’t need ads or paying customers to get money out of this game. We are already paying by the data we’re gathering for them by walking around with our wifi-enabled, gps-enabled devices. That is very valuable for them, and especially for their “mother company”.

        • the problem with that assumption is that they haven’tfound anywhere to sell the data they are gathering, it still hasn’t found a use. Also much of it is heavily skewed, as lots of that data is centered on portal farms, while there are medium to large cities, and even regions and states with virtually no agent presence.

      • I see how it is now that the “Ad Model” Might be cross promotions with several companies just like in the past. Jamba Juice, Hint Water, Duane Reade, Motorola, Vodafone and more are examples of cross-promotions where Agents will be compelled to visit/invest in products and places in exchange for game related purposes.

        If they nab something large end here in the US like getting one of the four Major Carriers to do something similar to Vodafone or better yet do a cross promotion with Starbucks, Ingress will be sitting on something huge!

    • Hanke, like the other Dev’s of Niantic are very secretive in letting out anything that would be coming our way sooner or later. If they spoiled anything more so sooner than expected then where is the surprise?

      I had a good talk with Hanke when I was at NYC for the Cassandra event, I asked him about the supposed “Dark XMP” That Brandon Badger had flashed in the background of a picture when he was showing off his new Moto Droid phone. Showing him the picture and all he was tight lipped about it but he was interested in hearing what I thought it was. The only thing I can say about that end is that we will find out soon.

      Never expect to sit with one of these guys and expect them to dump all the plans they have in advance for us. They are working hard trying to make the game fun for us by giving us exciting things down the pipe that breathe new life into the game. Spoiling that all ahead would ruin that experience!

  2. All the right questions, some good answers… how about one good simple change? Move the comm button farther away from the ok button so I don’t constantly fat finger it!

    • On my S4, the Comm is directly above the Back arrow. So if I miss Comm and hit the Arrow, it drops me out of the game. This happens more often than I would like to admit. It’s very annoying and moving it away from the phone’s virtual buttons is an excellent idea.

  3. John should have just refused the interview. Waste of really good questions.

    Ask yourself, how much did you get out of these answers? Any new insights into the future direction of the game? Not very respectful of players, IMHO.

    • Well, he confirmed my suspicions that Dark XM will become part of the game. And it is good to hear that they are listening to our suggestions and will make changes to the game. But being in beta and having probably little income I doubt they have the resources yet to make changes to the game as fast as we would like.

  4. Has anyone noticed that John Hanke is kinda of a reversal of Hank Johnson, and that John Hanke grew up in a favorite hang out of Hank Johnson i.e. Cross Plains, Texas?

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  6. Wow. He’s a politician!

    Very skillfully avoided answering just about every question asked.

    Nevertheless, some interesting bits that he did answer.

  7. What a joke, this is a non-interview with non-answers. I hate when gamedev companies employ this “out when it’s ready” approach. They should have a significantly more open line of communications with player base.

    Also, fixing those UI issues – moving buttons around, introducing normal sortable tiles/lists instead of endless item galleries, long-tap menus, group actions, integrated map etc etc – should take weeks, not months and months.

    They need to ask for help from Gmail team. Get their lead UX designer on board for a month, and Ingress will become 10x better, friendlier and easier to use. Fix the basics then iterate on new features.

    Let’s hope they get more traction and consequently more resources. Latest update improved a lot (especially boot up time).

    Anyways, rant over, thanks for the interview – all good questions. And thanks for running this awesome site, helped me a lot as a newbie!

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