Boom! You have reached 7. Welcome to the mission editor! Niantic lets you create up to 100 missions that can then be played by other agents in the field. Now the question is, how are you going to use those 100 opportunities, what will you add to the game?
If you have decided to invest your time to join the ranks of mission creators, you probably want to make missions that get played and liked. To achieve this goal it is useful to recall the various ways in which missions enrich the game. First, but perhaps not foremost, missions have added another stat that can be pushed and another medal that can be won. For many agents this seems to provide a strong incentive to increase the mission stat as fast as possible. Those agents will be primarily interested in missions that can be completed quickly.
Second, a mission badge can act as a memento to an accomplishment: Climbing a mountain, visiting a remote island, travelling to other cities and countries, or attending events such as anomalies. In this case the mission is not essential; in all likelihood the agents had set their sights on the target anyway. Thus, the mission badge is just the cherry on top of an achievement that was otherwise motivated.
Finally, there is a third and rarer type of mission, which I think of as “epic missions”. These are missions that agents play because they enjoy the actual mission. Here the mission takes centre stage. The fun is in the mission itself, and not merely in its completion. These missions add to the game by creating goals that would otherwise not exist.
Creating missions of the first type is easy and can be done in 5 minutes. Agents who seek this type of mission will generally like it if it can be completed quickly and conveniently. Hacking 6 nearby portals in any order probably does the trick. Nothing to be proud of, but that was not the goal.
Creating missions of the second type is also relatively easy. Inevitably, this type of mission will be as good as the achievement it builds on. As the mission serves as a memento, a well-designed mission badge is important. Also, well-written custom portal descriptions, which provide interesting background information about the place or event, certainly add value to this type of mission. But, make no mistake, in these missions the agent’s attention will be elsewhere: farming keys, capturing a strategic island or summit, participating in the event, passing through an airport on a work trip, or just seeing the place. The mission is a nice bonus as long as it does not interfere with these deeper goals. Thus also missions of the second type tend to be short hack-only missions.
Creating missions of the third type is a real challenge. These missions seek to entertain the agent, and thus must contain a compelling narrative. Successful examples of these missions are akin to novellas in which the agent takes an active role. Creating these epic missions involves overcoming many of the same obstacles an author faces when writing a play or short story. Even then there is a very real risk that the mission does not engage agents in the way intended.
This text is about some of the obstacles encountered in creating epic missions and some ideas for overcoming them.
PERSUE MORE DATA
An important ingredient in an epic mission is a compelling theme or story. Fortunately, once you start digging you will find fascinating stories everywhere. Some of the best epic missions focus on historical events. My hometown, Bristol, is known for its riots, also a fierce battle was fought here in the civil war, it had episodes of plague and piracy, and its share of religious unrest, new religions being founded and the odd witch burning – each of them a gripping tale. American cities tend to have shorter histories, but in all major towns you will still find enough events and occurrences to fill many missions. An easy starting point is often provided by Wikipedia, but a much richer resource are local history groups, or just old folks who love to tell a tale.
So let’s say we make a mission about a civil war battle. There is a risk that your carefully crafted custom portal descriptions end up like this: “Here stood an Inn that burned down in the war. Here, stood a church that also burned down. And here …” What makes the difference between dull historical material and a fascinating story is the personal angle. So, why not write your portal descriptions from the perspective of a soldier caught up in the fight: “When I rounded the corner I saw that the battle had reached high street. The Miller’s Inn was ablaze, and flames started spreading to the neighbouring church of St. John. I gathered some men to fight the flames. But, alas the Royalists regrouped. We had to abandon our efforts, and left St. John to his fate.”
Especially when talking to local experts you will discover many little episodes that add colour to the events. When I read up on Bristol’s Queen Square riot, I discovered that one of the special constables that were recruited to quell the riots was IK Brunel, the great Victorian engineer, then aged 23. He ended up being part of a small group that rescued the major from his burning and besieged mansion, in a daring rooftop flight. They hid in a nearby stable, and later disguised themselves as servants and made their way through the crowds of rioters.
PEOPLE MAKE GOOD STORIES
People like Brunel provide plenty of mission material. Their lives are fascinating stories in their own right. However, a common problem is that those lives often involve much travel. A mission about the life of Charles Darwin that required a trip from London to Galapagos, would not be very popular. The solution to this problem is to ignore it: Darwin can very well tell the story of his voyage on the Beagle while accompanying the agent on a leisurely stroll around his later place of work in Cambridge.
Sometimes less widely known people have even better tales to tell than the very famous. While searching for mission material, I encountered for instance Thomas Chatterton, a literary genius of the 18th century. As a boy Chatterton started to write poems in medieval language. Because he felt that his texts would not be appreciated if published under his own name he wrote under the pseudonym of a medieval monk and claimed to have stolen the manuscripts from the nearby church of St. Mary Redcliffe. Chatterton’s story is a gripping drama of ambition, talent, and prejudice. He dies, under mysterious circumstances, already at the age of 17. Nevertheless, his life, work, and death inspired the Romantic movement in British literature, and he is mentioned in the works Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and others.
Stories can be made more engaging by telling them in second person. Using the magical word ‘you’ the agent can be teleported into the role of the protagonist. But as all magical words it has to be used with caution. I used a second person narration for my mission on Brunel: “When you arrive here in 1829, the harbour is slowly silting up, something needs to be done. You design …”. However, for Chatterton’s story I used a third person narration, as the story is tragic, and the third person makes it easier to retell the events following his death.
OR MAKE IT ALL UP
In case that real life does not have the right story to offer, we have to make one up. This does not necessarily mean composing a great work of fiction. Often adding a little colour is enough. Suppose you wanted to make a mission that visits the bars or pubs in your city. Such a mission may be too long for stat-pushers and medal-hunters, and few agents will consider a pub crawl such a great achievement that they require a mission badge as memento. Can we turn it into an epic mission? If you live in the UK like me, chances are that your pubs are so historic that there are enough entertaining stories to fill your portal descriptions with a crazy life of their own. But failing this, we can make up a story that does the job. Why not write portal descriptions from the point of view of a fictional narrator who gets progressively more drunk with every bar he visits. Perhaps he has an agenda, such as locating his car keys that were lost on just such a tour the previous night. It probably won’t earn you the Pulitzer Prize, but it will keep agents entertained as they make their way through the city.
FITTING IT IN THE SCANNER
The author of a typical novel can spend 80 pages carefully introducing the characters and setting. The typical audio guide, which is perhaps more closely related to an Ingress mission, has at least an hour of text read by professional speakers. By contrast the Ingress mission editor gives you 500 characters per portal, which the agents have to read on a potentially tiny screen, and which often disappear all too quickly, due to the so-called compulsive-hack-syndrome. One cannot deny that Ingress missions are one of the more challenging literary formats. But challenges spark creativity and it is possible to tell fascinating tales in a mission if we take the scanner’s capabilities and limitations into account.
500 chars per portal is not much if you have few portals to work with. But in many places the portal density has become high, and not every portal in the mission has to be related to the mission’s topic. So why not include more portals; epic missions can be long. If agents truly enjoy the mission (instead of just the badge) a longer missions will be appreciated.
Some epic missions don’t even need long explanations to evoke this special feeling that you are caught up in a bigger story. This is possible if missions are built on existing knowledge of the agent. An example is London’s Skyfall mission, which visits some of the locations of the James Bond movie of the same name. This mission is monster that takes you back and forth across the British capital while following its hideously hard clues. I had to abort my first attempt at this mission after 5 hours because I had to catch a train. But I look forward to trying it again, in fact, I loved every minute of it. If you have seen the movie then the locations are instantly familiar, and weaving your way through London’s ancient streets, you immediately start feeling as if you were James Bond.
Instead of focusing on a single movie, a mission can also build on conventions that exist in a certain literary genre. One genre that has strong conventions is crime fiction, and the Ingress is well-suited to capture the legwork aspect that features prominently in detective stories. Hidden-waypoint missions allow you to create tasks that require exploring, with location clues like “The park is busy, you wonder if somebody has seen something. You decide that it can’t hurt to have a look around and talk to some people.” Naturally one of the portals in the park will be the next waypoint. A detective story provides plenty of opportunities for such tasks: find evidence, check the local bars, find the victim’s car that is parked somewhere in this neighbourhood? Such a mission can turn even a visit to the less-than-pretty parts of town into a glorious adventure. This type of mission can also work well as a team-play mission. It can be played together with another agent and real value is added by having the other agent around who can occasionally search for clues in a different direction. Taking this one step further, I am presently working on a pair of missions that can be played “back-to-back” by two agents working taking the roles of the inspector and her sidekick, a concept that goes well with the rules of the genre.
Certainly, hidden-waypoint missions are the masterpieces of mission creation. No other mission type needs such careful design, and no other offers quite the thrill. In the right setting the hidden-waypoint format can provide fascination even without an underlying narrative. For example another ongoing project of mine is to make a mission that explores the Bristol’s underground. While the agents remain above ground, the mission guides them along major underground features such as ancient cellars, caves, a subterranean river and a coal mine, 800m below. In regions with dense portals the agent can discover the course of a tunnel just by exploring to find the next portal that lights up. Thus the scanner becomes a detector for underground features.
In cities where less tunnels have been dug, similar missions could follow the course of the former city wall or the route of a tram line that has long been closed, or the even the route of a notable march or demonstration.
HACK OR CAPTURE
A feature that distinguishes the scanner from an audio guide is the integration of Ingress in-game actions. Challenging the agent to capture, mod, link, or field a given portal can be a source of both great enjoyment and great frustration. For every in-game action (excluding passphrase and field trip, which have their own problems) there can be situations where the action cannot be completed except by using a virus. However, the chance of this happening is clearly much smaller for hacking than for any other action. I have played some missions where non-hack actions were thrown in indiscriminately because hack-only was felt to be too boring. Forcing me to waste a virus and potentially alienate local agents, indeed eliminates boredom, but does not replace it with happy feelings. Building on a narrative is usually a better way to make a mission interesting. The in-game actions have the potential to add to this narrative, but they certainly should not get in its way. If you have to stop following a fascinating story that runs through a mission, because you need to go and find a portal to link to, then something is wrong. However, if used discerningly the in-game actions can add flavour to the story or even make up its backbone. In several cities I have seen missions that consist of capture-or-upgrade on a large number of portals, say 100. Here the capture actions are not randomly thrown in. They are what makes this type of mission a glorious battle.
Sometimes there are good reasons to make missions hack-only. For Chatterton I felt that interaction with modern technology ruined the delicate 18th century feel of the mission. The mission is therefore hack-only to minimise interaction with scanner. By contrast, my Brunel mission uses some linking actions to rebuild Brunel’s engineering masterpieces in fields. Thus the agent, put into the place of Brunel by second person narration, gets to rebuild Temple Meads Railway Station, the SS Great Britain, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge by fielding over them. In particular the bridge, a long narrow field spanning the Avon river, provides a striking conclusion to both the mission and Brunel’s work.
SPEAK FRIEND, AND ENTER
Like hidden waypoints, passcode actions focus the agents’ attention and force them to engage more actively with the mission. But, passcodes also have their pitfalls. Clearly, we need to make sure that the passcode works, which means not only avoiding typos, but also ensuring that the question has a unique answer. The reason that most quiz shows on TV use multiple choice questions is that there may otherwise be too many right answers. For the same reason it may be worthwhile to make passcode questions in Ingress multiple-choice. A more subtle risk of passcodes, and one that is particularly large in multiple-choice questions, is that they turn the mission into a quiz. There is nothing wrong with this, if this is the desired theme of the mission — in this case an all-passcode mission, using the numerical or multiple-choice answers may be what is needed. However, a delicate historical mission that seeks to transport the agent into a long-gone century can be ruined by a careless passcode question. In particular, multiple-choice questions can turn a mission that starts out as walk through a long-lost world into a history class, and a gripping crime thriller into a pub quiz. But, these risks may be avoided if the passphrase is carefully woven into the storyline: “The door opens an inch and the smell of dust and decay wafts out into the street. In the semi-darkness, a deep voice rumbles: Who sent you?”
Another interesting feature of the scanner is the navigate function. Using navigate, enables the agent to measure the distance from a portal. In a pirate-themed hidden-waypoint mission, that I created together with @bluegenes, we urge the agent to activate navigate on the last portal they visited, and then provide location clues such as ‘Set course to North-North-West for 610 meters’. The mission thus captures the theme of the pirate treasure hunt, where instructions are given in terms of steps from a landmark. Incidentally, this theme was popularized by Louis Stevenson’s novel treasure Islands, which was written in one of the pubs that the mission visits, and that features the pub’s former owner in the role of the notorious pirate Long John Silver.
In missions in general, but in particular in missions with non-hack actions, it is essential to manage expectations. Tell the agents what will be expected of them. Because the space in the mission description is very limited I often put this meta-information into the description of the first portal. If the information is essential it can be useful to use the “capture-or-upgrade” action on that portal, to ensure that the text does not vanish too quickly, due to a careless hack.
PUTTING REALITY IN AUGMENTED REALITY
Finally, a powerful strategy for bringing missions to life is to link them to physical reality. To some extent the portals already provide this link, but you can do better. For historical missions ask yourself which features of the city were already around at the time and point these out to the agents. For instance the Queen Square riot mission mentions the statue of William III that stood in the middle of the square and still stands there. Caught up in the riot was the artist William Muller, who made a number of charcoal sketches. As the Mission badge I used a detail from one Muller’s sketches, a drunken rioter climbing the statue of William III. The Chatterton mission takes the agent not only to the Redcliffe church, alleged source of Chatterton’s manuscripts, but also to a medieval brass, on which Chatterton discovered the name that would become his most famous pseudonym: Thomas Rowley.
Many historical people have written great texts, now mostly copyright free, that we can incorporate in portal descriptions to let the characters speak for themselves. For instance to escape from his indenture Chatterton wrote a fake will and suicide letter. Because he owned few possessions he gives away some other things:
I give all my vigour and fire of youth to Mr. George Calcott, being sensible he is most want of it. I give and bequeath unto the Reverent Mr. Camplin senior, all my humility. To Mr. Burgum all my prosody and grammar, — likewise one moiety of my modesty; the other moiety to any young lady who can prove without blushing that she wants that valuable commodity. To Bristol, all my spirit and disinterestedness, parcels of goods, unknown on her quay since Canning and Rowley!
It is not always the big things that provide good links between the scanner and reality. In my detective mission a dustbin features prominently. Although it is just an old and dirty bin, seeing it described on the scanner while standing beside it creates an odd sense of connection. Of course you narrate other impressions as well. Portal descriptions can mention the smell or even feel of a place, and even the agent’s sore feet. My Brunel mission involves a climb up a steep hill, and naturally the description of the next waypoint comments on that.
Local experts will be able to point out many connections that can be used in missions: Suddenly, a street name such as Pipe Lane starts to make sense when you learn that a thousand year-old water pipe runs beneath it. The riots have left quite a few bullet holes in Bristol’s walls that wait to be discovered. Signal masts remain of former tram lines whose rails have been torn up 90 years ago. I learned which unremarkable doors hide the entrance to extensive cave systems and which fence posts are actually guns from the civil war. Researching these details takes effort, but it is time well spent. For me, making and playing missions has profoundly altered the way in which I see my city, and thus has truly augmented my reality.