Three years before Pokémon Go became a phenomenon-cum-new way for teens to discover dead bodies, the game's developer, Niantic Labs, launched a different augmented reality game called Ingress. Like Pokémon Go, Ingress is played through an Android or iOS app, and relies on players walking around in the real world with GPS-connected devices to capture 'portals' for their faction. Those portals, which Ingress players dutifully mapped, eventually became Pokémon Go's pokéstops.
Ingress initially attracted 2 million players but it shrunk to a million daily players by mid-2015. Niantic didn't answer questions about how many players are currently active in Ingress, though player numbers are reportedly "surging" in Japan after Pokémon Go's release. We talked to people who have been playing Ingress for years for their thoughts on whether the hugely popular Pokémon Go is a fad or the future. Most say that the game needs to add chat features if it's to hold players' attention for years to come.
Need proof? When an outside developer made an ad-hoc Pokémon Go chat app, it quickly attracted a million users.
Before playing Ingress, Daphne Domingo "was not a gamer person at all, unless you're going to count Tetris at the office."
But Domingo, a life coach in Washington D.C., has become deeply involved with the area's Ingress community, helping organize and document meetups. She co-hosts a weekly show called "Behind the Scanner," where she interviews Ingress players from around the world, and has been a commentator on livestreams of Ingress competitions hosted by Niantic. She first heard about the game at a holiday party in 2012, while it was in beta. A friend of a friend thought she'd like it because she regularly travels to "a lot of interesting places."
Domingo says she was a little confused and wary about playing at first. The friend who told her about the game mentioned that a couple people had been arrested trying to reach portals. But she decided to give it a shot.
"I initially thought I would quit when I hit level 8, which was the top level at the time," she says now, "but the social interactions really hooked me."
In Ingress, players can message and connect with each other but that's not an option in Pokémon Go, likely because the creators worried about creeps chatting up kids.
While she says she was skeptical of Pokémon Go when she first heard about it, she signed up for the new game's beta test and said she decided it was "pretty fun." The chat function is missing but is possible to interact with more people in person playing the game thanks to its sheer numbers right now. While out to brunch with her boyfriend the weekend after Pokémon Go came out, she placed a lure (which draws pokémon to a given location) and was excited to see people come by to try and catch pokémon.
Domingo says even "naysayers" in the Ingress community are being won over.
"They're realizing that…a lot of us play Pokémon too. It's kind of funny there's one guy [who was] very upset with us for talking about pokémon in our Ingress chat room, and now he's playing and bragging about his stats."
Andrea Matwyshyn is a privacy and information security researcher, and says she downloaded Ingress when she realized that friends in the industry were playing.
"I'd read some press coverage of it, I thought it was an interesting game," she says. "Then I realized that a number of my friends in the security industry were avid players, and they nudged me onto a particular side. I joined the blue team, 'smurfs,' as Ingress players call them."
But what she really enjoyed was the game's exploratory element. Because Ingress's portals are often mapped on to local public art, architecture, and historical landmarks, Matwyshyn says she liked seeing wherever she was with the game as a lens.
"The interesting thing to me was looking at physical surroundings, even in the city that I knew well, through the eyes of this app. There was this informational and educational component for me, and I liked that because I'm a nerdy professor. In many cases I didn't know that a particular place or item existed without Ingress highlighting it for me."
Of course, Matwyshyn is in the information security industry, so I asked how she felt about the game having access to her phone's GPS, camera, and other information.
When it came to Ingress, she explained, it wasn't viewed as much of an additional security risk since it was first available on Android devices — Google products — and Niantic was owned by Google, so they were already interacting with Google. Plus, it's all about which of your phones you're using.
"Most people who work in security, myself included, have multiple devices. The device that you may use for a game such as this may not be the same device that you're using for your own sensitive communications, and certainly not the same device that you're using for your employers' communications."
As for Pokémon Go, she has been playing, and said that part of what she finds interesting is that she thinks the attention the game has garnered matches a pattern that occurs with other tech as well.
"It's the cycle of so many technologies, that it starts out as sort of a niche interest…and then a variant is rolled out with mass appeal, and then the dynamics change," she said. "I think people just didn't know that people were playing Ingress. The person who is looking out the window just saw someone walking down the street with a phone, and didn't associate them with playing a particular game."
An artist in Philadelphia, Venetia Bebi downloaded Ingress in May 2014. She was introduced to the game by Matwyshyn, but was quickly put off by one of the game's key features.
"I said to her, 'What the heck, you have to walk?'"
After using it while wandering around Philadelphia one day, she was hooked, but realized she wouldn't have much fun if she played solo. She echoed other Ingress players in saying she misses the in-game chat when playing Pokémon Go.
"The difference between Ingress and Pokémon is that Ingress, in the game, has communication," she said. "You can talk to everyone, and you can also talk to your faction."
Without that, it's harder to connect with people in person, even when you're in the same physical location. "They know that you're playing the game, they look at you playing the game, and they don't even say hello," she said.
Bebi's experience runs counter to early reports that Pokémon Go players were talking to each other much more than you might a stranger on the street.
"I'm missing [the comparative complexity of Ingress] and I'm also missing the slight social aspect," she said.
But, she says she's hopeful that as Niantic updates the game things will improve, and that the social aspect that made Ingress so engrossing will show up in Pokémon Go.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org