Niantic Labs' John Hanke: alternate reality games are the future of storytelling

The brains behind Google Earth and location-based game Ingress talks augmented reality, wearable tech and ARGs

Niantic Labs' John Hanke

Location, location, location.

Niantic Labs founder John Hanke has been helping people find their way in the world for years, from the computer globe that he pioneered at Keyhole – later to become Google Earth – to his time as head of Product Management for Google's Geo division.

Now, at Google's in-house start-up Niantic Labs, he's created Ingress, a location-based game in which players battle for control of "portals" in real-world settings. He's also overseen Field Trip, a guidebook app that flags up nearby places of interest on your phone or wearable device. Next up is Endgame, a multi-layered alternate reality game (ARG) that takes in novels, social media, puzzles, websites and location-based gaming – with prizes worth a total of US$3 million at stake.

We find out what he thinks about the future of wearables, games and augmented reality.

The key to location-based games is the story Ingress has a game mechanic, but it also has a story; I think the story is important to give some emotional resonance to the experience, so that it's not a completely abstract experience like chess. We definitely want Ingress to have a beginning, a middle and an end; we're kind of in the middle right now.

But I would imagine drawing that story to a conclusion so that we don't leave people hanging like a popular television series; "it's working really well in season three, so let's drag it out to season five, and make sure that we don't reveal too much because there could be a season six." And it loses momentum.

There's no reason why the underlying mechanic shouldn't continue to exist. But the important thing is planning from the beginning to actually pull things to a conclusion; you're not just trying to stay in the middle forever, which I think is a dangerous place to be.

Moto Hint

I can imagine playing Ingress completely through a smartwatch I could be going for a walk, hands-free, eyes-free, completely taking in my environment, talking to the people around me, and tapping my watch every now and then, reading or listening through an earpiece – getting the historical background to my environment whispered in my ear. And doing it an a way that's a lot less disruptive than the phone is today.

So I think wearables are the answer to that; it's just finding the right ones, and having them work in the right way, at the right price point, with the right fashion factor.

Wearable tech shouldn't mimic existing form factorsI think a watch in some ways has fewer barriers than Google Glass. And I love the watch form factor for wearables, I don't want to knock it. But with every step forward, you don't want to be constrained by what's existed previously. You can make an automobile look like a horse and buggy because people are more comfortable with it, but it might not be optimal for an automobile.

A certain amount of that might be helpful in the early adoption phases, but ultimately we will want these technologies, wherever they are on your body, to be totally optimised based on the job they're doing, not on what is more socially acceptable at that first moment of creation, just because it reminds people of something they've seen in the past. But if a watch helps us get there, that's fine with me.

Endgame is a game, not a marketing stunt like previous ARGsWe actually brought in a guy on our team recently who worked on A.I., I Love Bees, Why So Serious, the Nine Inch Nails ARG. He's masterminding our Endgame ARG; we're trying to learn from what's gone before.

A lot of those were done as marketing stunts, for Halo or the Batman movie; so they were designed to build up a frenzy around launch and then fizzle out. Sometimes they end with a bang, other times they struggled on. So what we're doing is inspired by ARGs, but it's really not like any of those ARGs. It's an ARG style of storytelling; but we're not hardcore about denying that it's a game, for example, like a lot of early ones were.

Rainbows End

In 10 years' time, we'll all be walking around in augmented reality worlds I think Vernor Vinge in Rainbows End did the best job that I've encountered of depicting AR. He imagines this future where everybody has this implanted augmented reality capability; and everybody lives in this stylised version of the world that suits them. So some people live in this dark, Gothic world, and others live in this bright, shiny rainbow world. People play games, some people stylise their surroundings to help their mood, there are different ways that people use it. I think that's a technology that's going to happen, and it's probably going to take a decade or more to happen in that way.

The ARG is the future of storytelling You've got a whole industry with 100 years of experience in making films, you've got a couple of hundred years of experience of people writing novels. You've got two years of experience of people tying those forms together, with games, movies, books and social media – which is brand new.

I think it's absolutely the future of storytelling and entertainment, though. It's as natural as the evolution from book to movie to television. Not that those other things can't still exist, in the same way that books and radio still exist – but it's just a much more open-ended, flexible, immersive, deeper, longer-lasting way of telling a story. At least for certain types of fantasy, science fiction, those things where you really want to create alternative worlds, that really should be the primary form, not a secondary thing. You start with a giant palette, creating the universe, and then start firing off different narratives and experiences within that. If Tolkien was around today, he would do that.

Endgame: The Calling, by James Frey and Nils Johnson-Shelton, is available now