POINT BONITA, Calif. — On a chilly Monday afternoon in May, just before the lighthouse here closed for the rest of the week, the three Ingress players met and hustled across the metal bridge to the 19th-century landmark.
They were determined to retain control of the lighthouse for their team, the Resistance. Ingress is played using a smartphone app, but in most cases players can attack or defend locations in the game, known as portals, only if they are in proximity to the real-world places on which the portals are based.
Right off the bat, the plan went awry. One player, Kathryn Jensen, code-named TheStudette, accidentally deployed a weapon that meant control of the lighthouse would flip to the other team, the Enlightened, around 3:30 p.m., when the lighthouse closed.
To remedy the error, the gamers had to ignore a park ranger’s remonstrations and linger past closing time. They managed to flip the lighthouse back to Resistance hands, although an attempt to create a virtual link to another landmark in Hawaii was blocked by the opposing team, which was unable to get anyone to the lighthouse but spotted the activity on the game’s scanner.
This blend of real-world, multiplayer interaction and complex digital strategy sets Ingress apart from other mobile games. Nodding to childhood pastimes like Capture the Flag as well as to vast online simulations like World of Warcraft, Ingress is one of the first popular games built using augmented reality, a technology that overlays virtual objects onto the real world.
Developed by Google geolocation engineers and released to the public in December 2013, Ingress has more than one million active players in 4,000 communities worldwide, including heavy concentrations in the United States, Japan and Europe. Last year, Google spun out the development team into a separate company called Niantic.
The back story of Ingress involves mysterious aliens that are sending exotic matter to Earth via portals like fountains, public buildings and landmarks. Players choose to join the Enlightened team, which believes the exotic matter is beneficial to humanity, or the Resistance, which distrusts the aliens and is fighting their influence.
To take most actions in the game, players must physically visit the portals. More elaborate actions, such as connecting portals to build an energy field, require many players to work together in a coordinated fashion.
Niantic plans to take the same concepts to the mass market later this year with the release of Pokémon Go, an addition to the Pokémon fantasy franchise that will be played via smartphone and also require interaction with the real world.
The focus on physical places in both games is deliberate. John Hanke, Niantic’s chief executive, joined Google in 2004, when his start-up, Keyhole, was acquired by the search giant and became the basis of Google Earth. After refining Google’s mapping products over the next seven years or so, Mr. Hanke and his team began pondering what else could be done with the map.
“Everyone is spending all this time inside, by their computers. No one goes to the local parks,” Mr. Hanke said in an interview at Niantic’s San Francisco headquarters. “We wanted to do something that was aspirational: Let’s get people outside.”
R. M. Harman, one of the Ingress players who defended the Point Bonita Lighthouse, said that the game had certainly improved his exercise habits, even as it had sucked up much of his free time.
Mr. Harman, a data architect who goes by the nickname Auros, frequently hops on his bicycle in the evening to take action on portals in his Silicon Valley neighborhood. And last September, he hiked high into the California back country with his spouse and a friend to recapture enemy-controlled portals in Kerrick Meadow near Yosemite National Park. The location was so remote that they had to use a satellite modem to connect to the internet and get access to the game.
“The game has a secret-agent vibe,” said Mr. Harman, who uses the code name OninekoKin. It appeals to programmers — at least one early Google employee who has retired from the company plays it full time. It also appeals to shy people, giving them an excuse to meet and connect with others.
Ms. Jensen, a learning coach, said she had made many new friends playing Ingress and visited her 10,000th portal in Paris in April 2015, using the locations in the game as a guidebook to the city. “I saw way more of Paris than most people do,” she said.
The most elaborate operations involve players who coordinate actions across the globe. Last July, about 150 players on the Resistance team worked together to connect portals on three far-flung islands: Svalbard, a Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean; Failaka Island, off Kuwait in the Persian Gulf; and Fuerteventura, one of Spain’s Canary Islands off Morocco.
Niantic also sponsors large Ingress events every quarter, most recently at the end of May, when gamers gathered for operations in nine communities, including Brooklyn; Rotterdam, the Netherlands; Cape Town; Tainan, Taiwan; Padua, Italy; and Manila.
Ingress players, whose repeated visits to a single location can look suspicious, say they are sometimes questioned by officials, such as park rangers or police officers. But once the officials learn about the game, they often join in.
“We have a fair number of cops who are players,” Mr. Hanke said.
In October, Niantic raised $20 million from the Pokémon Company, Nintendo and Google, with potentially $10 million more to come after it achieves undisclosed milestones.
Mr. Hanke declined to discuss Niantic’s finances, although the company earns some revenue from sponsorships. One of the game’s most powerful shields, for example, is named after the Axa insurance company. Niantic also allows companies to sponsor their stores in the game, which Lawson and SoftBank do in Japan.
In addition, Niantic makes money from hosting player gatherings, selling virtual items in the game, and peddling mementos like posters, T-shirts and e-books. The company is exploring an Ingress television show. And a successful Pokémon Go would bring in additional revenue streams.
Mr. Hanke said that Ingress was intended not just to entertain, but also to help people explore the world they live in.
“Part of the joy of the game is going off the beaten path,” he said. “We’re not about being strapped in a couch in ‘The Matrix.’”
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