I am led to believe that Ingress has a significant player retention problem around level 5-6. I do not know if there is data to support that, but it is the perception I have heard from several sources, and it appeals to my confirmation bias. I see three significant player retention issues, all of which will set in around that point, with one offsetting retention asset around that time. I am aligning these with our MMO Bartle types.
Achiever: most of Ingress’s leveling curve has a geometric progression while experience point (“AP”) rewards are static. You hit level 2 on accident while learning how to play. Doubling a small number does not matter much, but once you do that a few times and start adding orders of magnitude, it gets imposing. You need 150,000 total AP to reach level 5, your first time seeing six digits. You need another 150,000 AP to reach level 6. It doubles again for level 7 and again for level 8, now into seven digits. And hacking an enemy portal still earns you 100 AP. If the Achiever excitement of fast early leveling helps to hook players, reversing that must push them away. And remember, this is a PvP game, so “time to effectiveness” and “time to cap” are critical variables, and not so far apart in a game where the other numbers are also on a geometric progression.
Explorer: around that same time, you have done just about everything there is to do in Ingress. The learning curve is much shorter than the leveling curve. The basic actions are hack, deploy, link, and destroy. There are more advanced applications of these like glyph hacking, setting up a flash farm, learning to link effectively, and raiding enemy territory as a group. But you can do all of that by level 6 as well as learning the local population distribution, so you can project forward how few new game interactions there are to be had. Given how many people I have known to be excited about being the Mayor of Whatever on FourSquare, the basic gameplay of “go somewhere and tap on your smartphone” must be compelling to a broad swath of population, but unless your local portals line up well with a walk you like to take, how often do you want to drive out and engage in maintenance of imaginary teritorial claims? When heading to new areas, Ingress intrinsically has Explorer appeal in pointing out items of interest and providing you the opportunity to tag new ones; in your home territory, you quickly see it all.
Killer: level 5-6 is also the point where you reach minimal PvP effectiveness and can start thinking about the larger game. I listed that as a retention issue, but it must appeal to some people. I see it as having some of the GW2 WvW population imbalance issues, and here you are not switching matchups weekly. If your side is dominating or being dominated, there is not much interesting PvP to be had. If population is low on either side or both in your area, there is not much interesting interaction to be had. There is a fairly narrow range of population ratios where you have a competitive environment. If you live in one of those areas, or are willing to drive to one frequently, you have a good Killer environment. If you are the sort of player who likes winning more than playing or who likes struggling as the losing team, you have a good Killer environment. The runaway leader effect is something you want to speed the end of a game, not in a game that will be running indefinitely.
For me, this was meeting the locals who are really into Ingress and deciding I did not want that for my life. This is what they do, and not all of them have jobs, school, etc. There is a local rapid response team in case the other team attempts ingression. I have been followed by vehicles and groups of players, which is a rather impressive response to one below-cap player. Long term players have reported physical assaults. Don’t get me wrong, something is wrong if a large, organized group of devoted players cannot dominate their area. But I am not interested in being that devoted to imaginary portals, and the game does not activate my mammalian territorial instincts the way it is does more strongly for some others.
It is a sobering mirror to hold up to the devoted MMO players I know much better.
Socializer: this is also the point when you are tapped into your local player network, and if that is good, it can carry you past all kinds of issues. I have heard a great many people say of a great many games, “It’s kind of crap, but it can be fun with friends.” If you have local friends playing Ingress, and you tour the portals the way others might bar crawl, that can be a fine group activity no matter how little of a level you gain. If you have a supportive local online group, that can keep interaction interesting no matter what the local competitive balance is.
The first two factors are intrinsic to the game, the second to your locality. The structure of the game can affect the competitive balance over time. Your local playerbase is what it is unless you are willing to make heroic efforts to change it.
Me? I am resolved to casual play. Ingress is an amusing way to structure my break-time walk or to tour around a downtown while I am waiting. I have adopted a few portals that are in convenient locations for me. I might join friends for a raid on enemy territory, and I am thinking of attending the nearest Interitus event. But I am remembering to turn off Ingress when I am done just like I am walking away from the computer.