Programmatic Lunch

The secret history of Pokémon Go

Tim Maytom

"You may have seen it in your city – large groups of people all headed in the same direction. Where are they going? Oh, they're chasing Pokémon."

John Hanke, founder and CEO of Niantic and one of the leading forces behind the creation of Pokémon Go, took some time at the start of his MWC keynote to explain what the mobile game was, but I doubt there was a person in the audience who hadn't witnessed the hysteria over the app when it launched last summer.

Pokémon Go has been hailed as a game-changer for the mobile industry, combining location tracking, augmented reality and social gaming to produce a game experience that would have been impossible to recreate on a desktop. Hanke, a veteran of Google Maps, spoke about the game's 'secret origins' at MWC, and what the next steps are for both Pokémon Go and Niantic.

"We in the computer entertainment industry, we've created these experiences that are so compelling and engaging that kids want to play them all the time," said Hanke on the initial inspiration for Niantic's focus. "Let's use this technology, and what's coming next, to create things that will lead to healthy, wholesome experiences.

"We wanted it to be about exploration, that's the Google Maps side; we wanted it to be about fitness, both for kids and for adults, and we wanted it to social."


Before the firm partnered with Nintendo to create Pokémon Go, it produced its own game, Ingress, which launched back in 2012, using similar location-based technology. While the firm thought that its primary audience would be the 'standard gamer' – men in their 20s and 30s – they soon found that people from all walks of life were engaging with the app.

"Mums playing it while walking their kids in the park. People chartered helicopters to reach new areas. Airline pilots were moving digital goods from continent to continent," said Hanke. People played the game in areas as remote as eastern Siberia and research labs in Antarctica, and even while the game was still in beta, players were dedicated enough to get tattoos representing the two factions within the game's universe.

Niantic took everything it had learned from Ingress and put it towards the development of Pokémon Go, quite literally in some cases, with player data and user-generated content from Ingress being used to place the Pokéstops and Gyms that users interact with in Pokémon Go. The game also relied on the cutting edge of what mobile offered, both in terms of devices and network services.

"Pokémon Go is a game that's designed to embrace everything native to mobile," said Hanke. "It demands high-end smartphones that can access the AR content. It rewards high capacity data services. It rewards extensive network coverage, and depends heavily on advanced location services and geolocation. We depend on things like direct carrier billing to generate revenues."

The fact that the game required a constant data connection, combined with its instant popularity, meant that service outages were common in the first few weeks.

"We blew through our quotas in about a day or two, and it spiralled out of control after that," said Hanke. "It's a testament to the strength of the engineering team, and our work with Google Cloud, that we were able to roll out globally over the next 60 days."

Pokémon Go's projected data needs, and its actual needs once the game launched

As well as speaking about Niantic's work with networks, Hanke spoke about the various sponsorships and partnerships that the game has enabled, with retailers and other brands driving footfall at their physical branches using in-game content.

Over 35,000 sponsored locations are currently live in game, and have resulted in over 500m visits by Pokémon Go players. Partnerships range from simply activating Pokéstops and Gyms in specific locations, to richer brand partnerships. Starbucks created a custom product, the Pokémon Go Frappuccino, that appears when players check in at a branch and can then be shown to the barista to order it off a secret menu, while Sprint has transformed its physical stores into 'playgrounds' for Pokémon Go, with branded phone chargers, events and more.

"There are several areas where I think there are huge opportunities for collaboration in the future," said Hanke. "Various things like beacons that people have tried to roll out in various forms. We think products like Pokémon Go can provide the economic underpinning and drive to support rolling out these networks of beacons. The products that we're building can be the thing that drives demand for AR. With Pokémon Go, we're only getting started with the game."

Looking to the future, Hanke mentioned that 80 new monsters from the Gold and Silver edition of the game had just been added, as had wardrobe options for players' avatars, and that hundreds of Pokémon remained that had yet to be added to the game.

Three major updates to Pokémon Go are planned for 2017, and Niantic also has a relaunch of Ingress and a number of new AR-centred games planned for the near future. It appears that the company is only getting started in creating a new generation of truly mobile-first games, and their desire to push the limits of mobile's native features can only be good for the industry.