scorecardThe CEO behind 'Pokemon Go' explains why it's become such a phenomenon
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The CEO behind 'Pokemon Go' explains why it's become such a phenomenon

The CEO behind 'Pokemon Go' explains why it's become such a phenomenon
Tech6 min read

niantic john hanke


Niantic CEO John Hanke

On Saturday night, my girlfriend and I snuck away from the cocktail reception at a charity dinner because "Pokémon GO" had informed us that there might be a Pikachu nearby, and we were on the hunt.

This is not the normal way that people play video games together. Then again, "Pokémon Go" isn't exactly a normal video game.

Just like we sneaked away from the party, people are going on long walks, meeting new people, and having adventures, just trying to live their dreams of becoming a master Pokémon trainer.

And that's exactly how John Hanke, CEO of "Pokémon Go" developer Niantic, likes it.

"The game itself is intended to facilitate the real-life stuff," Hanke tells Business Insider. The reward is the encouragement and opportunity to go out and have new experiences, "not the big scene at the end where the boss dies."

The Niantic team had three big goals in mind when building "Pokémon Go," Hanke says.

  1. Exercise: A lot of fitness apps come with a lot of "baggage" that end up making you feel like "a failed Olympic athlete" when you're just trying to get fit, Hanke says. "Pokémon Go" is designed to get you up and moving by promising you Pokémon as rewards, rather than placing pressure on you.
  2. "To see the world with new eyes:" The game is intended to "give you a little nudge" towards cool and interesting things in your neighborhood by turning real-life landmarks and historical sites into Pokéstops and Gyms where players power up and battle. By encouraging exploration, "Pokémon Go" can "make your life better in some small way," Hanke says.
  3. Breaking the ice: All over the world, players are organizing "Pokémon Go" outings, cruising around their area and trawling for Pokémon. At higher levels, players need to team up with fellow players to conquer those Gyms. This is by design: Hanke describes "Pokémon Go" as an "icebreaker" that "gives people a reason to spend time together."

pikachu pokemon go

Matt Weinberger/Business Insider

Encountering a Pikachu at a nice dinner.

It's like no other game out there, Pokémon or otherwise. That's great news for Nintendo and its share price, which has skyrocketed on the indication that it can thrive in a smartphone-driven world.

And while "Pokémon Go" may be an overnight sensation, it took a lot of work, a lot of hard thinking, and a little bit of luck over the last few years to make it what it is.

Where the idea came from

Before "Pokémon Go," Niantic was best known for "Ingress" - the Android and iPhone game that challenged players to explore the world around them and claim territory. At its peak, "Ingress" counted millions of players around the world.

"Pokémon Go" is like a spiritual sequel to "Ingress." Niantic took a lot of the "Ingress" data, and a lot of the lessons it learned about keeping players safe, to make "Pokémon Go" work and populate its world.

To hear Hanke tell it, that's because "Ingress" was always intended to be kind of a proof-of-concept for ways in which Google and Niantic could help outside partners and customers build their own games.

"Our intent was to make a platform for many different experiences," Hanke says.

Ingress android game


"Ingress" for Android.

And Pokémon was a natural fit.

Enter the Pokémon Company - the joint venture that co-owns the Pokémon copyright, with Pokémon game developer Game Freak, toy maker Creatures, and Nintendo all holding an equal stake.

Google and the Pokémon Company first connected on April Fools' Day 2014, when a short-lived but extremely viral game challenged players to find Pokémon via the Google Maps mobile apps. People loved it: Google Maps plus Pokémon was "like chocolate and peanut butter," Hanke says. And an idea was born.

Emboldened by the success of the April Fools' Day joke, Niantic pitched Nintendo and the Pokémon Company on the game that would become "Pokémon Go." It turned out that Pokémon Company CEO Tsunekazu Ishihara was already a high-level "Ingress" player in Japan, which made those conversations much easier.

And the late, beloved Nintendo CEO Saotoru Iwata gave his highest approval to the project, recognizing that the company was late to the smartphone era, and willing to bet on Niantic to help turn things around.

"They totally got where we were coming from," Hanke says.

The Google split

In early 2015, around the same time that Google was beginning to talk internally about spinning non-core businesses off into a holding company called Alphabet, the idea of Niantic "perhaps becoming its own thing surfaced," Hanke says.

The logic, he says, was that "we were always kind of bumping up against Google's desire to stay neutral," Hanke says.

Google builds products like Maps, and marketplaces like the Google Play Store, as a "horizontal, low-level platform," Hanke says. It meant that Niantic couldn't be given special treatment over any other developer using Google platforms, or those other developers might get upset and look for alternatives.

Pokemon Go

The Pokemon Company

Plus, it opens up the door for Niantic to work with other customers and partners who might have been scared off by the prospect of working with a superpower like Google. The values and needs of certain customers were "not always aligned with Google," Hanke says.

At the same time, it was thought that it would only help Niantic's collaboration with Nintendo and the Pokémon Company if they held a financial stake in the venture, and they could "open up and share more" if they had some percentage of ownership in the finished product.

Everything "kind of lined up," and in late 2015, Niantic spun off with Google, Nintendo, and the Pokémon Company all participating in a $20 million investment round to kick things off.

Working with The Pokémon Company

Hanke has only praise for the process of working with The Pokémon Company, its main collaborator on the project.

There was a funny thing, though: The Pokémon Company loved "Ingress," and Niantic loved the Pokémon series, and they each wanted the game to be more like the other.

"We were trying to pull things from Pokémon, and they were more from 'Ingress,'" Hanke says.

The two companies shared crucial elements like the three-dimensional models and sounds for the Pokémon themselves, saving a lot of time while also ensuring "Pokémon Go" was as true to the classic games as possible.

The music, notably, is similar to the original Pokémon games - Junichi Masuda, the composer of the classic low-fi soundtrack on the original "Pokémon Red and Blue," wrote a new score for "Pokémon Go."

Pokemon video game pidgey

Nintendo/Game Freak

"Pokémon Go" was inspired by the classic series, dating back to the original "Pokémon Red and Blue" released in 1998.

Masuda, who has since become the director of the modern Pokémon games, including the forthcoming "Pokémon Sun and Moon," also helped Niantic develop "Pokémon Go's" signature "capture" mechanic of throwing Poké Balls with precision at the monsters, Hanke says.

The goal was to make something that was recognizable to fans of the classic Pokémon games, including catching and battling, but that was "more accessible" to people who don't have the time or willingness to learn the more "demanding" systems of the original games. Catching Pokémon, especially, is supposed to be easy to learn, as an easy on-ramp to later-game mechanics like battling and capturing Gyms.

In fact, Hanke says, Niantic almost didn't include the Pokémon games' key element of "evolving" a Pokémon into a new form to make it stronger, because they were afraid it might be too complicated for new players. But they eventually relented. And sooner rather than later, Hanke says, more classic features like Pokémon trading with friends is coming.

"We honored the spirit of the original game," Hanke says. "I like where we landed."

So if you're a part of the "Pokémon Go" phenomenon, understand it was a series of very deliberate choices that got you hooked, the culmination of a long road that began many years ago.

Oh, and I caught the Pikachu.

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