With September’s announcement of Pokémon GO, an augmented reality mobile game developed by The Pokémon Company and Ingress developers, Niantic. Niantic Labs has done the impossible launching its Pokémon Go mobile game, scoring more than 500 million downloads in two months. It has stabilized its server capacity and generated an estimated $500 million in revenue.
So John Hanke, the CEO of Niantic Labs, promises there is more coming that will keep Pokémon Go going for years to come. Just as with Ingress, the company’s first game that has been going for 4.5 years, Niantic Labs will roll out updates that make Pokémon Go a lot better, Hanke said at the Techcrunch Disrupt event this week.
Hanke was reticent about making any announcements, but he said the company is contemplating the best ways to offer player-versus-player battles, Pokémon trading, live event tournaments with thousands of people, and even more stable servers over time. He said the company is still rolling out the game in more countries, and it is struggling to add more people at the same time.
Hanke spoke on stage with Greg Kumparak, the editor of mobile technology at Techcrunch. Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.
Above: John Hanke, CEO of Niantic Labs, the maker of Pokémon Go, and Greg Kumparak of Techcrunch.
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Question: First and most important question: What team are you on?
John Hanke: I’m yellow. All about yellow.
Question: Team Instinct, anyone out there? There we go. Let’s go back to day one, maybe day two after launch. At what moment, did you realize this was a thing, this was a massive hit?
Hanke: Luckily we have a team of great engineers that make the whole thing run. The moment was right after the launch in the U.S. We did a staged kind of rollout, in Australia and the in the U.S. A few hours after the U.S. launch, we’d blown through our worldwide machine quota, the knot of machines we’d reserved to support everybody playing at full capacity. We knew at that point we were in trouble. We just hung on and put in an emergency email and said, “Please, send reinforcements!” The Google Cloud team was great. We got a bunch more machines to keep things going more or less, with a few small glitches along the way.
Question: Hindsight is always 20/20, but is there anything you could have done differently that would have helped you?
Hanke: If we could have seen the future we would have provisioned for 500 million downloads in two months. But if we had told anyone that was our plan, we would have sounded insane. I don’t know how you plan for something as strange as the way it took off virally. We just had to play catch up. I wish we’d had everything provisioned in advance, but I don’t know how any of us could have anticipated that.
Question: Do you feel like you’ve mostly put the fires out?
Hanke: Yeah, things are calmer now. We got the machines provisioned. We’ve been rolling out country by country. We have a lot of markets we haven’t officially launched in yet – south Asia, Russia, China, parts of Africa – so we’re still in the rollout phase of the game. I have a pretty good idea where we’ll be rolling out next, but that’s pending getting things squared away on the regulations side and getting everything prepared.
We didn’t really anticipate the level to which the game would draw interest from government, policy people and stuff like that. But that’s become part of the dialogue at this point. We’re getting more well-versed in those skills.
Question: It’s one of the biggest game launches of all time, and it was kind of born out of an April Fool’s joke. Can you talk more about that?
Hanke: We started inside Google five years ago. Late 2010. We created Field Trip and Ingress, which we ran for about four years. That became the precursor to Pokémon Go. The community was super strong. People had fun going out and playing together with their friends. We were looking for another product to build on top of the infrastructure we created for Ingress.
We thought about Pokémon because the story of Pokémon, the notion of becoming a trainer and going out into the world, it’s really the perfect setting for an augmented reality game. At the same time, independent of all that, a guy on the Google Maps team was collaborating with the Pokémon Company to do this April Fool’s mashup for Maps. Some of you probably saw that, when Pokémon appeared all over Google Maps. Once we saw that we realized we had to do this.
We went to Tokyo and pitched the Pokémon Company. They were super excited. They’d been playing Ingress and the immediately got that this real-world gaming concept would fit perfectly with Pokémon. We started in, and it was in development for about two years before we launched.
Question: Now that you have that relationship, how directly do you work with the Pokémon Company?
Hanke: We’re in touch with them constantly. In Tokyo is where the game and lore expertise around Pokémon resides. How do Pokémon behave? What are all the requirements and canon of the IP? That comes from Japan. Their U.S. group handles a lot of the partnership activities. We’re in email and videoconference contact with both groups almost daily.
Question: Everyone seems to assume Niantic itself is huge. How big are you, really?
Hanke: We’re less than 100 people. It’s around 70 full-time people. We have a number of contractors, about double that amount, helping us with support and things like that.
Question: Have you had to hire a lot as a result of Pokémon Go’s success?
Hanke: It’s funny. We have been hiring. We’ve gotten a lot of great resumes coming in and we’ve hired some amazing people since launch. But when you’re in the process of launching a product it’s hard to interview people and onboard them while everybody’s super busy supporting the product. It’s been really challenging. As you all know, it’s a super competitive talent market out there. We have this giant influx of candidates, and we’re trying to get them through the process and hired at the same time we put out all the fires related to the game.
Question: You’ve launched the game. You’ve put the fires out. How do you keep people interested in the game moving forward?
Hanke: The whole concept of Pokémon Go was based around our experience in launching and running Ingress, which is a science-fiction real-world game. It’ll see its four-year anniversary this November. It’s bigger and stronger than ever. It keeps growing – not at the scale of Pokémon, but at a pretty good scale. We had an event in Tokyo recently with more than 10,000 Ingress players coming together.
The core idea for Pokémon Go and for Ingress—they were based on the idea of a massively multiplayer game, something like World of Warcraft where you have a lot of people sharing the same environment, but out in the real world. You have that social dynamic with people bonding and playing together, which I think is the heart of a long-lived gaming experience. If you look at the classic MMOs, they’ve had far longer lifespans than most other titles. It’s the multiplayer social aspects of the game that we’re counting on to keep it alive and vibrant and growing for a number of years into the future.
Question: For the first two months, this was very much a pop culture phenomenon. Do you think it’ll maintain that energy?
Hanke: The player base is massive. Our daily active users—I can’t give you the actual number, but it’s really, really big. It’s far outside the range of a typical game, more in the app category. It’s going strong. It’s down from launch, those first two weeks. I don’t know that anything can compare to that situation, where everybody learned about the app in the space of two weeks. We certainly didn’t expect that.
Our marketing plan was to gradually onboard people, teach them about the game, and market the game over the course of many months. That all got compressed into the span of two or three weeks as everyone in the world with a smartphone discovered the game. We didn’t do any advertising or marketing at all. There was a massive influx of people into the front end of the customer acquisition pipeline. Now those people are maturing. Some people have churned out, some people are still playing, and we have a small but steady inflow of new users all the time. Now we’re at the normal level of an app or a game. We’re quite happy with where we are.
Question: When something becomes so popular so quickly like Pokémon Go, it’s easy to look at the contrast between now and those two weeks and say it was just a fad. Without talking about specific numbers, can you describe the curve as far as daily active users? Has it plateaued? Is it still growing?
Hanke: We saw this huge influx of everyone in the world trying the game. Some of those people left the game, so we had a peak, then a level off, and now we’ve been growing. Plenty of people are still playing, trust me. Our server bill will attest to that.
Question: You recently announced Apple Watch support. Is that exclusive, or will we see Pokémon Go on other smartwatches?
Hanke: It’s not exclusive. Our mission as a company is to evangelize this whole concept of playing game outside, real world games, what we call augmented reality games. We want lots of people to create games like that. Our technology is a platform that can be used to make these experiences. We’re interested in moving that genre of games forward. A part of that is moving people away from looking at their phone all the time and enabling them to enjoy the people around them, to walk around and see the sights while you’re also playing the game. Apple Watch is a great vehicle for that.
Working with Apple on that was amazing. It was amazing to be part of an Apple event. Even after a decade at Google, to go through the preparation and everything Apple does for one of their big launch events was illuminating. It’s an interesting piece of hardware. The stand-alone functionality with the GPS, faster processor, waterproof, I like where they’re going with that.
We also have the Pokémon Go Plus, which is a low-cost $35 device that pairs with your smartphone and gives you the ability to play heads-up while you’re walking or running or biking. That’s an interesting part of the strategy. If other devices come on the market, like Android devices, or devices from other quadrants that are interesting for active, mobile gameplay, we’ll look into supporting those too.
Question: As a player, I have to ask this one. Do you know when we’ll see player-versus-player Pokémon battles?
Hanke: It would be fun. I have a 10-year-old son. He’s my Pokémon expert, and he wants to battle his friends in Pokémon Go, I can tell you that. We talked about trading. We just announced buddy Pokémon. We announced that for iOS and it just rolled out this morning. If you want to have a buddy Pokémon and walk that Pokémon with you, you can do that now. Battling is something we talk a lot about. It’ll probably make its way onto the road map, but I don’t have a specific date.
Question: What does Pokémon Go look like in a year? Will it change significantly?
Hanke: We’ve always looked at it a game that will develop over the next several years. We’re releasing every two weeks. We got the minimum viable product into the marketplace, and that’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of where we’ll ultimately take the game. I think it’ll change and evolve pretty substantially over the next few years.
If you want to predict the future, look at the past. A lot of what we’re doing with Pokémon we learned through three years of work with Ingress – building up the game around the world, maturing the technology, the social aspect of it. The events for Ingress are the lifeblood of the game. I think you can expect to see things like that in Pokémon Go. This type of game lends itself well to people coming together for big events that are part competitive, part social. They solidify the user base. I’m excited about what we’re planning there.
If you haven’t been to an Ingress event, we have them in cities around the world every month, essentially. You can get a glimpse of what the future of augmented reality, real-world games looks like.
Question: The update you mentioned is rolling out today, with the buddy system. Can you talk about the thinking there?
Hanke: A lot of people have a favorite Pokémon. You just naturally form an attachment to your favorite. It might be your most powerful one. It might be the one you think is the cutest. You can give Pokémon nicknames already, but with the buddy system you can designate a specific Pokémon as your buddy. It shows up with your avatar on your trainer screen. If it’s a Pikachu, it has a special behavior, which you’ll have to discover for yourself. Then you can go out and whenever you walk while you’re playing the game, you’re walking your buddy Pokémon. You earn candy for that, which helps in various ways in the game. It’s a special way to show off and get some game rewards for that effort.
It plays to one of the sweet spots of the game, which is that a lot of people use the app as an excuse to get outside and take a walk. Maybe they’re just doing it for exercise, a little extra motivation to get those steps in for the day. Some people like to do it with friends. I like to go out with my son and walk the dog on Sundays and play Pokémon together. For a lot of people, the Pokémon Go experience is just about taking that walk. And since the Pokémon are pretty cute and charming and people always have a favorite, it seemed natural to let you pick one as your buddy and give them a special place in the game.
It’s cool to see them represented next to your avatar. I think people are going to enjoy showing that off to their friends on social media and things like that.
Question: Let’s jump back to Ingress. When you were building Ingress, did you know at the time that you’d eventually use that data for other games?
Hanke: We started with this concept of, it’d be really cool to build a game that you could play outside. It would fit in with walking or hiking or being active with your family. I have kids. At the time they were much younger, and I was trying to pull them away from Minecraft and whatever else they were playing indoors. The idea was, let’s great a game that’s a natural inducement to go outside and enjoy the beautiful things around us.
One of the first obstacles you come to is, if that’s the game, where do you take people? What kinds of places do you interact with? Even within Google Maps, we didn’t have a good data set as far as things in public spaces, like the statue in the middle of the park – things that aren’t commercial, but that are interesting to walk to and enjoy if you’re out for a stroll. We knew we needed to build up a database of those places to build any of the games we had in mind.
We built that into Ingress, where you could photograph a portal, a special place in the game, that’s your favorite spot. Some cool place in the park with a fountain, an interesting historical building in your neighborhood. Users of Ingress submitted those. We had more than 15 million submissions in the first 24 months or so of running that. We harvested that data set of locations around the world, in more than 200 countries. The goal was to create that not only for Ingress, but for all future games that we might dream up, or that other people might dream up and build on our technology stack.
Question: With a game like this, a collection-heavy game, one of the immediate reactions from some players is “Add more Pokémon!” I’m guessing you haven’t decided when you want to add more Pokémon, but what might determine when you’ll add more Pokémon?
Hanke: We’ve launched the first generation of Pokémon, 150 or so. There are over 700 Pokémon in the Pokémon universe. It’s always been the intent to gradually introduce more Pokémon into the experience over time. It’s a natural way to keep the game fresh. Some Pokémon are highly coveted and people are going to be really excited when they show up in the game.
I mentioned events earlier, how much fun it is to have these events where people come together. It’s like Comic-Con meets a 5K. It’s an active thing. You’re not just observing. You’re playing as part of this big social get-together. Events will be part of our future. We’re waiting for the launch craziness to subside and then we’ll get to the hard work of planning. It’s hard to put on an event for 10,000-plus people. But introducing new Pokémon into the world, having events where those might be showcased, those concepts go together well. You can expect to see that happening in a synchronized way.
Question: One last question: How the hell do I find Ditto?
Hanke: I’m convinced that you’re a hardcore player. I can’t tell you how to find Ditto, because then it wouldn’t be any fun when you found him. But it’ll happen. I promise.