It’s been five years since Pokémon Go launched, sending kids and adults alike out into the streets, capturing Pokémon through their smartphones. It was one of the first massively successful augmented reality games, generating maps populated with the fantastical creatures based on actual maps. It tracks where players are in the real world to determine which Pokémon they can see.
I spoke with John Hanke, the CEO of Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, shortly after Niantic celebrated its largest-ever Pokémon Go Fest, which gathered players virtually and in person all over the world. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
John Hanke: There was a giant Pokémon egg [at the] Navy Pier in Chicago that hatched an enormous, 50-foot tall Pokémon throughout the weekend that people could compete for in raids. It ended up being our biggest Go Fest ever. We had over 3 million people purchase tickets. We had over 10 times that number of people play over the weekend. And it was just great to see people enjoying the thing that we built and worked on in that way.
Kimberly Adams: How did you think about the challenge of reorienting a game designed to get people outside and meeting with each other [given] the pandemic lockdowns?
Hanke: We actually made some changes to make it easier for people to do things from home. And on Pokémon Go, you get to choose a Pokémon to be your buddy, [so] your buddy would bring you stuff every day. So instead of you having to go out and spend a PokéStop in the park, your buddy would sort of bring you a care package every day. We also allowed people to raid together from home, battle a big Pokémon, and then you get a chance to capture it afterwards. And this summer, we’ve made some adaptations in the game to support outdoor gameplay once again, although many of the changes that we made are still in place because we’re not fully out of this [pandemic] yet.
Adams: You are one of the creators of Google Maps and Google Earth. And while we’ve seen a lot of innovation, including yours, in augmented reality in gaming, it seems to have been much slower to reach the mainstream and other areas. Why is there that disconnect?
Hanke: Computer scientists have talked about spatial computing as sort of a more academic way of talking about the subject. You don’t care so much about the hardware that we’re using, but the stuff that we want: the information, the enablement, the entertainment. In the case of Pokémon Go, it’s just there and becomes part of the world. I think it’s incumbent upon those of us in the technology industry to make sure that those uses are good uses, and they’re in the service of what we as human beings really need and what ultimately makes us happy in our lives.
Adams: I’m thinking about your example of entertainment versus sort of mainstream, that we had Game Boys before we had iPhones.
Hanke: Absolutely. As a person who grew up with Atari, the Atari game system, and the first Nintendo systems, the technology matured. And yeah, the Game Boy came before the iPhone, and people were kind of doing sort of silly, useless things on the internet before it became sort of the way we do everything. So AR is in that early stage for sure.
Adams: How do you balance delivering a satisfying experience that’s as rich as you describe with user privacy?
Hanke: Well, our philosophy is that we don’t collect data for the sake of collecting data. We’re in the business of delivering great entertainment experiences and great AR technology. So we utilize the device in order to deliver the experience. So in the case of location, our games are about people moving through the world and discovering things — magical adversaries in Harry Potter, portals and Ingress, or we have new projects coming with a Transformers game and a new project with Nintendo — all of those rely upon responding to where you are in the world and making magical things happen. So yeah, that’s a great example of data that’s being used to power the experience, but not data that’s simply being collected and archived for some other purpose. Our business model, and what we offer, is very transparent. And we want to keep it that way.
Adams: You are a private company that has done very well with your games, but [have] also taken on outside funding. Have you received any pressure to come up with ways to monetize all of that data, maybe with outside partners?
Hanke: Our investors have been really happy with our progress as a business. We’ve built a very profitable business on a very, very transparent and clear business model, which is we deliver games and there are things within those games that people can pay for. We’re really not in that class of companies where they put out a product for free without necessarily having a business model and then maybe they’re trying to figure things out later or turn the customer into the product, so to speak. So that’s not how we’ve done things, and our investors are thrilled with the growth that we’ve achieved over the past several years and our plans for the future.
Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams
While Hanke is optimistic about the future of augmented reality, there are, of course, some areas where caution is advisable. In 2019, he spoke at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and showed a short film called “Hyper-Reality” by the media artist Keiichi Matsuda. It shows a future world where AR and ads overlay everything, offering helpful things like navigation and real-time translation. But it’s also really overwhelming.
I stumbled across that video reading a 2019 investigation by the gaming site Kotaku, which highlighted privacy concerns about Niantic’s games and just how often they download users’ location data.
And there is also Niantic’s recap of this year’s Pokémon Go Fest, where the company said “trainers” caught more than 1.5 billion Pokemon globally. Gotta catch ‘em all, as they say.
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