“[We have] mixed feelings about people looking at their screen when we’re trying to lead them out into the park.”
You can read some of the highlights from their discussion at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair is John Hanke, the CEO of Niantic, which is best known as the company behind the hit mobile game Pokémon Go. He previously helped create Google Earth and Google Maps before founding Niantic inside of Google. He created apps like Field Trip and Ingress, but now it’s an independent company. We’re going to talk about what the change has meant and much more. John, welcome to the show.
John Hanke: Thanks, happy to be here.
KS: And here to interview John with me is Recode’s senior editor for mobile, Ina Fried, who is also a crazy Pokémon fan. Hey, Ina.
Ina Fried: Hey, sorry, I was just chasing a Pidgey. Here now.
KS: I don’t even know what that means. Anyway, we’re going to talk a lot about Pokémon Go, but I think what’s interesting to me is your background. I want to start, so people understand where you came from, John, and we’ve known each other for a long long time, when you were back at Google doing Maps and Google Earth. Why don’t you give us a little bit of your background, because it does point to where you were going here with this.
Yeah, I started working on mapping stuff even before Google. Back around 2000 we started a company called Keyhole, which made the Keyhole Earth Viewer, which was acquired by Google in 2004. And then we came in and turned that into Google Earth, and launched Google Maps, and worked on local search and all the sort of related things.
KS: I’m going to bring you back. Keyhole: Talk about that company. Because I was very aware of it, and in fact I was going to write about it and Megan Smith got involved in it, who I had kids with and stuff, so she’s like, “Oh, you can’t write about that.” But I was always fascinated by the idea of Keyhole. It’s looking through the earth. It was way before anybody else thought about those things.
It was pretty early on. We started the company with some folks who came out of Silicon Graphics, where they had worked on high-end visualization of satellite imagery for flight simulators and really expensive government stuff. But it was right around the time when 3D was coming out of STI and the domain of supercomputers to the consumer space. So companies like 3dfx and Nvidia, the early consumer 3-D stuff was coming out, which meant you could do a type of visualization, the thing that you see in Google Maps and Google Earth today. Back then, it was just then becoming possible on normal PCs that people could own, and we had the idea to build a super version of Mapquest.
KS: So why maps for you? Map Quest was pretty awful, it kind of looked like hand-drawn children’s drawings, if I recall.
I love maps. I grew up in a small town reading National Geographic and pulling the maps out. I like travel, I like this whole idea of virtual travel, so it was a dream date for me, to connect with the other founders and start it up. It was kind of a mix between a video game and something that was useful, so it had that fun factor of flying in, and it’s kind of jaw dropping as you zoom in. But you could use it to do practical stuff, like look for the hotel you want to stay in if you’re going on vacation or exploring a hike you want to take, and you can see it in 3D. So it’s [a] utility, too.
KS: But the flyby was the big thing. Everybody used it on television, I remember. They started using it pretty quickly.
They did, yeah. That was the thing that, I think, ultimately brought us to the attention of Google. The television networks picked it up. They’d been able to do similar things with a lot of preproduction and a lot of work, but with Keyhole they could just sort of throw it up and somebody could drive it. There’s a guy at CNN named Miles O’Brien who became sort of mildly addicted to it. So he sort of worked it in every single broadcast.
KS: So why sell the company? What [were] the circumstances around that?
We had gone through, if you remember like the time frame from 2000 to 2004, that was …
9/11 happened, the economy tanked, venture capital kind of deserted the Valley. We had lived through this pretty tough time and make it through the other side, and the company was turning profitable. We actually had, in 2004, three term sheets from VCs to do our series B and keep growing it.
KS: How much did you raise?
Not a lot. In the order of $6 or $7 million.
KS: Yeah, everybody was $6 or $7 million around then.
So we had a series B that would be $10 million, which seemed like a huge amount of capital at the time. And out of the blue, Google called us up. We were actually located just a few blocks away, and Megan was the first person that I talked to over there, and she said, “Well, we’re really interested in what you’re doing, why don’t you come by and talk to us.” And two meetings later, they made an offer to buy us, and we did debate it. Because Google was a big mystery then. This was pre-IPO Google, and we heard rumors of like strange things happening there — of getting massages and lavish buffets of food, and we didn’t know if it was going to last.
KS: All true. You haven’t gotten to the strange things yet, but go ahead.
We didn’t know if it was a bubble or if it was real, but in the course of talking to them, they actually showed us their financials, which were jaw dropping. I had never seen a private company doing so well. Larry and Sergey convinced us that they were very, very passionate about this idea of maps being a way to find information and being this really important thing for Google.
KS: What was the sale number? What did you sell it for?
Oh, I don’t think it’s ever been made public, but it was low tens of millions.
KS: Right. But Google stock, too.
And Google stock. I mean it was good, we did well and Google took care of us over the years.
IF: And obviously, Niantic, the gaming company, was built around Maps. But you’ve been into games a lot longer than that. You wrote games for computers using cassette tapes? We’re taking you back to when you were a kid.
I did. Actually, games were the thing that got me into computers. Seventh grade math class, TRS-80 eight-bit. Way back. To me, it was this magical thing that you could put commands into and it would do stuff. You could actually make things just by thinking it and typing it into the computer, and yeah — there were cassette tapes which would lose your program at very inopportune times. I did that, and then came back to technology a few years later, and helped to start a company that made one of the early MMOs.
IF: Multiplayer gaming.
One of the first internet massively multiplayer online 3D games. And that has a lot to do with where we ended up with Ingress and Pokémon Go.
IF: I’m curious. How did you decide to put a game on top of mapping? Because that was pretty unusual. I mean obviously, you had the passion in gaming and you had the business in maps.
For me, it was this linear thing where I had worked one of these early MMOS, massively multiplayer, people playing together, competing, collaborating, and then I worked on maps. And Ingress, which was the precursor to Pokémon Go, was really just one plus the other. It was an MMO plus geo-maps, you put it together, and Ingress comes out. I loved both of those things, and I was also into this idea of games outside. As much as I enjoyed making games, I also didn’t really like that feeling that you get after you’ve been sitting around at the game for two or three hours and it feels exactly like you just ate a whole bag of potato chips. I was kind of hoping that you could combine it with a walking type of experience that would leave you feeling kind of…. refreshed.
KS: Because you were showing people where to go at Google Maps. Before we get to that, you were working on maps for how long there? You did all kinds of things. You did Google View, all kinds of things to Maps. What happened in that period in the mapping area? Because that’s sort of been one of the most important things for Google — the mapping. Microsoft has also been very active in the area, but it’s only really the two of you.
Yeah, that was a fun time. We came in in 2004. We launched Google Maps. We launched Google Earth. And then I did that for six, almost seven years at Google.
KS: And what were the big challenges of that?
Many. I mean, Mapquest was what had existed before, so with Google Earth and with Google Maps we were trying to do a number of things. One is to cover the world with imagery so you could actually see what places look like. You could see what Yosemite or any place in the world looked like, the far corners of Africa. So there were technical challenges and logistical and business challenges to collecting all of that overhead imagery. We worked with satellite partners, we ultimately put together our own fleet of aircraft internally to take very very high resolution images. Then [we] went into 3-D construction of the actual building geometry, so now whenever — Apple has the same capability now — if you tilt and look at San Francisco or New York, you actually see all the structures. So going from Earth View down to the street-level view, Street View was another project where there were hundreds of …
KS: It was a college project, right?
It started at Stanford. Then Google took it up, and Sebastian Thrun and Luke Vincent and others headed up that program and scaled it up around the world.
KS: You may not remember, but you once showed me elephants in Africa.
That was fun, we did that with National Geographic.
KS: Right, because you were showing how [poachers] were getting their ivory. But one of the interesting things is [that] there was anecdotal discussion of how it was happening, and then Google Maps showed how it was actually happening because you could see the pathways and where the poachers were. And then, the same thing with trash on the ocean [that] you also showed me. There were these big — I’ll never forget it — it was these big bunches of plastic bottles that had been created. And then another one was where deforestation actually happened versus where they thought it happened. You were starting to get people to really see the world versus how they thought it was. It was interesting.
Yeah, for scientists, too, it was this thing where, to have access to overhead imagery, it was an expensive and difficult and technically challenging process. So a lot of scientists who had data they wanted to compare to satellite imagery, they didn’t really have the technical or financial means to do that. So when Google Earth became widely available for basically free with this high-resolution imagery of the whole world, all of a sudden all these scientists who had ideas and ways to visualize data and interact with it, they had this really awesome free tool. So it ended up being a consumer thing, but was used for very interesting purposes by many scientists.
IF: I’m curious how you think drones are going to change the mapping business. Because obviously, you’re going to have this other layer coming in of consumer-gathered data from all these devices.
Yeah, it does get down to that panopticon kind of [thing]. You have these multitudes of perspectives being synthesized into this global street-level representation of the world that would be updated pretty regularly, so it’s kind of an extrapolation forward of the kinds of things we did. If you get down to the level of having drones collect that of interior of shopping malls or at the very close street level, the fidelity of that is going to be amazing I think, if it happens. Obviously, there’s lots of regulatory and other things that would have to be overcome. But technically, you could do it, and I guess that means at some point probably it will be done.
KS: You were at Google doing these maps. What caused you to do this? I mean, I know it happens to a lot of Google executives, they want to do other things, you’re an entrepreneur, you’re in the giant Google and it had grown enormously in the time you were there to a relatively small company to one that was sort of this giant. What got you to do this within Google first, and then moving it out?
Well, you hit on it. Some of it was personal. I had been in this job for seven years, we came in as a 30-person startup and at the end of it we were thousands of people and this massive organization and Google itself had matured and I was a middle manager. I was between Larry and Sergey and Eric and the uppermost tier of Google, and all the employees doing the work. I wanted to go back and be closer to building something, to go back to that creative fulfillment that I found as a kid just typing away on my personal computer, making programs. The idea of actually making something new.
This idea had been germinating of building a game on top of maps that could lead you around outside and that would combine with walking and exploring and exercising. I was led in that direction by everyday struggling with my oldest son, who just went away to college but he was a few years younger then, and the screen time and games being so compelling. I knew that games are the things that got me into programming and I didn’t want to take that away from him, but I also wanted him to do stuff outside. And that sort of led me to think, “Well, maybe can you can combine games with outdoor play and exploration.”
KS: Why keep it in Google? Did they beg you? I think I’m guessing they begged you to keep it within Google.
I created my resignation letter and sent it to Eric and Larry and explained [that] it was time for me to go and do something new, and [at the same time] the company’s trying to create opportunities for ideas to be explored within the company. So they created this special thing so that we could run like a startup, but be inside of Google. It was very very nice and supportive of Google to do that and was a fantastic platform for us to try out some of these ideas. They gave us access to technology and people, so it was a great way to get started. And we did Field Trip and Ingress both within Google.
IF: And Ingress is kind of — for those who haven’t heard of it, while it’s the core of kind of what became Pokémon Go, it’s kind of a nerdier game. It was not a mass hit. What do you think was it about Ingress that made it kind of a cult thing, versus Pokémon Go?
KS: And Field Trip too. Field Trip was very learny, I remember. I think I went to your thing. It was like edutainment kind of thing.
It’s still around, and I love the app. It tells you about history and art and architecture and things like that around you. Ingress was a sci-fi game, it was our first cut at doing a location[-based], real-world type of game. We deliberately said, “We’re not going to try to create something that’s super mass market.” We wanted to create something more targeted at gamers because we thought we could make something that, as early adopters, they would appreciate and use, even if the technology wasn’t perfect. It was a deliberate choice to make a game for gamers.
I was a gamer, I didn’t have a problem with that. And it was the early exploration of what it would mean to build a game like this. We built it around data, some of which came from Field Trip, so historical markers and public art are the places that are the key points of interest that you interact with in Ingress and Pokémon Go. These things are all kind of built on one another.
KS: Field Trip was the first product ,correct?
Field Trip came out first. Then Ingress.
KS: You showed it off at the Presidio, if I remember. Correct? You were showing some markers there.
KS: Yeah, I think I went.
IF: And the story of how you went, as a company, from Ingress to Pokémon Go is kind of interesting. I assume you were looking for a way to take it mass market, but Pokémon started out as an April Fools joke, right?
It did. So Ingress was out and Ingress is about hit its 4 year anniversary. It’s still growing, it’s doing great. We were looking for the next project. Our goal has always been to create this platform for real-world games and have lots of stuff get built on top of it, so we were thinking about, “Well, what’s next? What’s going to introduce a wider set of people to this kind of technology?” And Pokémon was something that we were talking about internally. It’s obviously hugely beloved and popular gaming …
KS: But why Pokémon? That’s like saying The Brady Bunch. You know what I mean? It’s sort of like a thing that was popular when I was young, which was a very long time ago. But why Pokémon of all the different kind of retro things?
Well, it’s uniquely well suited to the kind of game that we’re doing. If you think about the lore of Pokémon, it’s about the trainer. This is depicted in the animation series and the video. The trainer goes out into the woods, goes out into the world, and searches for Pokémon. So it really is an augmented-reality game created originally as a video game. But that fiction translates perfectly into the kind of augmented-reality real-world game that we do. Where through your device, your phone today, maybe it’ll be some kind of glasses in the future, you’re seeing this fantastical world overlaid on the real one., and you see the Pokémon and you can capture them. It’s really exactly what’s depicted in the story of Pokémon. So we felt like it was a perfect match.
And around the same time, one of the engineers on the maps team, Tatsuo Nomura, who was onstage with me at Apple last week, had done an April Fool’s joke with the Pokémon company to mash up Pokémon on top of Google Maps. And we were like, “Wow, okay, we’re one step away from these guys, we can go talk to the Pokémon company and pitch them this idea.” And we did, and they liked it, and we started working on the project.
KS: Like how did you get in touch with them? Did you call? What was the reaction of the Pokémon people when you showed up?
Yeah, well, Tatsuo [Nomura], who was in touch with them, and one of the other members of my team, Masashi Kawashima, one of our designers, reached out and said, “Ingress, we’ve been working on, it’s out there, check it out. We had this idea about bringing it together with Pokémon.” And they were interested enough to have us meet with them. As it turns out, Google and Pokémon Company share office space in Roppongi Hills in Tokyo in the same building, so I flew over, we went a few floors down from the Google office to the Pokémon Company office and showed it to them.
By the time we had that conversation, Mr. Ishihara, who is the CEO of the Pokémon Company, was already a level 11 Ingress player, and his wife was an even higher level Ingress player than he was, and this is a man who’s older than I am, right? So he’s a gamer. And he just got it. He loved it and he was playing every day. And a number of other people in the Pokémon Company had been playing Ingress. When we pitched Ingress meets Pokémon as a project, they had essentially already come to the conclusion that it would be a cool thing.
KS: Were you within Google still or had you spun out?
This was still in Google.
KS: So why spin out? What was the thinking behind that?
Well, we had set it up with the support of Larry as a two-year project with a one-year extension. We had essentially hit the end of that, and we were at the point of deciding what to do next. We had contemplated, “well, at the end, it falls into some part of Google or it could spin out.” And it didn’t really seem to make sense to fold it into other parts of Google.
KS: Yeah, I don’t know where it would go.
Yeah. Android would have been the obvious place, because Android is mobile, but Android is also Android, and we’re cross-platform and something different. So the spin-out option seemed interesting, and we explored potential outside investors and, through the Pokémon Company and Nintendo, talked to them, and they were very interested in supporting it and being a closer partner through investing.
KS: So it’s just Google and Pokémon …
Well since then, Alsop Louie also has a small investment. But the big investors are Pokémon and Nintendo. And then we have a couple of angels who came in.
KS: And Google, correct?
And Google. Yeah.
KS: But you spin it out, and then … talk about what happened next.
Well, the spin-out didn’t happen just like that. Unfortunately, it was about a nine-month process. But once we got all the paperwork negotiated, that closed in October of last year …
KS: 2015 …
Uh-huh. A good portion of the team came with us, some people decided to stay at Google. Then we started hiring, building up the team a bit, continuing to work on Ingress and Pokémon Go, and basically just kind of getting ready for launch. So through the end of 2015 and into 2016, we were putting the finishing touches on the product, and then [we] rolled it out in early July.
IF: So Pokémon Go comes out. You certainly, I imagine, had some inkling that people might like it, but you can’t have imagined the types of downloads that you got and the initial interest.
If I did, it was in some sort of dream state. It was well beyond what we had planned in our [most] optimistic forecasts. I think it would have been irrational and irresponsible of us to predict that it would get picked up the way it did. It was just one of those things [where] it spread culturally, and thankfully Google was there to work with us on the server side.
IF: I was going to say, if you had known it was going to be that big you probably would have had a couple more servers ready.
It’s possible. The good thing about starting with Ingress and moving to Pokémon Go is that we built all the infrastructure at once and we learned what we did wrong, and we actually rebuilt all of it for Pokémon Go. So Ingress very much enabled Pokémon Go in that sense. And the technology was robust, and we were able to scale it. Google did lend a hand. In that first weekend when things were just crazy I emailed Sundar [Pichai, CEO of Google] and said, “Please send reinforcements, we need help.” And the cloud team came to the rescue, and we added a bunch of machines, and they helped us.
KS: They said, “No one’s using Google Plus, you can use those servers.”
KS: I’m teasing. That was my joke.
They were great. With their help, we were able to absorb that load. There were some outages, and it wasn’t perfect, but yeah, we were able to ramp up and let all these people come in and play Pokémon.
IF: What is your thought in terms of how the stickiness has been? The spend has to be pretty good; people spend more time and money in Pokémon Go than — any other game? I don’t know. Certainly per user.
Do you know? Comparatively? Is there a game that compares?
It does great in terms of retention and monetization. It probably, on a per-user basis, doesn’t monetize as high as some of the most aggressive games, because we don’t turn the knobs up on the in-app purchases the way that some products do. We’re trying to be more user-friendly, I guess, in that sense. But it monetizes well, and yeah, it’s good. It was a huge mass of downloads that came, and it’s continuing to hold strong, and the users are playing, and we’re rolling out new features, and …
IF: When you say “monetizes well,” you’re being humble. The estimates are 500 million so far, it should hit a billion before the end of the year. Is that something you could have envisioned?
That was not in our plan, no. Actually, the number of monthly active users is how we model things in our plan. The peak that we hit in our plan four years out is a fraction of where we are.
KS: So how do you manage that? First you got, “Wow, it’s a phenomenon,” then stupid people are getting into accidents because they’re doing Pokémon Go, that whole spate of stories. And then you “it’s blocked up, people can’t get in it.” And then it’s “people aren’t using it as much.” Talk about each of these moments. It seemed like it happened over a weekend for some reason.
It’s been interesting for that all to play out in a such a compressed period of time. I mean, I never saw a press interaction quite like this, where everything has been written about from every possible angle. The way that it took off initially, it did happen extremely quickly. I was actually in Japan for an Ingress event. The biggest event we’ve ever had for Ingress, over 10,000 people coming together there. We had launched in the U.S. and Australia, and I took off for that, and my wife’s sending me stories, “Jimmy Fallon’s talking about Pokémon Go,” and “Colbert Report is talking about Pokémon Go.” It just permeated pop culture, professional athletes were tweeting pictures of themselves with Pokémon. That was the unpredictable thing, the way it insinuated itself into pop culture and [that] just exploded the number of people who came into the pipeline. And we did have a couple of outages scaling up, we had some folks trying to hack us. We had to make some adjustments to the server to deal with people trying to hack their location and things like that. And all that was played out. There were hackers that were unhappy on Reddit that we were blocking their hacking attempts.
KS: Hackers are that way.
Hackers can be that way. So all of that got echoed through mainstream media. And then the Olympics happened and kind of took off. We launched in Brazil right as the Olympics were starting. That whole press cycle happened. It has raised a lot of issues about public space and what it means to mix this alternate-reality experience and public space. The number of users surprised us, some of the crowds that showed up at parks and places like that. Had we thought that the numbers would be that large, there are things that we could have done to try and ameliorate that a little bit.
KS: Or take advantage of.
IF: So how does it work with either people that like the attention, or [people that] don’t. You have two different things: You have people like the Holocaust Museum saying, “Hey, please don’t, this isn’t that kind of space,” and then you have businesses and other people saying, “We’d love to be a PokéStop,” or not. How do you guys handle both the people that want to get off the grid, if you will, they want to not be a PokéStop, as well as the business interest. You have a big deal with McDonald’s, but I’m sure everyone and their coffee-shop mother is trying to knock on your door.
KS: Yeah, there was one in my bedroom, just so you know, I don’t know why. There was some animal in there …
You know, it’s historical landmarks. You have to really go back to the origins of Niantic to really understand where the PokéStops and Gyms are located. As I said, many of them came from Field Trip, historical markers are one of the data sets that we use to locate these things. And then for Ingress we were thinking about how to expand this set of interesting places that are public, that are visually recognizable, that are safe places for people to be at. So we crowdsourced that. Ingress players were able to submit their local landmarks that they thought were cool. It could be a statue in a park, it could be an interesting historical home, a museum-type location. It could be a unique local business. So that data set got created and refined over three years of Ingress. Then, a subset of that was used to populate Pokémon Go. But the goal there was to encourage people to visit places in their town or community that are culturally interesting, that are just kind of fun places to check out, cool local landmarks, kind of a hidden gym. There’s a historical plaque about Mark Twain tucked away in the corner of the park in the community where I live, and it’s an Ingress portal. So to lead people into these little cool places in their neighborhoods …
KS: And also just walk. Because my kids just like try to get the numbers in. They walk around hotel hallways for a long time. And I was like, “All right, go right ahead.”
You can hatch a Pokémon egg.
So those are the places that populated Ingress, and then that were carried over into Pokémon Go. And we have a limited number of commercial sponsors in Ingress, and then in Pokémon Go, we have McDonald’s in Japan. We do have that as a part of the game and we’re experimenting with that. It complements the in-app purchase revenue and allows us not be as aggressive with in-app purchases, for example, by having that. And we’ll be cautiously exploring that. We don’t want to have too many commercial locations in the game because the original spirit of it was get out and discover these interesting …
KS: Which Google Maps didn’t do, didn’t the way others did. You know, Mapquest had a lot of commercials.
It’s true. If there’s one thing we learned from Google, it’s [to] go light on the ads.
IF: And what about in rural areas? The game is really popular, I play it in San Francisco, where I live, but I was also just in Miami, there’s great locations. But when I go to visit my parents, who live an hour and a half north of here, it’s kind of a wasteland. And I wonder, should there be a way for people to add PokéStops or do something other than buy a million incense or lures?
Did you try to play where your parents live?
It’s interesting, because I grew up in a small town out in west Texas, and one of the design goals for Ingress and for Pokémon Go is for the games to be fun and playable in big concentrated urban areas like San Francisco, but also in small towns. So we use libraries …
IF: A lot of churches …
… museums, churches, murals are all valid locations for within Ingress, when they were originally submitted. So the goal was for it to be playable in small towns, and I’ve played in a ton of small towns across the U.S., going to Ingress events and also Pokémon Go, so it may not be everywhere, but we did try to accommodate for that.
We don’t currently accept submissions for new locations. We stopped that about a year ago because we had 15 million submissions and we thought we had pretty reasonable coverage. But our intent is to open that back up to allow submissions of new places Pokémon Go has penetrated to. I was looking at requests from players to add PokéStops in these far reaches of Brazil. Like up near the Amazon, looking at some of these towns. And there are places where there aren’t enough game locations, so we will open that back up.
KS: One of our editors at one of our other publications was wondering how it feels to have a really passion-driven, complex, conceptually sophisticated product like Ingress be massively overshadowed by something, she said, simpler and fluffier. How does that feel?
Well, I love Ingress, we all have loved it, we’ve worked on it. The community is amazing, continues to play and bring more people into the game. We have events around the world monthly for Ingress, so it’s going strong. It’s wonderful, actually, to see more people appreciate the characteristics of Ingress which we designed into it and hoped people would enjoy. And that’s this incentive to get outside and be active and the pleasure that comes from that, just from taking a short walk every day motivated by a game. The discovery of interesting places in your city that you didn’t know about, a park that you didn’t know about or an interesting historical site in your city that you didn’t know about.
And then the social aspect of it, which are real social interactions. It’s going out with your kids and playing together as a family, it’s going out with your friends and playing as a group. Or banding together with an even larger group of people and going out in Ingress to capture a portal or in Pokémon to go compete at a gym. So those are all appreciated by the Ingress community, and I think it’s generally positive things, so we’re really gratified to see this even bigger audience …
KS: But those adorkable Pokémon characters seem to win. Like all over the place. Correct?
Well, they’re helping spread this type of game which is good.
IF: I’m curious [about] the social aspect. Because usually, when we talk about social gaming, we’re talking about interactions within the game. And most of the social interaction around Pokémon Go is people playing the game and talking to each other, or running into other people playing the game. The social happens outside the game. And I’m curious, do you think that’s a good thing? Does it need more social in the game? Should my partner and I go play — we play, but there’s nothing we’re doing together other than we actually happen to be out together and one of us is trying to make sure our three-year-old isn’t running away while we’re playing Pokémon. But does there need to be more social interaction in the game?
It’s different than a normal mobile game in the sense that your chat window can be you talking to the people that you’re playing with, and the discovery mechanism for finding other people that are playing the game [is] looking up at the fountain in the park and seeing the twelve other people that are also playing Pokémon Go there. A lot of it is designing a game that people can play socially together and have fun together, so there are cooperative elements to it.
In Pokémon Go, for example, if you and I are out walking together, we’ll see the same Pokémon. I was out walking the dog with my son yesterday, and it’s like, “Oh there’s a Psyduck,” and we can both go capture it together, because we have this shared alternate reality that we’re both seeing through those devices. So we think about social as designing a game that is fun for people to do together in real life, and there’s another layer to it in Ingress — we’re just beginning to see elements of it in Pokémon Go today, but you’ll see more in the future — where there are game design features that encourage people in groups who may live even in different cities or maybe even live hundreds of thousands of miles away to cooperate.
In Ingress, the game is about connecting portals with a link from one place to another, and [when you] connect three of them, you create a control field. You can think about a giant map of the world and two teams are trying to create these control fields. To create those links, you have to have a key from this distant city in the place where you’re creating the link from. That means, if I want to create a link from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I have to know somebody in Los Angeles and arrange to meet them somewhere, or if they’re flying up to San Francisco they may drop off some keys and give them to somebody, and they may be transferred because you can’t email them, you can only physically transfer these things. Basically, the game design means that to be successful, you have to be part of a team, you have to work with people locally, and you have to know players in other cities, and then that expands globally. In Europe, people in Germany and Russia and the U.K. and Italy are all cooperating together to…
KS: And this is in Ingress. What about in Pokémon Go?
In Pokémon Go, there’s the concept of gems. If there are three teams in Pokémon Go and the three teams are competing over the gems, you can actually challenge a gym much more effectively if you come with a group of people. So a group of people can all simultaneously attack the gym together. So you really want to get your Team Mystic buddies together and come and attack cooperatively.
IF: What about things like trading or battling your friends directly, are those things we’re likely to see, or [are they] really [not] part of the spirit of what you have in mind?
No, those are great social activities, and we’ve said in the past that trading is coming, and player-versus-player battling is something that we talk a lot about internally, and I think it very much is within the spirit of Pokémon Go. So it’s possible you’ll see that as well.
KS: And what about events around Pokémon Go? You have them around Ingress, but you know, releasing these legendary Pokémons at big events. Is that speculation or is it something …
The events in Ingress have been really the lifeblood of the game.
KS: That’s what I mean, yeah.
And we do have those events, we have them two out of three months of every quarter, and we’ll usually have one in Asia, one in Europe and one in the U.S. on a single weekend. It’s a 24-hour, massive global thing.
KS: So what about Pokémon Go? Because there’s spontaneous events, but not…
There was a 9,000 person Poke walk in San Francisco.
ID: Yeah, that was my introduction to the game. I’d been on vacation for a week, I come back, I’d read a little bit about it but I was trying to stay offline. Someone said, “There’s a Pokémon pub crawl,” I went around and I was hooked ever since.
KS: So what about you all doing [something] like releasing these legendary…
There have been big events around the world. [At the] Sydney Opera House there was a big one, and I think we probably will. That was the original intent. We had this learning from Ingress that they’re really fun and they’re great ways to energize a community, it’s a great way to retain your players over time, keep them interested in the game. We simply haven’t done it so far. Well, it’s only been two months since the launch.
KS: Yeah, hurry up John.
And the crowds have been big, so yeah, we want to make sure that if we go out on an event, that we can adequately handle the number of people who would show up.
KS: What would that look like? What example could you give?
I think you could look at an Ingress event as a template in general. With Ingress, the two teams compete over a four-hour period, typically the area that you’re playing in is around a 3 kilometer walk that you’re moving through during the day.
When we have an Ingress event people typically come in on Friday night, Saturday morning they’re meeting, planning their strategy for the day with the rest of the team, then there’s four hours of game play, and then there’s a big event at the end where we announce the winners. And then, typically, [there are] lots of after parties arranged by the teams themselves where people continue to …. It’s sort of like a college football weekend, but organized around a game.
I think it’ll be a bit different with Pokémon Go, it’s a different game, but [it still has] the idea of having people coming together, having an event that moves you through an interesting part of the city so it’s part walking tour, part competition, and then having a big get-together at the end where we’re announcing winners [and] leaderboards. Typically, with an Ingress event there’s kind of a fair-like setting, where people are selling various kinds of swag…
KS: So: To come.
Yes, to come. I can’t give you an exact date but it’s in our future.
IF: And on the more immediate horizon, there [are] a couple things coming on the hardware side. One is this attachment, I’m holding one here. It’s a very simple attachment that’s designed so that I can keep my phone in my pocket, which is good, I won’t be walking into as many people. But it does seem to like take away a little of the excitement and skill. You’re just pushing a button when it lights up. Talk about the thinking about this attachment.
KS: This is a little device, can you describe it?
IF: It’s like a little dongle, it’s Bluetooth.
KS: It looks like a Google Map drop.
IF: It does look like a Google Map drop. And this is like a $30 Bluetooth attachment, basically. What’s the thinking behind that, and why this attachment?
From the very beginning, our games are about wanting to encourage people to get outside and see interesting places. So [we have] mixed feelings about people looking at their screen when we’re trying to lead them out into the park, where they can see the beautiful statue and trees and nature. We’re always looking for ways to combine game play with either good design on the part of the software and the client, or other devices that let you play more with heads up, so you can talk to the people around you, you can take in the amazing sights around you.
Maybe, at some point in the future, there will be augmented-reality glasses which overlay Pokémon and other things over things, seamlessly in our environment, but those don’t exist yet. So we’re looking for those interim steps where you can have some heads-up gameplay. It’s not designed to completely replace playing on your phone. You want to see those Pokémon, you want to organize them, you may want to go out and capture them using your phone at times. But there are other times when you may just want to collect some items or maybe even just collect some Pokémon as part of a daily walk.
KS: Maybe you’ll bring back Google Glass somehow, like a reason for it. Everyone always insults Google Glass, including myself, but conceptually and directionally it is a correct direction, this heads-up display. The device itself wasn’t quite right for lots of reasons.
It was really early, and it wasn’t true augmented reality, when people talk about AR and heads-up displays being different. It was more a heads-up display, but it is the direction that I think is far more interesting and promising for technology and really for humanity than VR, for example. Because in a VR situation, you’re isolating yourself from everything around you and entering this completely virtual space. AR is designed to enhance, the things you do as a human being — being outside, socializing with other people, shopping, playing, having fun. AR can make all those things better, and I think when we eventually get there, the technology’s significantly more challenging than VR because of the need to register reality and what you’re overlaying on it. People like Magic Leap and Project Tango at Google and Microsoft HoloLens are working on solving those problems. And I think the opportunity there is a really big one, not only for gaming, but it will be the next big transformative step in technology I think.
KS: So let’s finish up by talking about engagement. There [have] been so many games, and my kids have played all of them. The only one that sticks with them is Minecraft, which is really interesting. But you know, there was something with vampires, there were all the games that Zynga did, the Farmvilles …
Angry Birds. They go up, and then they go down. How do you keep it — events [are] one way to keep it up, but how do you — do you just introduce newer and newer games? How do you keep a phenomenon like Pokémon Go? It’s almost inevitable, you’re never going to … the expectations are going to be too high for you. Talk a little bit about that, and what’s happened to the user base, and how you get new users into the game.
The type of game that we decided to spend our time building, originally with Ingress and now with Pokémon Go, the choice was very deliberate to build something that people in the gaming industry refer to as an MMO, or massively multiplayer online game. This would be a relative to something to something like World of Warcraft for PC games. The distinguishing characteristic of MMOs is that they’re as much about the community of players as they are about the content of the game. A stand-alone single-player video game is typically about the user consuming content. So screens, characters, level, you progress through it, the game has so much stuff in it, and ultimately, when you exhaust the stuff, you’re done with the game and you move on. MMOs, World of Warcraft being a perfect example — a ten year life span at this point? — the communities form, in that type of game they’re called guilds.
Ingress has the two factions. Pokémon Go has three teams. And once you begin to play together cooperatively with a group of people, it’s much like a softball game. You might get together with a group of people after work and go play softball, and then you have food and drinks afterwards. It’s an excuse to socialize together. Softball, you don’t stop playing softball, right? Bowling leagues, I would imagine there was a similar driver around that.
MMOs have that characteristic of it being about spending time with friends and people that you’ve met. And the old style MMOs, it was virtual. So you were spending time with avatars online. The new version with Ingress and Pokémon Go is, you’re spending time with real people. It might be your family members, it might be your friends, it might be people that you’ve befriended through playing the game. But those relationships are real, and it’s fun, and the game is a catalyst for just hanging out and going places and spending time together. That doesn’t get old.
KS: So you wouldn’t compare it to an Angry Bird.
I wouldn’t. It’s just a different type of game. And history would bear that out with desktop gaming. Ingress is about to hit its four-year mark and is bigger than ever. Pokémon Go will be around in four years. There was this initial surge of downloads because of the sort of pop culture explosion that’s now stabilizing, and we’re off to build the foundation of the game.
KS: And bringing new players in? Some people say the longer you’ve been in, the more benefits you have, and you’re stronger or various things. How do you onboard a lot of new people in this if they feel like they’re behind in the development of it?
It’s just good game design and game balancing. With Pokémon Go, it’s actually a pretty nice experience because your initial flow into the game is about capturing Pokémon. It starts out as more of a single-player experience, where you’re fighting Pokémon in your neighborhood and gradually accumulating more and more and you learn how to level them up and evolve them. And then you get to the team competition through gyms, and that’s where level and experience starts to come into play.
But that initial experience, as a new player, you can be oblivious to the fact [that] there may be some super high level in your neighborhood. It’s not going to inhibit your ability to have fun, it’s just sort of happening over there. And you get to figure out what’s fun about the game, and once you get to the point where you want to join in with that bigger community, then you’ll be leveled up enough [to] where that’s possible without any big issues.
IF: One of the things about it, it’s a fairly resource-intensive game in a lot of ways, one of which is battery life. I mean, you’ve single-handedly given a huge boost to the battery-pack industry. You can tell somebody’s playing because they’re powering up their phone. How high is making it less resource intensive on your list, and what’s kind of top on your priority list in terms of how you make it more appealing for people to stay with the game?
There’s a couple of questions there. In terms of resource usage, we do take full advantage of almost everything that the phone does. We’re using GPS, we’re using 3-D graphics on the phone, we’re using the network to send data back and forth. So we’re really putting a lot of stress on that device, and we do want to make it as power-efficient as possible. You do see people playing with external battery packs. We’re going to try to continue to tune and optimize that. One of the ways that we’re really interested in doing that is enabling you to do certain things in the game with the screen off. If you want to accumulate kilometers to hatch your eggs, or if your kids do. You don’t necessarily need to have the screen on and running.
KS: No they need to stare at it and look down at their feet the entire time.
KS: Of course they don’t! What do you think I yell as I stand behind them? “Stop it!”
But yeah, the Pokémon Go Plus device which we were talking about earlier is a way to do that. So you can accumulate items and your phone is not rendering 3-D the whole time. If you do want to stop and see the Pokémon and capture it, you can do that, but out of a gameplay session, if you’re out for 45 minutes, it may be that you only have the screen on and looking at it 15 minutes out of that 45 minutes, or an hour instead of the whole time, as you are today. And then the Apple Watch. Which I think is a fantastic complement.
KS: You were just onstage at the Apple event. Explain how people play Pokémon using that.
Yeah, we announced it last week, and it functions in a way that’s similar to the Pokémon Go Plus. It’s a companion device, on your watch, you can see if you’re near a PokéStop. If you’re walking next to a historical site that’s a PokéStop, it shows up there. You can actually flick on the Apple Watch, they have this really awesome 3-D engine on the Watch now, and you can see the graphics, you can see the items coming out. If you pass near a Pokémon, [there’s an] alert on your watch, you know it’s there. You can then take your phone out and capture it in full graphical glory if you want to. But to the point I was making earlier, if you’re going out every day and you’re like, “Now I’m in the habit, I’m going to do this 40 minute walk everyday and Pokémon is the thing I do to help me motivate me to do that,” a lot of that can happen without looking at your phone, without consuming the maximum resources.
KS: Yeah, Ina’s wearing a watch because of it.
IF: Yeah, I’ve played around with the Apple Watch, but there was nothing to keep me wearing it every day. And when you were on stage [introducing Pokémon for Apple Watch], I was like, “Yeah, I can see that.” Partly because I have my phone out constantly, playing.
KS: Yeah, I offered her my watch because I find it useless, but in any case …
A lot of people weave these kinds of games in and out of their daily routine. You may be commuting, you might be waiting on a bus, hopping on a ferry. There are these little moments of downtime, and the game really fits in nicely into those. You can harvest items and look for Pokémon at the various stages of your commute. That’s what I do in the mornings. I bike, for example, and I’m really looking forward to having the new Apple Watch. It looks like a really nice piece of hardware.
KS: It has water-emitting speakers, just so you know. It’s pretty damn cool.
It is. But yeah, I think it’s a great complement to games like this. So you can play in little bitty doses during the day, but if you ever want to go in and look through your Pokédex and see all your Pokémon and do the more intricate things of the UI, you can always shift over to that if you want to.
KS: So, last question: Obviously, you’ve gotten a huge amount of media attention, and the media [has a] mentality that’s shorter than a gnat’s memory. Something like that. They just move on. They like want to declare victory and then disaster. But really, what’s next? Do you have to create new games, or can you just keep developing this one? What are you working on? What’s your next game? What have you done for us lately, John, is really my question.
Well, we’ve just launched buddies for Pokémon, that’s what I did for you very, very recently. So you can pick a buddy Pokémon and walk with it and earn candy by walking with your buddy Pokémon. As I said earlier, Pokémon Go is a game that we think will be around for years. We are investing in features that you’ll see, some in weeks, some in months down the road. Some of the things that we touched on earlier, possibly, would be among those features. So a lot of the company is focused on Pokémon Go and will be indefinitely adding to, extending the game.
KS: Sorry, how many people there? 60?
We’re about 70 full-time people.
KS: 70. Small. It’s amazing.
And we’ve launched the first-generation Pokémon. The Pokémon fans out there will know that there are over 700 Pokémon total. So new waves of Pokémon [will] appear in the future. And Ingress, we are continuing to also invest in that. There will be an Ingress 2.0 at some point in the future. And beyond that I can’t say, except that our platform has gotten the attention of a lot of people with interesting ideas for games that they want to build.
KS: Powerpuff Girls, I don’t know …
There will be other games!
IF: Would you want to do them all yourselves, or do you see opening up so that other people [who] have a great idea can build on top of what you’ve done?
More the latter. I mean, we will be working closely with these people, because the technology is something that we probably know better than anyone else on the server side in terms of how to make it work. But yeah, games are an interesting thing. I mean you can’t sort of corner the market on creativity, so there’s a lot of great ideas out there, great teams out there. Our goal is to enable them with our unique real-world technology and the data, but to really let other people with great vision drive those projects forward and add to what we’ve done. Not to just copy the mechanics of Ingress or Pokémon Go, but to take that even further and add new elements to it. We’re hearing some really interesting things from people that have come to us. And I think that there’s a lot of room for this genre of games to continue to grow.
KS: What’s the weirdest thing perhaps you might not do?
The weirdest thing that we won’t do? I don’t know.
KS: You don’t know? You don’t want to tell me. Powerpuff Girls. I’m telling you, I’m telling you. There’s so many things. Angry Bird Go. You could save that company.
There probably won’t be an Angry Bird Go, I can say that.
KS: Okay, all right. Well, John Hanke, thank you so much for coming, it’s really — how do you feel? This big success like this. How does that …
KS: Sick to your stomach?
Like you do after a hard day of snowboarding or biking. We’re exhausted, but elated. It’s been so much fun to see people enjoy the thing that we worked so hard on and to hear the stories that people are getting outside, spending time with their family, going to new places. That’s very energizing to us. It’s been a busy two months, so we’re now happy that we’re kind of stabilized and we’re able to be a little more thoughtful about the next set of features that we want to build.
KS: Well, thank you so much, and thank you to Ina Fried for helping me here. She’s playing Pokémon right now as we speak.
IF: Excellent. I’m almost to level 29.
KS: I have no idea what that means.
KS: But my kids will. In any case, thank you, John, for coming in, and we’ll see what happens next.
Awesome, thank you.