Success and Server Distress: Discussing ‘Pokémon Go’ with Niantic’s John Hanke
The hit app of 2016 is far from finished, with new features in the pipeline. But its maker's CEO is all about going live.
However you look at it, Pokémon Go is a phenomenon. The app, which launched on July 6th 2016, shattered records left and right. At the very end of January 2017, it was reported that it'd broken $1 billion in worldwide gross revenue—making it the quickest mobile game to pass that astonishing threshold.
Pokémon Go has also proven to Nintendo that mobile success can seriously impact its bottom line, in multiple ways. November 2016's Pokémon Sun and Moon for the 3DS were huge hits, selling 13 million units worldwide, while its 4.5 million copies sold in the US made it the territory's fastest-selling Nintendo game of all time. Nintendo credited Pokémon Go as a major reason for said success. And like it even needs saying, Pokémon Go has also been a beautiful boon for the app's developer, Niantic.
But from outside the San Francisco-based company's office, there's nothing to mark that this is where Pokémon Go was born. There's no signage of any kind, in fact, pointing you to the home of the creators of one of the biggest mobile games ever.
It isn't until you're inside the office that Niantic comes into view, courtesy of a big street sign bearing the company name, sitting behind a plush Pikachu. Blown-up prints of articles from the likes of The Huffington Post, The Washington Post and Kotaku line the wall.
And despite the replica TARDIS in the office, Niantic's HQ is a far cry from Comic-Con, where, last July, the company's CEO John Hanke took a walk only to notice that something like 75 percent of people he saw were playing Pokémon Go. Surrounded though he was by stalls selling Pokémon merchandise, and people dressed as characters from the franchise, the weirdest thing was seeing all of those phones out, their owners on the prowl for new pocket monsters.
Hanke's more relaxed now, several months later, dressed casually on home turf. I sit down with him in Niantic's meeting room, a plush Squirtle resting on a nearby couch. Hanke has been the captain of this ship (an apt metaphor given the company name's inspiration) since its days as a start-up within Google, steering it through its first game—Ingress, essentially Pokémon Go's older brother, using a similar augmented reality (AR) interface—and on towards the top of the mobile charts. Nowadays, Niantic employs just under 100 people, but has the welcoming atmosphere of a smaller operation.
Getting the opportunity to make a Pokémon game in the West was a big deal to Niantic, that much was true from the start. "It's sort of like when the big studio picks the indie director, you know, to do the next Avengers movie or something," Hanke says. "And, of course, you feel lucky."
"It became clear to us that this was a really precious thing. We came to realize, too, what a rare opportunity we'd been afforded." — Niantic CEO John Hanke
Pokémon Go was an idea that Niantic pitched to The Pokémon Company with no guarantee of a green light. But discussions were soon going back and forth, between Japan and the States. A firm direction took shape. The Pokémon Company, ultimately agreeing with Hanke that this AR approach was "a really fresh perspective on the world, and the franchise," provided detailed feedback, from how each creature looked to how the lighting looked in the user interface.
"It became clear to us that this was a really precious thing," Hanke recalls. "We came to realize, too, what a rare opportunity we'd been afforded. I mean, anytime you get to sort of rub shoulders with (Nintendo's influential designer Shigeru) Miyamoto… Nintendo is sort of the birthplace in a lot of ways for modern video games, so for us that association was just, wow."
Nintendo owns around a third of The Pokémon Company, hence the connection—and why, when Pokémon Go rapidly rose up the charts on release, the famous Japanese developer's share price did too. Hanke's expectations for Niantic's new project weren't exactly modest—name-checking League of Legends as an example of what he wanted to build, he explains that the hope was always for a game with a massive following, but longevity too. Yet the speed of Pokémon Go's success took everyone by surprise.
"I'd liken it to being on a rollercoaster," Hanke says. "And we weren't completely sure that we weren't going to fall out."
Post-launch bumps kept expectations in check, with performance issues initially plaguing the app. User numbers, too, were causing unexpected, but sort of welcome problems. There were simply way more people playing Pokémon Go than Niantic had planned for. The company's projection was 50 million active users per month, accumulated through steady growth, over a period of time. After three days however, it'd been downloaded 5.6 million times, and passed 100 million downloads after only 30 days.
The Niantic team did what it needed to in order to keep the game functioning, the servers running, focusing on the performance and not the hype—albeit not without noticeable frustration from users. The remarkable number of them though, while reached rapidly, wasn't totally unexpected. Ingress was, as Hanke says, a success "in the clubs, you know, and people liked the music [we were playing], so it wasn't like we had no notion this could go big." Pokémon Go was never likely to be a difficult second album, as it had something Ingress definitely lacked: an abundance of brand power.
And that brand power, the recognition of Pokémon across generations, saw both Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert talking about Niantic's game. If Pokémon Go had impressed upon that standard of television programming, shows that reached millions of homes, there could be no doubt that it was absolutely mainstream.
"The priority for Pokémon Go now is to build in features that reward co-operative gameplay, offering more depth than just the capturing mechanic." — John Hanke
But that was then. In 2017, Pokémon Go isn't riding so high in the app stores, such is the turnover of new products in those spaces. In December 2016, the number of daily users in the UK had fallen from a peak of 1.7 million to 53,000. Hanke himself feels that the app has only somewhat reached Niantic's original vision for it.
"It has far surpassed our expectations in just turning everybody onto the potential for games that break out of the screen," he says. "But the priority for Pokémon Go now is to build in those things that reward co-operative gameplay, and make experiences available that offer more depth than just the capturing mechanic."
Hanke says that some new features will be launched soon in "an abbreviated form", with Niantic still working on more complete versions. The company also wants to hold events for the game, on a global scale, although it can be argued that users rather beat them to the punch.
"I'd never seen spontaneous, user-created events on that scale before," Hanke says, referring to the numerous gatherings of Pokémon Go users across the world, around and soon after its launch. They happened in parks and city centers, schools and shopping malls.
The Sydney Opera House was flooded by thousands of players, assembling in pursuit of rare Pokémon. Justin Bieber got caught up in the fever while in New York, joining a large group of players near Central Park, most of whom were too busy staring at their screens to notice the pop star in their ranks. At Comic-Con 2016, Niantic's panel moved from a small room to the San Diego Convention Center's massive Hall H.
Servers continued to struggle as millions went out chasing Pokémon; but Hanke stresses that launching in the summer of 2016, before every feature was truly ready, was "probably the right thing to do." But the patching and bug-fixing of those first few months did stall the work on other parts of the app that Niantic had considered essential—and still does.
These include monster trading and player-versus-player battles. These are on the way, says Hanke, who adds that if the servers hadn't been so sketchy at launch, at least one of them would already be out there, likewise a gym battle system, supplementing what he feels is a "rudimentary" version of the game they envisioned.
"It's going to be done soon," he says. "It is what it is. I'll take the massive wave of hysteria we enjoyed, and just deal with the fact that it's caused us to take a bit longer to get the rest of the features up. We're really happy to make our users happy."
"My heart is really with events, and that's something I want us to solve in 2017. It's complicated, though, to do them at the scale that Pokémon Go demands." — John Hanke
And while those user numbers have declined, Niantic is planning ways to bring all-new players to the app—on its own terms, too. "Last year has funded us, you know, indefinitely, really," Hanke says. What won't be featuring in Pokémon Go (again), however, is its original tracker.
"The tracker sort of fills a certain need within the product. I think the more interesting thing for me is not extending the tracker, but basically making the world richer and adding more ways to interact with new kinds of things in the world."
With Pokémon Go established as the preeminent title people think of when you say "augmented reality"—and Hanke foresees that being the case for several years and platforms to come—and generation two Pokémon coming to the game, it's not about to fade away. And Hanke really is determined to make the social side of Niantic's creation all the more visible in the months ahead.
"My heart is really with events, and that's something I really want us to try to solve in 2017," he concludes. "It's complicated, though, to do them at the scale that Pokémon Go demands. But, to me, that would be the best demonstration of the vision of this company, which is all about playing games together, outside, with other people."