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Niantic on Pokemon Go – origins, big audience potential, Plus device, more

Posted on December 16, 2015 by (@NE_Brian) in General Nintendo, Mobile, News

Earlier today, GamesBeat went live with a new Niantic interview. The site spoke with chief executive John Hanke as well as chief marketing officer Mike Quigley.

Pokemon Go was, as one would expect, a pretty big part of the interview. Between Hanke and Quigley, they discussed its origins and having Nintendo on board, how the game could reach a massive audience, and the Pokemon Go Plus device the Big N is making. There are also comments about things like how Niantic wants players to be able to participate no matter how small their area is in terms of population.

Head past the break for a roundup of Hanke and Quigley’s remarks. For the original interview, visit this page.

On how Pokemon Go developed since it’s an unusual thing for Nintendo to do, and they rarely collaborate to this degree with companies in the west…

Hanke: It was driven in large part by Mr. Ishihara and the Pokémon Company. They’ve been involved in developing all the Pokémon games through the years. They guide the IP. But a lot of what they do is through partnerships. They partnered initially with Wizards of the Coast to bring out the Pokémon card game, which has now sold something like 21 billion cards. They have animation partners who do the TV show. They’re a partnering type of company. Mr. Ishihara ushered us into the halls at Nintendo.

The former CEO of Nintendo, Mr. Iwata, had his hand on the wheel. He was steering Nintendo in a new direction. Part of that was the partnership with DeNA, the mobile game company. They have new hardware in the pipeline that they’ve been working on. He saw the need and personally wanted to help evolve Nintendo. They resisted mobile for a long time. But it’s clear their relationships with us and with DeNA that they now understand how relevant it is to the future.

Mr. Ishihara is now a very high-level Ingress player. His wife is an Ingress player. Both of them were higher-level than me when I first met them. It was great to work with a partner that got it from the beginning. They saw Ingress as a perfect match for Pokémon. We were practically finishing each other’s sentences. Ingress, you conquer portals. Pokemon, obviously, you’d go out into the real world and find Pokemon and battle them against other players and trade them and go to gyms. That’s how it’s going to work. Let’s do it.

It wasn’t totally accidental. Google had worked with Pokémon on a Google Maps mashup for April Fool’s three years ago. We had some experience building a mini-product with them. We actually used the same company to do the launch video for Pokémon Go as worked on the April Fool’s video.

Mike Quigley: After an Ingress event in Japan, the Pokémon Company guys went out to dinner and drinks with us. All Mr. Masuda wanted to do was bend our ears and talk about Ingress features. He and John were practically having a game design meeting.

Hanke: He advises us on game design for Pokémon and helps make sure that we keep true to the franchise, the history of all the handheld games they’ve done. They’re so excited about this as a new version of the game that’s never been done before. It’s not like it’s just another rev of the handheld game. This is a Pokémon experience that’s brand new, and yet it goes back to the very origin of the franchise. It’s about a kid who goes out in the world and finds Pokémon. If you strip away a lot of the complexity and stuff that’s been added on, it’s the most basic expression of that concept.

On how they want Pokemon Go to be fun to play no matter how populated your area…

Hanke: We’ve learned a lot on those fronts with Ingress. Even if you’re in a small town — I grew up in a town of 1,000 people in Texas. We had that as a design goal. If we’re going to build a game that works with location, it has to be fun for people anywhere to play, in small towns as well as San Francisco. If we designed something that only worked in San Francisco, it wouldn’t be a real success. We wanted it to work globally.

You do things like enabling asynchronous play. If someone passes through that town on a trip to somewhere else, they interact with the locations there. That makes the place feel alive, even if you didn’t match with them head-to-head. The linking game in Ingress, where you link from one city to another to form big fields, means that what people might be doing in very small, remote locations is still critical to the global game. We’ll find that a town in rural Mississippi all of a sudden has a global spotlight on it because it’s an anchor for one of these big fields.

There’s an incentive for teams to find obscure places to anchor their portals, in fact. There are fewer attackers on the other team to take them out. It’s a defense, like security through obscurity. You try to grab something that’s far away from everywhere else. That means, at that point in time, that people playing in that area all of a sudden are on the global stage.

This idea of moving keys around — you get a key from a portal. You need the key to make a link. People are ferrying these around like they’re muling drugs. They’re transporting them from person to person. That means, if you want to get them from New York to San Francisco, they may transit several places in between. It stitches the whole world together into the global game.

I feel like we’ve learned a lot of lessons from Ingress that we’ll bring to Pokémon. We’ll make sure you can play it everywhere.

On the distribution of items and other elements in the game…

Hanke: Our goal is to make it so you can walk out of the house and within five minutes, you can find Pokémon. It may not be the most rare Pokémon in the world, but there’ll be a population of Pokémon living near all our players. Gems will be a bit more rare. You want to find gems so you can level up your Pokémon and battle there, so it will take a little more effort to get there.

Pokémon will live in different parts of the world depending on what type of Pokémon they are. Water Pokémon will live near the water. It may be that certain Pokémon will only exist in certain parts of the world. Very rare Pokémon may exist in very few places. But you can trade. If you live in a place with lots of water Pokémon and you come to an event — we have these Ingress events that are getting bigger and bigger. We’ll have our biggest weekend ever on Saturday.

We’ll have events for Pokémon as well. Those are competitive, but they can also be places to trade stuff with other players. Pokémon trading is going to be huge. You can’t get all of them by yourself. If you want all of them you’ll have to trade with other players. Or you have to be someone who takes time off work and travels the world for a year. There may be people who do that.

On how Pokemon Go will be available to a huge audience…

And there are markets where they don’t even sell Nintendo hardware, because the price point and distribution doesn’t work out – India, for example, or Brazil – but there’s surging smartphone usage. We see Ingress players in India, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Malaysia. Pokémon may be known through the animation or the cards, but people haven’t had the chance to play the games before. They’ll be able to play the games for the first time. It builds on Ingress, but it’s a much bigger opportunity.

On how Nintendo is racing into mobile and have their own dedicated hardware…

Hanke: It’s a nice way to take a step in the mobile ecosystem for them. That came out of two influences. One was a learning from Ingress. We wanted to give people a way to play the game where you didn’t necessarily have to take your phone out and interact with the UX. Part of the idea of the game is, you’re outside and you can see beautiful things. If you’re always staring at your phone, you’re not seeing the world around you.

We had brainstormed this idea. Why not have a little device that buzzes when you’re near something important? You can interact with it in some subtle way, and then later on you can open up your app or your tablet and you see, “Oh, I got this or did that.” That was one of the influences.

The other was, imagine that a parent is playing with a kid and they want to give the kid a device to interact with rather than handing over the phone. I’m often handing my phone to my kid, because he’s bored or whatever. But the idea is you can give them the Pokémon Go Plus device. It vibrates and flashes when you’re near Pokémon. When they press a button in a certain sequence they capture it. Then, later on, you can look at it together on your phone or tablet.

On whether the Pokemon Go device functionality is pretty much the same as you’d do with your phone…

Hanke: It’s more limited, but it’s heads-up gameplay. I can show you the design prototype. It’s very slightly bigger, a bit heavier, but this is pretty much the size of it. It comes with a bracelet so you can wear it like a wrist device. It’s Fitbit-ish in terms of size. Battery lasts a long time. You don’t have to worry about charging all the time. This is a multicolor LED and button. You’ll notice that it’s the Google Map pen with the Pokeball shape and color fused together. You can imagine kids going to school with this on their backpack.

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