Cross Plains is a quaint little town in Texas with a population of less than 1,000 (by US Census estimates) and has probably nothing attractive about it, save the house of Robert E Howard, whose house has been converted into a museum. His claim to fame is the creation of Conan the Barbarian, a character more popularised by Arnold Schwarzenegger on the silver screen adaptation. He died in 1936.
Fast forward 80 years later. Pokémon Go has sent the global gaming community into a tizzy and has created every kind of phenomenon imaginable. This game has beaten every popular social networking platform out there in terms of engagement metric and has shattered all records out there in terms of downloads and gaming revenues, all in a week’s time within its launch. If gaming was a religion, it would perhaps be blasphemous to the gamer legions across the world to address Pokémon Go as just a game.
Collaterally, Cross Plains just got another reason to be featured again on the global map and will perhaps forever be immortalised as the home of John Hanke, the CEO of Niantic Labs that created the latest AR gaming sensation, built around the popular Pokémon franchise.
Two months into its launch and available in 75 countries spanning across 5 continents now, Niantic Inc is reportedly a unicorn, now valued at $3B and well poised to make $740M in revenues this year. By various accounts, the game is making somewhere close to $2M per day.
A Moment of Epiphany
While the creation of Pokémon Go might come across as a genius’s eureka moment, it is more a product of epiphany, when Hanke saw his children glued to the online gaming products, that only added to the global count of couch potatoes. To Hanke, who is a self confessed sci-fi fan, the world was a reservoir of mysteries waiting to be unlocked. So, why can’t gaming be combined with an element of physical activity and civic engagement, was a question that arose in his mind.
An Overnight Success? Hardly
The seeds of Pokémon Go, however, were sown much before when his Keyhole Inc, Hanke’s venture founded in 2001 was acquired by none other than Google three years later, bowled by what Earth Viewer (Keyhole satellite imagery software) could do. Users could just zoom into any part of the globe and get a topographical view of the geography in question, to the accuracy of a few hundred metres. This would later form the basis of Google Earth.
Prior to its acquisition, It got the attention of CIA, who would regularly use it to track troop activity and topographical changes in Iraq during the eight year war. CIA, would then go on to invest in the venture through their investment arm before Google finally acquired it.
Later, as vice-president of Google’s geo division and under his stewardship, the company would continue to roll products like Google Earth, Street View, Sketchup and Panoramio and not to mention Google Maps, which is currently the second most used product of Google and an integral part of urban commutation across the globe. While most of these products did not turn out exactly to be revenue spinners for Google, but it showed an insight into the direction that Google wanted to pursue.
Later in 2010, when Hanke was mulling a return to entrepreneurship, the anecdote goes that Larry Page persuaded him to stay back, with a deal to start an autonomous setup within Google. Thus, Niantic Inc was born as an internal start-up within Google.
The Tipping Point
The year 2012 could probably be defined as the inflection point for the creation of Pokémon Go. Niantic rolled out Field Trip, its first product. It was essentially a geo-location based mobile app that would act as a guide to users around a city, automatically popping up unique and interesting information about landmarks.
This was followed by the launch of Ingress, an augmented reality location-based multiplayer game that encouraged users to walk around the Ingress universe to gather objects and unlock more clues about the Ingress Universe. The tech behind Field Trip and the game data set & mechanics of Ingress would later go into Pokémon Go. It took three years to collect the game data set of Ingress, which was mostly contributed by avid players of the game. In a three year impact report released by Niantic, the game had seen 14 million downloads and was played in more than 200 countries.
A Meeting of Minds
In 2015, when Google decided to do an organisational overhaul and was rolled into Alphabet Inc, Niantic Labs was staring at a potential situation where it could get lost among the massive organisational setup of Google and become a low priority on the Google ladder. However, Hanke proposed a spin-off proposition to Google, which was smart enough to let it go and become an independent entity. As a sweetener, Hanke also managed to get a $30 million investment from Google, Nintendo and Pokémon. By Hanke’s own admission, had this not happened, Pokémon Go may not have seen the light of the day.
Later, when Hanke wanted to apply geo-location technology to a popular game franchise, three names made it to the final cut; Mario, Donkey Kong and Pokémon. But, the name of Pokémon seemed to spring up repeatedly, which later led to the meeting with Tsunekazu Ishihara, CEO of Pokémon Company for a possible collaboration. It turned out there was a legion of Ingress fans in the Pokemon company including Ishihara and his wife, who were advanced level players themselves. As the story goes, there was really no deliberations and the decision to go ahead with Pokémon Go took barely a few minutes. And thus, AR’s most successful use-case was green-lit.