SAN FRANCISCO — The origin of the hit game “Pokemon Go” flows from a digital mapping pioneer’s fascination with the world around him, Google’s affinity for offbeat ideas, Nintendo’s comeback quest and a 20-year-old menagerie of animated monsters so popular that it spawned a company just to be its talent agency.
All it took was a prank to hatch a mobile video game that has turned into a cultural phenomenon.
APRIL FOOL, POKEMON: Google unwittingly planted the seed for “Pokemon Go” two years ago in one of the many April Fools’ Day jokes it is famous for. In a 2014 post, Google announced a new training tool for hunting Pokemon using Google Maps. Its goal, the company said, was to hire the world’s best Pokemon Master – because it valued technically savvy risk takers who can “navigate through tall grass to capture wild creatures.”
The enthusiastic reaction to Google’s fake “Pokemon Challenge” video resonated within Niantic Labs, a little-known startup that had been incubating within the company – particularly with its founder, John Hanke.
MAPS AS A LURE: Hanke was at Google because he’d sold it a digital mapping startup called Keyhole in 2004, providing the 3-D satellite imagery used in Google Earth. In 2010, he hit upon the idea of using maps to lure people outdoors to explore neighborhoods, see notable places and discover new places to eat, drink or just hang out.
With the goal of building mobile apps and games that encouraged “adventures on foot with others,” Hanke created Niantic. Hanke was ready to found his own independent startup until Google co-founder Larry Page persuaded him he could keep Niantic within the internet’s most powerful company.
GETTING AUGMENTED: In 2014, Niantic set out to turn Google’s Pokemon joke into a breakthrough for augmented reality – a still-nascent field that involves layering digital images onto homes, offices, streets, parks and other real-life settings.
Niantic had built a technological foundation for “Pokemon Go” via an earlier mobile game called “Ingress,” in which players had to visit real-world landmarks and other locations to acquire weapons and gear necessary to gain points, acquire territory and battle an opposing faction.
INGRESS TO POKEMON: Niantic’s negotiations for the rights to use the Pokemon characters got a boost from the fact that Pokemon Co. CEO Tsunekazu Ishihara was a fan of “Ingress.” Nintendo, meanwhile, had fallen on hard times. Just a month after Google’s Pokemon video, the Japanese video-game maker reported its third yearly operating loss in a row. “Pokemon Go” offered a potential way out of its hole. Nintendo still owns the trademark to all the characters and retains a 32 percent stake in Pokemon Co.
GOOGLE LETS GO: In August, Google reorganized itself as a holding company called Alphabet that would in turn own a collection of independent subsidiaries – from large ones such as Google itself to tiny ones such as Niantic. But Niantic quickly broke free in order to explore opportunities with companies that might be reluctant to partner directly with the search giant, said long-time technology analyst Rob Enderle.
Niantic laid out its plans for “Pokemon Go” last September, and the following month Google, Nintendo and Pokemon agreed to invest $20 million, with a promise to put up another $10 million if an undisclosed set of goals were met.