Pokémon Go

A chat with Niantic CEO John Hanke on the launch of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

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Just shy of three years ago, Pokémon GO took over the world. Players filled the sidewalks, and crowds of trainers flooded parks and landmarks. Anywhere you looked, people were throwing Pokéballs and chasing Snorlax.

As the game grew, so did the company behind it. Niantic had started its life as an experimental “lab” within Google — an effort on Google’s part to keep the team’s founder, John Hanke, from parting ways to start his own thing. In the months surrounding GO’s launch, Niantic’s team shrank dramatically, spun out of Google, and then rapidly expanded… all while trying to keep GO’s servers from buckling under demand and to keep this massive influx of players happy. Want to know more about the company’s story so far? Check out the Niantic EC-1 on ExtraCrunch here.

Now Niantic is back with its next title, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Built in collaboration with WB Games, it’s a reimagining of Pokémon GO’s real-world, location-based gaming concept through the lens of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter universe.

I got a chance to catch up with John Hanke for a few minutes earlier this week — just ahead of the game’s US/UK launch this morning. We talked about how they prepared for this game’s launch, how it’s built upon a platform they’ve been developing across their other titles for years, and how Niantic’s partnership with WB Games works creatively and financially.

Greg Kumparak: Can you tell me a bit about how all this came to be?

John Hanke: Yeah, you know.. we did Ingress first, and we were thinking about other projects we could build. Pokémon was one that came up early, so we jumped on that — but the other one that was always there from the beginning, of the projects we wanted to do, was Harry Potter. I mean, it’s universally beloved. My kids love the books and movies, so it’s something I always wanted to do.

Like Pokémon, it was an IP we felt was a great fit for [augmented reality]. That line between the “muggle” world and the “magic” world was paper thin in the fiction, so imagining breaking through that fourth wall and experiencing that magic through AR seemed like a great way to use the technology to fulfill an awesome fan fantasy.

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Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is now available in the US and UK, one day earlier than promised

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Earlier this week, Niantic announced that Harry Potter: Wizards Unite — the company’s Potter-themed followup to Pokémon GO — would start rolling out to the world on June 21st.

Looks like they decided to get the ball rolling a bit early, though. The game just went live on the iOS and Android app stores in the U.S. and U.K., one day earlier than advertised. Wands at the ready!

As expected (and as with Pokémon GO), the launch is being rolled out on a country-by-country basis, rather than going live for the entire world all at once. It has spent the last few weeks in a kinda-sorta beta phase, available in Australia and New Zealand to those who didn’t mind dealing with some pre-launch bugs. Today it rolled out to the U.S./U.K., and it’ll open up to more countries as Niantic determines its servers are up for it.

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Pokémon GO will soon use sleep data to ‘reward good sleep habits’

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Well, here’s a bit of surprise news this evening: At some point in the future, Pokémon GO is going to wrap the player’s sleep habits into the gameplay.

It’ll come as part of a wider initiative by The Pokémon Company to — as CEO Tsunekazu Ishihara put it in a press conference this evening — “turn sleep into entertainment.” Which… well, we’ll see how that goes.

Niantic CEO John Hanke took the stage at the press conference for a moment, but didn’t really offer much in the way of details. Said Hanke:

Niantic pioneered a new kind of gaming by turning the whole world into a gameboard, where we can all play and explore. By creating a new way to see the world and an incentive to go outside and exercise, we hoped to encourage a healthy lifestyle and to make a positive impact on our players and on the world. We’re delighted to be working with The Pokémon Company on their efforts to encourage another part of a healthy lifestyle: getting a good night’s rest.

At Niantic, we love exploring the world on foot. And that can’t happen unless we have the energy to embark on these adventures. We’re excited to find ways to reward good sleep habits in Pokémon GO as part of a healthy lifestyle. You’ll be hearing more from us on this in the future.

Ishihara also announced that The Pokémon Company is working with SELECT BUTTON (the company behind the 2017 mobile title Magikarp Jump) to make a separate game called Pokémon SLEEP. Next to no details on that one yet, though, besides a launch window of sometime in 2020 and the logo:

All of it will tap a just-announced device called Pokémon GO+ Plus (Yeah. Two plusses, one written. Go Plus Plus.) It’s a follow-up to the original GO+, which was built primarily to let you play Pokémon GO without actually looking at your phone’s screen. The GO Plus Plus will do everything the GO+ did (letting you tap a button to spin Pokéstops, or catch nearby Pokémon) but also has a built-in accelerometer allowing it to be laid on your bed to track sleep habits and send ’em back to your phone via Bluetooth.

And here’s a screenshot of a video that played alongside the announcement, showing the device as it’s meant to be used:

 

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Nine lessons on how Niantic reached a $4B valuation

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, best practices, Customer Service, EC-1, Gaming, harry potter, harry potter wizards unite, john hanke, Mobile, niantic, Phil Keslin, pokemon, Pokémon Go, product, scaling, social networks, Startups, TC, user growth, Virtual reality | No Comments

We’ve captured much of Niantic’s ongoing story in the first three parts of our EC-1, from its beginnings as an “entrepreneurial lab” within Google, to its spin-out as an independent company and the launch of Pokémon GO, to its ongoing focus on becoming a platform for others to build augmented reality products upon.

It’s not an origin story that serves as an easily replicable blueprint — but if we zoom out a bit, what’s to be learned?

A few key themes stuck with me as I researched Niantic’s story so far. Some of them – like the challenges involved with moving millions of users around the real world – are unique to this new augmented reality that Niantic is helping to create. Others – like that scaling is damned hard – are well-understood startup norms, but interesting to see from the perspective of an experienced team dealing with a product launch that went from zero to 100 real quick.

The reading time for this article is 21 minutes (5,125 words).

Build on top of what works best

Everything Niantic has built so far is an evolution of what the team had built before it. Each major step on Niantic’s path has a clear footprint that precedes it; a chunk of DNA that proved advantageous, and is carried along into the next thing.

Looking back, it’s a cycle we can see play out on repeat: build a thing, identify what works about it, trim the extra bits, then build a new thing from that foundation.

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Harry Potter, the Platform, and the Future of Niantic

Posted by | Apps, AR, augmented reality, DigiLens, EC-1, Escher Reality, Gaming, geolocation, harry potter, harry potter wizards unite, john hanke, matrix mill, Mobile, niantic, Phil Keslin, Pokémon Go, Startups, TC, Virtual reality, VR | No Comments

What is Niantic? If they recognize the name, most people would rightly tell you it’s a company that makes mobile games, like Pokémon GO, or Ingress, or Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

But no one at Niantic really seems to box it up as a mobile gaming company. Making these games is a big part of what the company does, yes, but the games are part of a bigger picture: they are a springboard, a place to figure out the constraints of what they can do with augmented reality today, and to figure out how to build the tech that moves it forward. Niantic wants to wrap their learnings back into a platform upon which others can build their own AR products, be it games or something else. And they want to be ready for whatever comes after smartphones.

Niantic is a bet on augmented reality becoming more and more a part of our lives; when that happens, they want to be the company that powers it.

This is Part 3 of our EC-1 series on Niantic, looking at its past, present, and potential future. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here. The reading time for this article is 24 minutes (6,050 words)

The platform play

After the absurd launch of Pokémon GO, everyone wanted a piece of the AR pie. Niantic got more pitches than they could take on, I’m told, as rights holders big and small reached out to see if the company might build something with their IP or franchise.

But Niantic couldn’t build it all. From art, to audio, to even just thinking up new gameplay mechanics, each game or project they took on would require a mountain of resources. What if they focused on letting these other companies build these sorts of things themselves?

That’s the idea behind Niantic’s Real World Platform. This platform is a key part of Niantic’s game plan moving forward, with the company having as many people working on the platform as it has on its marquee money maker, Pokémon GO.

There are tons of pieces that go into making things like GO or Ingress, and Niantic has spent the better part of the last decade figuring out how to make them all fit together. They’ve built the core engine that powers the games and, after a bumpy start with Pokémon GO’s launch, figured out how to scale it to hundreds of millions of users around the world. They’ve put considerable work into figuring out how to detect cheaters and spoofers and give them the boot. They’ve built a social layer, with systems like friendships and trade. They’ve already amassed that real-world location data that proved so challenging back when it was building Field Trip, with all of those real-world points of interest that now serve as portals and Pokéstops.

Niantic could help other companies with real-world events, too. That might seem funny after the mess that was the first Pokémon GO Fest (as detailed in Part II). But Niantic turned around, went back to the same city the next year, and pulled it off. That experience — that battle-testing — is valuable. Meanwhile, the company has pulled off countless huge Ingress events, and a number of Pokémon GO side events calledSafari Zones.” CTO Phil Keslin confirmed to me that event management is planned as part of the platform offering.

As Niantic builds new tech — like, say, more advanced AR or faster ways to sync AR experiences between devices — it’ll all get rolled into the platform. With each problem they solve, the platform offering would grow.

But first they need to prove that there’s a platform to stand on.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Niantic’s platform, as it exists today, is the result of years of building their own games. It’s the collection of tools they’ve built and rebuilt along the way, and that already powers Ingress Prime and Pokémon GO. But to prove itself as a platform company, Niantic needs to show that they can do it again. That they can take these engines, these tools, and, working with another team, use them for something new.

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The definitive Niantic reading guide

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Book Review, Cloud, Collaborative Consumption, Developer, EC-1, funding, Gaming, Google, google cloud, harry potter, ingress, john hanke, mobile gaming, niantic, Niantic Labs, Pokémon Go, reading guide, Social, Startups, TC, Venture Capital, Virtual reality | No Comments

In just a few years, Niantic has evolved from internal side project into an independent industry trailblazer. Having reached tremendous scale in such a short period of time, Niantic acts as a poignant crash course for founders and company builders. As our EC-1 deep-dive into the company shows, lessons from the team’s experience building the Niantic’s product offering remain just as fresh as painful flashbacks to the problems encountered along the way.

As we did for our Patreon EC-1, we’ve poured through every analysis we could find on Niantic and have compiled a supplemental list of resources and readings that are particularly useful for getting up to speed on the company.

Reading time for this article is about 9.5 minutes. It is part of the Extra Crunch EC-1 on Niantic. Feature illustration by Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch.

I. Background: The Story of Niantic

Google-Incubated Niantic, Maker of Ingress, Stepping Out on Its Own | August 2015 | In August of 2015, Niantic announced that it would spin out from Google and become an independent company. As discussed in WSJ’s coverage of the news, Niantic looked at the spin out as a way to accelerate growth and collaborate with the broader entertainment ecosystem.

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Pokémon GO will soon let you change teams for about $8

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Early on in Pokémon GO, you’re asked to make a decision: Which team do you want to be on? Instinct (Yellow)? Valor (Red)? Mystic (Blue)?

The question comes a bit out of the blue. Especially amongst those who started early and have stuck with the game, it’s not uncommon to hear people grumble about how they wish they’d chosen differently. But once you choose, it’s final; changing teams means making a whole new account and starting the grind from Level 1. Well, until now.

Pokémon GO will soon let you change your team by way of an in-game “Team Medallion” item. Realizing that there are too many Mystic in your area and want to mix it up a bit? You can switch to Valor. Are most of your friends Instinct and you want to help them hold gyms? You can.

But there are catches: It’ll cost money, and you can only do it once a year. It’ll cost you 1,000 Pokécoins — that’s the in-game currency, (slowly) obtainable by holding in-game locations or in exchange for real money via in-app purchase. A pack of 1,200 coins currently goes for $10, so 1,000 coins works out to a little over $8.

As for why there’s a once-per-year cap? It helps make sure people have some degree of loyalty to their chosen teams… but it also helps maintain the game’s mechanics. There are some advantages to playing alongside members of your team — stat boosts in the big group boss battles (or “Raids”), a few extra Pokéballs when your team does the most damage in said raids, etc. — and letting people change too much might screw that up a bit.

This is the latest in a streak of recent additions meant to fulfill longstanding requests from the playerbase, and perhaps respark the interest of some players who moved on. They added trading (a staple of the main series) in June of last year, and player-vs-player battles (another staple) in December. App Annie says the game is currently the 67th most popular title in the iOS app store.

Niantic says the team medallion should roll out on February 26th.

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Pokémon GO trainer battles are now live (for some players)

Posted by | Gaming, niantic, Pokémon Go, TC | No Comments

Last week we did a deep dive on how Pokémon GO’s new (and long overdue) player-versus-player battle system would work. The only thing we didn’t know at the time was when, exactly, it would actually start rolling out.

The answer: tonight.

Just a few days ago, Niantic started shipping an update to the app that contained everything required for PvP, but they’d yet to actually flip the switch to turn it on. According to a tweet that just went live from the Pokémon GO account, it seems said switches have just been flipped:

Calling all level 40 Trainers. Your time has come to #GOBattle❗ Trainers of lower levels, please stand by, as we will be rolling Trainer Battles out to more levels soon. pic.twitter.com/Rf6NmFygE6

— Pokémon GO (@PokemonGoApp) December 13, 2018

One catch (but one noted as likely in our initial post) is that it’s not available to everyone right off the bat. As with many of GO’s newer features, it’ll go live for higher-level players first. More specifically, only players who’ve hit the level cap of 40 will get access to PvP immediately, with plans to roll it out to others in the coming days. It’s done like this partly to reward the most dedicated players for their efforts… but it’s also an easy way for them to roll things out gradually to double-check that nothing explodes.

Update: Well, that was quick. Within an hour of launch, Niantic has opened PvP to anyone over level 20.

(If you’re a sufficient level and for some reason don’t see the PvP stuff, Niantic says a reset of your app should fix it.)

Waiting for it to be rolled out to your level? Want a refresher on how it’ll all work while you wait? Here’s our breakdown.

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Pokémon GO is finally getting player-versus-player battles; here’s how they’ll work

Posted by | Gaming, niantic, Pokémon Go, TC | No Comments

Two and a half years after launch, Pokémon GO is at last getting player-versus-player battling.

If you’ve already had your fun with GO and moved on, that headline is probably all you need to know — it’s either enough to re-spark your interest, or not.

But if you’re still polishing up that Pokédex, hatchin’ eggs and raiding every weekend, you’re probably itching for a few more details. Good news! I got to run through a few battles late last week, and I noted damn near everything that was mentioned.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Each player brings three Pokémon into a battle (rather than six, as with the main series). The first trainer to knock out all three of their opponent’s Pokémon wins. Niantic says that 6-on-6 just took too long for a game meant to be played, as the name implies, on the go.
  • If you’re not already friends with a potential opponent, you’ll need to scan a QR code from the other player’s screen to initiate a battle. If you’re ultra friends or best friends, you can battle remotely.
  • Don’t have anyone to battle with? You can also face off against the leaders of the three teams: Blanche (Mystic), Candela (Valor) and Spark (Instinct). The best part of that: training against the gym leaders will earn you points toward the long-frozen Ace Trainer medal (which has been impossible to make progress on since the gym overhaul back in 2017 got rid of training).

  • Once a battle is initiated, you choose to battle in one of three leagues, with each league having a different cap on your Pokémon’s Combat Power (or CP): Great League (with a cap of 1,500 CP), Ultra League (2,500 CP) or Master League (no cap).
  • The thinking there: different Pokémon might shine at different strength tiers, which increases the number of “worthwhile” Pokémon. It also lets newer players jump into battling at lower levels, where higher CP Pokémon aren’t on the table.
  • To fast attack, you tap the screen. Unlike gym battles/raids, there is no swiping to dodge.
  • Tapping to fast attack juices up your charge attack.

  • Or, I should say, charge attacks. Plural! Each Pokémon can now have a second charge move permanently unlocked (using stardust/candy). These unlocked charge attacks will also work in raids/gym battles. The new move is picked at random from that Pokémon’s currently available moves at the time of unlock (read: you won’t get a community day exclusive move, or a legacy move, unless Niantic opts to bring them back into the move pool).
  • You can use Charge TMs to change either attack.

  • When you fire a charge attack, a circle and timer appear on screen. The faster you tap that circle before the timer counts down, the more damage your charge attack can potentially do.
  • When your opponent fires a charge attack, you’ll have the opportunity to use a “Protect Shield,” which greatly limits the damage it can do. The catch: you only get two protect shields per battle, so you’ll want to use them at the right time.
  • Matches are timed (thought Niantic hadn’t settled on a match length when I did my test battles). If the time expires and Pokémon are left, the win goes to the player with the most remaining Pokémon and/or the most health.

  • Both winner and loser are rewarded with items; winning does not guarantee better items.
  • Potential rewards include Sinnoh stones, the much-coveted items required to evolve a bunch of recently added Pokémon.
  • Battling the AI team leader trainers will give you rewards once per day.
  • Wins are recorded; losses are not. Niantic repeatedly noted that they didn’t want there to be any reason to not battle someone.
  • Like sending a gift or participating in a raid together, battling a friend counts toward increasing friendship levels.
  • Potions and revives can not be used mid-battle. Meanwhile, damage and knockouts do not impact your Pokémon outside of the battle.
  • The real-world weather will show up in battles, but it’s purely visual; while this may change eventually, Niantic tells me that weather does not have an impact on Pokémon stats in PvP battles at first.
  • As of last week, the only Pokémon you can’t bring into battles are Ditto and Shedinja.

For anyone hoping that GO’s eventual battle system would be modeled after the battles of the main series, this… isn’t that. Rather than a turn-by-turn back and forth, battling in GO feels closer to what players might’ve grown accustomed to when taking down a gym or participating in a raid. New mechanics, like the aforementioned protect shields, help to make it feel a bit more strategic and less like blindly tapping the screen until something happens — but after 20-something years of Pokémon games, any changes are bound to be a point of heated debate.

With that said (and with the disclaimer that I’ve only had a few battles so far) I’d say I’m… intrigued. It certainly won’t replace the main series battling system in anyone’s heart, but it’s a solid take on a system that works for casual players while still giving them reason to better learn which Pokémon are strong/weak against each other, which move sets are most effective, etc. It’s an intentionally casual battle system for what is an intentionally casual game. Don’t like it enough to take the time to battle a friend? Battle an AI trainer instead, get your rewards, and be done with it. Want to swing the other way and get super into it and become notorious in your neighborhood for being tough to beat? You can do that too, and the gameplay impact is about the same.

I appreciate that they’re allowing friends to battle remotely (once they’ve reached the ultra/best friend tiers). It’s a bit of a departure for this game, which generally requires you to be on-location and face-to-face for nearly everything else. But with many Pokémon GO players being new to the series, remote battling lets them get in more battling practice against an actual human than an exclusively in-person system might.

As usual, Niantic is being a bit ambiguous about when this’ll roll out, saying only that it’ll roll out “later this month” — which, generally, means as soon as they’re able to flip all the switches, squash the last-minute bugs and get the necessary updates through the App Store. From what I’m hearing, and like many of the recent GO feature releases, I’d expect it to go live for higher-level players first.

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Niantic confirms that Pokémon GO is getting PvP battles ‘soon’

Posted by | Gaming, niantic, pokemon, Pokémon Go, TC | No Comments

Two and a half years after the launch of Pokémon GO, it’s still missing one major staple of the main series games: player versus player battling.

That’s about to change.

In a series of teaser tweets this morning, the company confirmed that the battle system is on the way, noting only that it’s “coming soon.”

Hmm…what’s this? 🔍🤔pic.twitter.com/EyCRUeVINd

— Pokémon GO (@PokemonGoApp) November 30, 2018

❗🤨pic.twitter.com/QRkqcA6U2O

— Pokémon GO (@PokemonGoApp) November 30, 2018

❗❗😮pic.twitter.com/2Zg5PvNUv6

— Pokémon GO (@PokemonGoApp) November 30, 2018

Get prepared… Trainer Battles are coming soon to Pokémon GO❗#GOBattle pic.twitter.com/AUWyhNGlT7

— Pokémon GO (@PokemonGoApp) November 30, 2018

Battling is the feature perhaps most demanded by the player base — particularly after the other oh-so-demanded feature, trading, was finally added around six months ago. While players have long been able to battle Pokémon stored in gyms, or work together to take down bigger/badder Pokémon that show up in raids, there’s never been the sort of real-time, head-to-head battling system for which the series is so well-known.

In August of this year, a rep for Niantic mentioned that their goal was to get it out by the end of the year. Given these tweets, it’s looking like that’ll happen.

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