In mobile terms, there’s no getting away from the fact that 2016 has been the year of Pokémon Go. But far from being hatched in a developer lab as the next gaming phenomenon, Niantic’s Tatsuo Nomura explains that the story begins much earlier.
Back in 2012, Nomura was a Software Engineer in the Google Maps team. Among the many things Google is known for are its April Fool’s Day stunts, and it’s 20 per cent time, during which employees are encouraged to pursue their own projects. Serendipitously, Nomura spent his 20 per cent time coming up with jokes. In 2012, Nomura drew on his childhood love of gaming to create a prototype of Google Maps for April Fool’s Day which resembled a world from an 8-bit RPG, which the team was then able to build out. “After that, I became the go-to guy for their pranks,” he says.
The following year, they transformed the earth into a pirate’s treasure map. Then in 2014 came the Google Maps Pokemon Challenge. While previous stunts had resulted in panoramas which users could explore to a limited degree, there was no interaction or gamification. “I’m always thinking about things in the context of video games,” says Nomura. “I thought it would be really cool if a Pokémon would appear on the map, and you could catch it.”
Sound familiar? The seeds of Pokémon Go were sown there. By sheer coincidence, The Pokémon Company had offices in the same building as Google Japan. A meeting was set up, and the rest is history. Nomura is now Game Director of Pokémon Go at Niantic. The game has been downloaded over 500 million times, and Pokémon trainers have walked a staggering total of 4.6 billion km; roughly the distance between Earth and Pluto.
Much like Niantic’s earlier augmented reality game Ingress, Pokémon Go was designed with the aim of taking people outside and encouraging exploration, exercise, and socialising. According to Nomura, it was a deliberate design choice to not target hardcore gamers, but rather to make it accessible and inclusive to everyone.
And now it’s out of their hands; fans are arranging their own Pokémon Go events — Nomura recently attended one in San Francisco, where players would high five and cheer each other every time somebody caught a Pokémon. As far as taking people outside and getting them socialising is concerned, job well done.
If Nomura were to take one lesson from this whole experience, it would be “the power of the prototype.” Setting out an idea, showing it to people, and explaining in just a few words what you want to do, is how this whole journey began.
And he has kept the sense of humour that made all of this possible. “This year, the joke is that Google is hiring a Pokémon Master!”