Pokemon GO devs on lessons learned & the game's future
Not easily said for a mobile game that’s been around since 2016, it’s been a big year for Pokemon GO. Whilst Niantic’s flagship title has also been enjoying its recent seventh anniversary, along with the launch of Pokemon Sleep and GO Plus + companion hardware, the game has now seen the London debut of Pokemon GO Fest - its biggest event run in some of the world’s biggest cities.
Seven years on, Pokemon GO’s endeavours into both events and new features aren’t just not slowing down but growing. After getting to speak to some of the big names behind the game, and learning about their drives, aspirations, and personal affiliations with the franchise, it’s not hard to understand why.
During GO Fest London, as we sat down with Kim Adams - Pokemon GO’s Director of Art and Production - followed by Philip Marz and Daniel Hill - Niantic’s Regional and Senior Marketing Directors for EMEA, we’ve not only learnt more about the personal passions that go into the game from a professional and player’s perspective but also their connections with the Pokemon GO community and their excitement for what’s coming next as well.
By Pokemon fans for Pokemon fans
Long-running franchises eventually being helmed by those who grew up as a fan is not uncommon. Although an independent operation from the Pokemon Company, Niantic has had no shortage of talent eager to join Pokemon GO after seeing how it combined AR with one of the world’s strongest IPs.
Marz for example - who joined and worked his way up since 2017, also a fan growing up with the GameBoy games and anime in the 90s, was ultimately “inspired and amazed by the movement that Niantic was able to create with the Pokemon GO phenomenon” joining their mission for EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) with the personal goal to “reach every single individual of those and tell them the story about what we can experience today, how amazing playing Pokemon GO is, and being in touch on a day-to-day cadence with the Pokemon brand”.
This balanced perspective between loving the Pocket Monsters IP and its utilisation by Niantic’s technological innovation seems to be one shared across the team - since it emboldens Pokemon GO’s greatest strength: standing uniquely as a pillar for community and being active.
As put by Hill, who is also a longtime fan, now along with his daughter, believes that Pokemon GO’s appeal “is all about the exploration side of it and the overlaying of technology in a way that has real utility that brings people together and encourages people to get out and exercise”, he explains.
“And as a father, that really rang true to me because Pokemon GO is the best kind of testament to that vision and mission”.
Fusing technology, art, and story
Helping steer the ship towards that mission, of course, has been Pokemon GO’s evolution continuously honing on new features which innovate the experience whilst still hitting the heart of the brand for players old and new.
Adams, who joined the company to helm both art and production only in November 2022, is an example of GO’s lack of a sign in slowing down via the new additions to the title in not even a year: including Shadow Raids, PokeStop Showcases, Primal Raids and Primal Reversion, plenty of new Pokemon (including the Scarlet & Violet starters joining) and community days, plus the latest feature - Routes - allowing you to explore pre-made routes to better make most of where you happen to be, courtesy of the Pokemon GO community.
Coming from an incredibly varied background working under names marrying story, art, and technology; Pixar, Google, Facebook, Oculus Story, Nexus, co-founding Venture Lab; Adams has also been able to make the most of her and her family’s ongoing time with Pokemon GO - “currently obsessed with levelling up and competing with each other” as she puts, currently at Level 30 - to help culminate all three elements together, to keep the game moving forward by “leveraging innovative technology” for “location-based gameplay to bring Pokemon into the real world that hasn’t been done before” but staying true to its goals.
Such an initiative appears to lie at the centre of Niantic as a whole. This was particularly highlighted by an interesting comparison by Adams from her time in the industry, especially honing on the last 10 years, where “you see a lot of new tech coming in and being fancy and special, but not necessarily having a real purpose and a lot of meaning”, sometimes being unable to answer the question “this is really cool, [but] how can we get people to do this every day?”.
When it comes to ongoing games, it can be easy for some developers to stray from their initial goal as a side effect of going bigger and supposedly better. Being able to draw in talent like Adams in its seventh year, Niantic appears to have stayed on the course whilst still trying to innovate. “I've always had an interest in Niantic because everything's always grounded in mission, and so the purpose of the mission always comes first. And everything is born out of that”, Adams explains.
“This next sort of chapter of my career is being at a mission-driven company. We're using technology to bring people together.”
Such eagerness for Pokemon GO continuing to unite people with technology has not only been a success for the game’s community, but the game’s players coming together more with Niantic itself as well. When looking back at its ability to adapt and overcome the past as well as the present, the future looks brighter and brighter.
Adapting and connecting with the community
The Pandemic and live events
Although launching live events for Pokemon GO has been a Niantic initiative since a year after the game’s launch, taking place in Chicago in mid-2017, the growing appetite for the game is still going strong.
According to Marz, who reported on Pokemon GO Fest London's weekend success at the end of August 6th, “over 10 million Pokemon were caught by the tens of thousands of Trainers who came together at Brockwell Park this weekend at Pokémon GO Fest London” - with New York’s equivalent event still to come and “finish the series in style in a couple of weeks time”.
When asking all three about any notable surprises or obstacles faced during their time, answers to both were symptomatic of Pokemon GO’s ability to react and respond to the needs of the community over the years.
The biggest example that Marz touched on was the pandemic, saying “That [had] definitely put us in, at first, in front of a lot of challenges, because everything was stuck in lockdown, obviously, and we needed to support people and also provide a good cause for them to stay engaged and also to have something to do to keep their minds positively busy while being stuck, while not being able to do any other things.
"And luckily, we were able to make meaningful changes which were not in line with our original mission for the time being, however assured that the game was still successful and people kept being engaged”. For those who don’t remember, this included lockdown-era changes like tweaking the game to get more Pokeballs from other features, rather than needing to go to PokeStops outside.
“We were able to grow the community”, Marz summarises. “The pandemic, luckily turned out to be a very… let's say impactful and successful time for both the product and also, the company overall.”
Earning just over $909 million in 2020, its highest ever according to Statista, Pokemon GO’s flexibility to adapt certainly paid off. Whilst revenue has dipped since then, like other industries in these inflation-boosting times, Niantic's past successes in adjusting to the market shows fans there shouldn't be much need to worry.
As far as its recent moves show, the hiring of newcomers like Adams and Hill, plus the promotion of veterans like Marz, are some of the first steps in that new direction.
What's more, the continuing impact the game still has on players’ lives is still worth an abundance - which Adams found surprising and moving throughout her time at the company so far.
“We're talking about tons of millions of players every month that are impacted by the game. And to me, just having more insight into the impact that this game makes on people's lives has been, I guess, surprising to me” Adams elaborates, delving into the meaningful responses from players of whom she and her team’s work have made meaningful changes to their lives.
“It's just incredibly moving. I do an all-hands every month for the whole for the whole team and we always bring in some of the letters from, wedding invitations and birth announcements and letters from parents. And to me, I mean, I always knew this was a company that made a difference, but to really hold the letters in their hands and see….
you know, we create books out of them too, and just to see the impact that it's made on people and their health and their, mental wellbeing. And we have parents write in with autistic children who are saying their kids, when they come to an event like this, they connect in a way they don't normally connect with people.”
Whilst many mobile games often fade into obscurity as years go by, still to be enjoyed by their steady player bases, Pokemon GO remains a flagship for levelling up efforts with more features and events to grab attention - for not only drawing in new and non-active players but continuing to engage and benefit the lives of those who remain as well.
Even if the player base isn’t the lightning-in-a-bottle 232 million peak it had during the global phenomenon that was the mid-2016 launch (via BusinessOfApps), the still-massive just under 80 million who remain each month today (via ActivePlayer) is made up of the most passionate the game has ever seen.
In order to adhere to those fans and make the game the best it can be, Niantic appears to be more plugged into the feedback from its community than ever.
What’s next for Pokemon GO? The next year & beyond
With the trilogy of GO Fests ending with New York’s at the end of August, as well as Season 11: Hidden Gems ending on September 1, more are wondering what’s next on the horizon for Pokemon’s biggest ongoing title.
Although being sure to remain as tight-lipped as possible, both Marz and Adams have hinted at exciting things along the way - with the latter teasing “a blockbuster line-up [they’re] really excited about” when reflecting on some of the new features the team’s been working on, which have “been challenging in a great way”.
“So, every year we have sort of a creative theme. We have these creative pillars and technical pillars and we're building on top of each year”, Adams explains.
“This year was about community and bringing people together with all those different features, you know, with Shadow Raids, bringing people together to play outside, even Campfire…”.
Campfire, Niantic’s new social app released earlier this year, can be used with Pokemon GO to better connect with trainers and find nearby raids. Along with Routes, GO’s latest shipped features have definitely honed on “bringing people together to play” whilst “adding a whole new value for Pokemon GO for trainers to help each other”, as Adams put it.
As for what comes next, the most that Adams could reveal was that “there are so many parts of the game that people love and we are doubling down on those things. And focusing on the parts of the game that people love the most and amplifying those and bringing new features that I can't talk about”.
Whether that’s building more on other popular features like the Gym system, speedier raid lobbies, or competitive battling remains to be seen. So, we’ll just have to be patient.
More events, more engagement
Marz meanwhile, shared his goals to “continue growing [their] player base” and “serve the community needs” throughout the 150+ markets of seven different languages the EMEA regions make up, “to bring this kind of experience to the homes of trainers while also assuring that whenever [they] are doing these kinds of things, it has enough international appeal to also drive attendees from other regions”.
Although the big milestone in the distance will be Pokemon GO’s 10-year anniversary in 2026, Marz shared that the developer has a “filled roadmap with various highlights” in the meantime - following Routes’ example of features that promote exercise, exploration, and socialising.
Daniel Hill also jumped in to note that what can be done within GO is “dictated by what happens in the greater Pokemon universe as well”, being “very excited to keep working with our Pokemon company, um, colleagues and friends, to, um, to see how they develop the franchise too” - spotting opportunities to keep players engaged as well.
Calling back to the Ultra Beast event late last year, also mentioning “the conversations [they] were having with [their] broader partnerships”, perhaps more additions in line with other parts of the Pokemon franchise like Scarlet & Violet or the anime could be joining as well.
For the near future, Marz has also reiterated Nianitc’s stance that the company is fully committed to continue focusing on live events [and] experiences” - implying that London’s GO Fest debut was just the beginning and more new locations and events in EMEA could be set for next year.
But for now, the mystery remains as Marz followed up with, “Where are we going to be next year? I already know, you don't know”.
Sleep’s success and Monster Hunter Now hype
It’s no secret that Niantic’s success in pairing new technology and the Pokemon IP hasn’t stopped at Pokemon GO either, now that Pokemon Sleep has come out to already quick success.
Despite its couple of years of delay, the Pocket Monster sleep-tracking app earned approximately $686k of net revenue amongst its 2 million downloads in a 10-day period according to AppFigures) - blowing away competitors like ShutEye and Sleep Cycle.
Although the developer has plenty of other ongoing games, apps, and software under its belt; Pikmin Bloom, Niantic Campfire, Lightship etc; most of Niantic Labs’ reputation lies with the 2016 Pocket Monster game which put them on the mainstream map.
However, whilst other monster-hunting mobile AR adventures have risen up and dropped, such as The Witcher: Monster Slayer or Niantic’s own Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, there’s something exciting in the air about the Pokemon GO creator’s upcoming real-world hunting action RPG, Monster Hunter Now.
After spending a lot of his time working with associates to contemporaries in Tokyo, Hill is incredibly eager about Monser Hunter’s mobile potential ahead of its September 14th release date, also mentioning Now had passed 1 million pre-registrations as of August 3rd - cleverly boosted by the “sliding scale of rewards you can get depending on how many pres you unlock” - as shown on the game’s official page.
With Hill also noting the positive reception from the press they’ve shown the game so far, GGRecon’s own Monster Hunter Now preview and interview included, the building anticipation spreading word also makes it easy to wonder how many non-Monster Hunter fans the new game will attract.
When questioned on whether there’s expected crossover from Pokemon GO players who might want to try something new in the AR-hunting genre via Monster Hunter Now, Hill’s positivity continued - attributing both the company’s existing fans and how well Now appeals as a Monster Hunter game whilst being one on mobile.
“I think the short answer is yes”, Hill responds. “We have an enormous core fan base who, love Niantic as an organisation and will and will want to try everything that we do”, he explains before elaborating on the game’s key draws and low barrier for entry.
He emphasised how “it’s a super-fluid experience”, “incredibly easy to pick up and play”, and reassured franchise newcomers by saying “I don't actually think you necessarily need to be a Monster Hunter fan to enjoy the game because it’s so sleek” and, most notably, “how it’s authentically a Monster Hunter game, even though it’s on a mobile screen”.
Monster Hunter games of the past have mostly appealed to already existing Monster Hunter Fans. Since World, however, MH titles have been becoming increasingly broad in appeal to bring in players old and new.
For Pokemon GO fans looking to side-step some of their spare time into an alternative way to hunt monsters, Monster Hunter Now looks like Niantic’s strongest contender yet.
Exciting times ahead
Increasingly so these days, games are made by gamers - those who’ve grown up with the medium in its infancy to eventually see it forward at the helms of the developers they later work at.
However, even if each team member at Niantic suddenly revealed they had no affiliation with Pokemon outside of their professional lives, there would still be no cause for alarm when thinking about the future of GO. That’s because being makers of AR games, a genre that’s frequently more active and engagement-heavy than ever, requires all the more levels of engagement and foresight with their audience to continuously better those experiences - of which this developer has raised the bar.
Even now in its eighth year, Niantic has refused to grow complacent - and Pokemon GO Fest: London plus its dedication to impressive new features is a testament to that. As Marz and Hill both touched on in our sitdown, Pokemon GO is being seen as a “forever game”, one that keeps going in conjunction with the juggernaut that is the Pokemon franchise as long as the passion remains in both the teams and its players.
With even more thrilling events and game features on the way, it looks like that passion won’t be fading anytime soon.
The fact that these three have a heartfelt connection with the franchise and have great taste in favourite Pokemon; Hill’s too being Squirtle, Marz’s the “relaxed and chilled” Snorlax, and Adam’s (and her daughter's) love for Eevee and Pikachu; is merely a sweet bonus for a game in its best shape yet.