Pokemon Go turns one -- and it's not the fad you thought

For its first birthday, we spoke to Niantic CEO John Hanke about his viral game.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
6 min read

One year ago today, Pokemon Go took the world by storm. By many measures, it was the fastest growing app of all time

One year later, is Pokemon Go dead? Was Pokemon Go a fad? 

Not even close: According to developer Niantic, 65 million people play the game each month.

To put that in perspective: Uber has only 40 million monthly active users. All of Blizzard's hit games -- World of Warcraft, Overwatch, Hearthstone, Diablo, StarCraft and all the rest -- only add up to 41 million monthly users combined

You have to look at the most popular games in the world, like League of Legends (100 million), or apps as popular as Pandora (77 million) and Spotify (140 million) to understand Pokemon Go's sheer scale.

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We've been following Hanke for a long time. Back in 2008, when this photo was taken, he was running Google Earth, Maps, and Street View. Later, he created Ingress.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

So for Pokemon Go's one-year anniversary, we thought we'd speak to the man at the eye of the storm: John Hanke, the founder and CEO of developer Niantic.

Here's an edited transcript of our brief interview.

What was the moment you knew you'd made it -- that Pokemon Go was going to be a sensation? 

Hanke: We'd just launched in... gosh, a few countries... and I had to go to Japan in the middle of our rollout. I was in Japan with my oldest son who was going away for college, and we'd just gone down to Kyoto for a little detour before an Ingress event in Tokyo that was going to happen over the upcoming weekend. 

You know, Kyoto's a really beautiful, but kind of a quiet, spiritual place. We were visiting these Buddhist temples and this forest... and I start getting these texts from my wife. She sent me this thing that had shown up on the Colbert Report and on Jimmy Fallon, and of course tweets from famous people and athletes and things like that. 

For me it was just this weird moment, because I was in this quiet place, and here was this crazy thing that I couldn't quite understand. I didn't have a good internet connection, and I was trying not to -- I was just trying to take a break for a few days to spend some time with my son. So I was getting these scattershot news updates, and it was just one of those "holy crap" moments.

I think when it sort of made the rounds of the late night comedy shows, it dawned on me that it was hitting this sort of pop culture awareness moment that we certainly had not expected.    

How has your life changed?

Hanke: It hasn't, really. I consider myself lucky that I can get on my bike, hop on a ferry, cross the beautiful bay every day, come to work and think about how to build fun games that get people outside and exercising. 

We've gotten bigger and we don't have to worry as much about financial matters as we did before. We can think a little further out, a little more ambitiously, but in terms of the day-to-day it hasn't really changed. We loved what we were doing before, we love it now and we're kind of going about it in much the same way.

There's this sense out there that Pokemon Go was a flash in the pan, because to an ordinary person it doesn't seem anywhere near as popular now. But I understand it's still big and profitable. Can you help explain the discrepancy?

Hanke: I don't think any game in history had that sort of global pop culture moment in the way Pokemon Go did. The way it's spread globally so quickly in a short spread of time -- it's a very high standard to say "Oh, it's not as popular now as it was in July or August of 2016." 

We definitely went through that period where people said "Oh there aren't mobs of people in Central Park every day like there were in July and August, obviously nobody's playing Pokemon Go anymore." 

That sort of... pop culture awareness goal passed, and then the really successful game phase kicked in.

How big is it now? How many people play this every day?

Hanke: We've put some numbers out...

PR rep: In April, 65 million players were actively playing each month.

Hanke: It's quite large. You compare it to the aggregate audience for a lot of other mobile gaming companies -- where they just sort of add all their games together. It's in that ballpark.

It's profitable, and it makes us profitable, which is great because it gives us the resources to think longer term and to think about new projects, as well as to invest more in Pokemon Go. I've made a point of saying we've doubled the size of the team working on Pokemon Go since launch, and there's still hundreds more Pokemon that haven't been introduced to the game yet.


The Pokemon Go Fest, coming July 22, will be the game's first official real-world event.


Where does this go next?

Hanke: Our focus for the duration of the summer is really around taking the gyms and raid feature we just launched and expanding on that with large events. We have a plan for Chicago [Niantic's Pokemon Go Fest] which will allow people at the event and outside of the event to play together in interesting ways...

Can you talk a little bit further out? Where do you see the game going over the long term? Trading, battling other players...

Hanke: Thematically, social is the key attribute that we're building features around. So the Chicago event, the Yokohama event in Japan, all of those are going to build on those social features, and we'll be making those social features more robust in various ways. 

Beyond that, yes, player vs. player battling and trading are things that we're looking at as next features. We haven't locked anything on that front yet, but those are things we've talked about before that are top of mind as things we might do next. Because both of those features do play into this real-world, social, cooperative aspect of the game that's really at our heart.

[PR rep signals that this will be our last question]

You're one of the few people who've created a game so big that people have actually died, and killed other people, while playing. How does that make you feel, and is there anything you would have done differently? 

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Don't do this. People have gotten killed.

Sean Hollister/CNET

Hanke: We try to make our games as safe as we can. We, I think, have a best-in-industry practice in terms of trying to discourage people from using our application if they happen to be driving or doing something else where there's a distraction. Distracted use of cellphones is an industry-wide, worldwide thing that I think people are paying more attention to.

We tell people "Don't play if you're driving," we verify that you're not driving, and then a speed lock kicks in to prevent the game from actually being used above certain speeds. We feel like we're doing everything we can within the app itself to dissuade that, and I was happy to see Apple take that up at a deeper OS level [Apple's Do Not Disturb while Driving feature] at the recent WWDC. 

I hear you, but I'm curious: because so few people have built anything at the scale you have -- to the point you can say some people have died -- how do you feel about that?

PR rep: Hey, I'm going to cut you off, we're kind of at our time limit anyway. If we have anything to add, we'll keep you posted, but we'll follow up on email. Let us know if there's anything else we can answer for you.

Editor's note: They didn't answer our last question by email, either. Unless we've missed it, neither Hanke nor Niantic has ever publicly acknowledged that people have died, or killed others, while playing the game.

Ingress, the friendliest turf war on earth: A look at John Hanke's previous augmented reality game.

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