Back when he was called "the most famous unknown artist in the world," Dennis Hwang was in charge of designing Google Doodles, the fun, often-informative bits of multimedia content that live within the Google logo on the company’s search page. Since then, his design canvas has gotten much bigger: Hwang is director of visual design at Niantic Labs, the company that was spun off from Google a year ago and then went on to launch a little mobile game called Pokémon Go this past July. Now Hwang doesn’t just design stuff for an "admittedly well-trafficked" Google home page; he says that with Pokémon Go he considers the entire world to be his game board.
The Verge sat down with Hwang at Google’s SPAN design conference in Los Angeles last week, where we talked about the moment he realized Pokémon Go was a hit, the future of Pokémon Go on wrist and face computers, and what he would change about the game.
Let’s talk about the success of Pokémon Go. At what moment did you say "Okay, this is going to be big?"
My memory’s a little fuzzy because our whole team was so sleep-deprived around launch time, but what I remember most now is when people started organizing their own events and public park crawls and pub crawls. With Ingress that’s actually what we spent a lot of our time and energy trying to organize. We had dedicated teams writing the fiction, finding the event space, doing the marketing and PR... it’s just a tremendous amount of energy we put in. But with Pokémon Go’s launch it just kind of happened. One person in one city will say "Hey let’s gather, let’s do this," and the ticker just kept going up and up. I think 9,000-plus people said they were going to [the San Francisco meetup in July]; that’s a lot of people to be roaming around the city spontaneously because one guy loved the app and loved the idea of roaming around together.
"We're trying to paint an optimistic future."
You said something interesting onstage at the Google SPAN conference about Pokémon Go as a social network, when the topic of social distraction came up. Do you consider Pokémon Go to be a social network?
I think we would like for it to be. That’s kind of part of the way we envision our platform, is really bringing people together. It’s not really about the specific game title or mobile phone app, it’s how do you create a shared experience that brings people together. So for Ingress, when we did start seeing boyfriend / girlfriend, husband / wife, people who are having kids after meeting each other playing our game, it was super satisfying and we were overjoyed to see that actually happening.
We’re sort of trying to paint an optimistic future, where technology is really bringing people together, not like you’re strapping a screen in a dark place to your face, where every interaction becomes through a camera, through a computer, through a network — that seems a little too dystopian to us. So we’re trying to see if there’s a better way to do things.
You designed the logo for Gmail, and then you designed Google Doodles. Where does Pokémon Go rank in your own design career, among all the things you’ve done that are really well known?
It definitely tops it. It was great being a Google doodler. But it was stressful at times. The early years I was doing it by myself, so I might be up at 4AM watching some Olympic event because I didn’t know what curling was or was supposed to look like, so I’d have to watch it on TV and then do the design for the next morning, or come up with seventh iteration of a Halloween doodle design. It could be stressful at times. I think now there’s a whole team of great designers creating them.
So, I mean, I have fond memories of all the work I did at Google, but Pokémon Go to me is a bit more whimsical and more tangible to me. It’s something that I had a lot more control over in some sense. It’s more of a complete package of a user experience than a canvas on an admittedly very high-trafficked home page. I mean, the constraints [at Google] were good, and with the home page logo being this small canvas, I tried to be as creative as I could. But at Niantic my canvas — the real world — is a little bit bigger.
We’ve talked a little bit about the wrist, like your Apple Watch app, but also the face being the next space for interactions. What would you say the timeline is for people playing Pokémon Go, on a regular basis, through that lens?
I think for the true vision to be realized, it will still be a few years. The current crop of technology that’s coming up will struggle to compete against sunlight. So in order to overlay the information as if it’s a sci-fi movie, you know, the glare of the sunlight is quite difficult to fight against. So for the near future, it will be more of the wearables and other devices that enhance the notification element of [Pokémon Go]. But there is really cool hardware being developed, like HoloLens, and Project Tango from the Google guys, and Magic Leap, the more secretive version of it. It will be really interesting to see how this tech can help app experiences like ours.
Is it realistic to think that we will be playing AR games with just regular glasses, like the ones I’m wearing?
I think so. For sure. It’s only a matter of time.
"It saddens me a little bit when I see a lot of people hunched over outside."
Have you already started work on the next game for Niantic, or the next Pokémon?
We’re looking at lots of projects. Niantic’s strategy is heavily a platform play, so we’re not trying to limit ourselves too much to one or two sets of experiences. We want other people to be able to build interesting fictional experiences on top of the real-world-based technology that we’ve built. So it may not be Niantic that builds it, but we’re talking to a lot of interesting partners already.
It’s hard to talk about this, I can’t say who... but the Pokémon idea was sort of a shoo-in. You just looked at it and said "Oh wow, this makes sense," the idea of going around the world and seeking out these little creatures to capture and befriend. So without naming specific partners, I think there’s a huge space of such opportunities that’s still remaining that could hugely benefit from a platform like ours.
Is there anything you would change about the design of Pokémon Go?
Oh, there’s a lot that isn’t perfect. We had a pretty tight timeline to build this. I think just generally speaking the biggest element we’re looking to improve is allowing more heads-up play. It saddens me a little bit when I see a lot of hunched over people outside. They’re having fun, they’re outside in a great public park, but we’re always wanting a little more direct engagement with our immediate surroundings. So those are design choices we’re looking at carefully to keep improving it.
Like let’s say in the current interface, some of the information about a pokémon that spawned is in fine detail and the icon is really small. It’s going to make you go closer to the screen. We may just iterate on the design until you feel like the information is being presented to you in a way where you’re not having to stick your nose on the screen. It could be a simple size change, or the way the notification is animated, or it could be auditory cues instead of visual cues. There are a lot of options we’re going to explore.