A year ago today, Pokémon Go began its descent on the world, kicking off an unprecedented summer that saw tens of millions of players explore the world around them through the augmented reality game. Since then, Pokémon Go has changed a lot, with the addition of new pokémon, features like in-game events, and more recently the addition of cooperative raids. But there’s still a lot missing from the game: most notably player-versus-player combat and the ability to trade pokémon, both features developer Niantic has previously said were in the works.
Just ahead of the game’s anniversary, I had the chance to talk to Niantic CEO John Hanke about the status of Pokémon Go 12 months in. We talked about everything from the developer’s ongoing war with cheaters, to the importance of communicating with players, to just why those much-anticipated features are taking so long.
This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity.
Now that you’re coming up on the one-year anniversary, how do you feel about the state of the game? Is it where you want it to be?
Well, it’s been a great year. We feel incredibly grateful for everything that’s happened. We’ve gotten ourselves into a position where we’re able to put a lot more resources onto the team over the past year. We were careful in hiring people, so we ramped up over the course of the year. But we’re finally seeing the fruits of that in the gyms and raids release, which gets to things that are near and dear to our heart, like cooperative social gameplay, things that pull people together outside.
So we’re really happy with the initial phase of that release. We’re super excited about how that’s going to interact with the events we have lined up for the duration of the summer in Chicago, and Yokohama, and Europe. It’s been great to get that release out there and fix some aspects of gyms that were bugging us, that we didn’t really like but had to leave things when we shipped the product. But we’re pretty happy with the release in June, and glad to see a positive response. It seems to have really energized the playerbase. And I think it will do even more so in June and July, as the events part of that kicks in.
When you look at where the game is now, and compare it to your initial road map, how similar are the two?
We lost probably six months on our schedule because of the success of the game. Really all the way through November and December, from launch onward we were rebuilding and rewiring infrastructure just to keep the game running at the scale that we were running at. We were fortunate to have a massive launch, a massive success, and many, many more users than we had planned for. But we had to redirect a substantial portion of the engineering team to [work on] infrastructure versus new features. That switched off things like extending gyms, it pushed out things we still want to have, like player-versus-player and trading. I’d say we’re about six months behind where we thought we would be.
On the other hand, we did Pokémon Go Plus, which was something we took on kind of late in the cycle. But it was fun to get that experience with a hardware add-on. We [added generation two pokémon], we’ve staffed up our live operations team, and I think players have really enjoyed the events we’ve been able to do. There are some things we did that we weren’t necessarily planning, and others we haven’t quite gotten to yet.
Do you think it would have been possible to be prepared for a launch like that, given how many people were playing the game pretty much right away?
It’s possible, but you would have to be probably insane or completely irrational. You could do all of the work, and anticipate that, and build for that. But it would be hard, I think, to know when to do that, and to be right about it. I think we hit a not bad compromise of having done the work on the back end so that it was theoretically capable of scaling. And with some hiccups and brief outages, we actually were able to scale up to orders of magnitude greater than what we thought we would get. We sort of overbuilt, and we used every bit of that over-engineering that was there, and we still had some outages. It wasn’t a bad place in terms of the compromise.
When you look back over the last 12 months, are there things you would have done differently with the perspective you have now?
Certainly if we could’ve predicted the future, it would’ve been great to have had an even bigger team working on the product so we could have even more of the features that we want in at launch. We delayed our ability to get to things like the gyms and the raids, and we haven’t gotten to the player-versus-player and some of the things we thought we’d be able to get to pretty shortly after launch. But we only had so much money, and we were doing what we thought was reasonable.
What about in terms of communication? Do you wish you hadn’t talked about things like PvP and trading, given how long they’re taking to implement?
Well, had we not had to divert resources to infrastructure versus features, I think we would’ve had some of those things out earlier. I don’t know. If we had of known we were going to have those delays, maybe we wouldn’t have talked so much about them. Although, it’s important to let people know that you’re thinking about certain things, and that you are building toward them, even if they’re not immediately available.
I think early on, between ourselves and The Pokémon Company and Nintendo, there wasn’t a real consensus about how to communicate with players on forums like Reddit, Twitter, and other social media platforms. With our previous game Ingress we were very communicative with players, and very open. And we weren’t as communicative and open in the beginning [of Pokémon Go] because that was sort of a new process for our partners. I think we’ve become much more open over time, and that’s really helped make the community happier, by us being present and talking more about what’s going on.
Can you talk a bit about some of the times you did diverge from that road map you had based on the feedback you received?
There are features that weren’t on the original road map that really grew out of that feedback and back-and-forth with players. The gym badges, the way that whole system works, that’s something that grew out of the dialogue with players. The changes we made to combat in gyms — there are more coming, but the ones that we shipped this month were based on just watching how the mechanics around gyms played out. It ended up being heavily weighted toward the upper 1 percent of users, so gyms had become something that weren’t really accessible to low-level players, and weren’t very dynamic in terms of there being turnover and opportunities for people to have a chance to have a pokémon in a gym.
Did you anticipate just how much effort you would have to put toward dealing with cheating? It seems like there’s a new story about it every week.
We had some experience with that with Ingress. We knew that location spoofing and people building fake clients to do things would be an issue. I don’t think we anticipated the degree to which people would do that. The success of the game is I think what made it a little bit different from Ingress. Because of the scale [of Pokémon Go], there are actual commercial entities that sprung up that were offering services to level up your account or do various other things, and were real businesses. Therefore they’re able to invest significant resources in these things. We didn’t really anticipate that scale of commercial-funded cheating, which is a challenge to keep the game fair for everyone.
Has it been a sizable effort internally to fight cheating? From the outside it definitely seems like a lot of effort is put toward it.
We dedicate resources to it for sure. There are people working on that that could be working on features, but they’re not. It’s a fraction of the team. It’s not as if half of the team is working on that. It’s significantly less than that. But there is a chunk of resources that we devote to that.
What do you think is the most important update or change you’ve made to the game with regards to keeping players coming back regularly?
If I had to single out one, I think it’s the [gyms and raids update] that we just put out. It really is the first new mechanic that gives people motivation to keep playing, to keep leveling up pokémon, to continue to get out and be active. The collection mechanic was something that was really the heart of the game, and it still is the heart of the game for new users, but this [improves] the game for players who have reached a certain level. I think that’s the single biggest change because of that challenge and opportunity of fun that it presents to more experienced players. And also, it’s designed to encourage cooperative play, which is core to our mission.