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The prank that created a million dollar business

Sanjana Ray
1st Apr 2017
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You may have noticed scores of people around you walking aimlessly with their noses buried deep in their phones. Some may have walked into walls, others may have narrowly missed being run over. Some may have even reached the temple gates after years – all in a thick pursuit to become the ‘ultimate Pokémon Master’.

Image credit: Shutterstock

2016 seemed to be the year of Pokémon Go. The free, location-based augmented reality game became a wild craze among men, women, and children alike – fans who could finally live out their fantasies of physically travelling and catching their favourite Pokémon. Although Niantic, the company which gave a face to this fantasy, initially launched the game in a few select countries last July, the rest of the impatient world managed to trick their way through technology and began to roam their respective streets to ‘catch ‘em all’.

But did you know that the idea for Pokémon Go was the result of a 2013 April Fool’s prank?

That’s right, the game, which is worth a million dollars today, was thought up by Niantic’s Tatsuo Nomura back when he was a software engineer for Google. As per tradition, the company encourages its employees to think up innovative and fun April Fool’s pranks every year, and also grants them 20 percent time to pursue their own independent projects. Nomura decided to spend his 20 percent on coming up with a fun prank for his colleagues, using one of Google’s most notable features, Maps.

Nomura decided to create a new prototype for Google Maps over the next two years, where users could search for Pokémon within the maps, following a similar pattern to Where is Waldo? or I Spy. Just as restaurants or hotels pop up as icons on Google Maps, Pokémon would appear similarly, and to catch them, you would just have to tap on it, just like you would a restaurant or hotel to read the reviews on it.

“I’m always thinking about things in the context of video games. I thought it would be really cool if a Pokémon would appear on the map, and you could catch it,” said Nomura, as reported by Ogilvydo.

Around the same time, Niantic Labs had just released Ingress, a game where users were required to physically travel to places in order to accomplish their goals. To John Hanke, the Chief Executive of Niantic Labs, the idea to combine Ingress’ technology with Google’s ‘fake game’ seemed only natural. He even took up the idea with Masashi Kawashima, Niantic’s Director of Asia Pacific, and began to look about the implementations.

Niantic’s possible creation of this new game reached the ears of the public, and gamers especially began to rally for the company to combine Google’s intellectual property (Pokémon) with the former’s real-world augmentation platform (Ingress).

And the rest has been history.

Hideki Yasuda, an analyst at Ace Research Institute in Tokyo spoke about the social impact of the game in an interview with Bloomberg. “This is probably the first smartphone game that has spawned a social phenomenon. The key thing is that this is happening globally. And Nintendo has proven that it can still come out with hits that have broad appeal and can earn money,” he said.

Niantic with financial support from Nintendo, Google, Pokémon and other investors brought together their collective resources to launch the game in the first few select countries. Since then, Nintendo has already managed to boost its shares by more than 50 percent, especially since the game debuted in the US, Australia, and New Zealand and shot to the top of download charts. Niantic also got as much as $30 million in its first round of funding, after separating from Google last year.

“As I look toward Pokémon Go and beyond, I am as excited as I was on day one about how the idea of ’Real World’ games can help us meet new people and forge connections in our home towns and around the world while also giving us a nudge to stay active and explore those less travelled paths, in our backyard and sometimes far beyond,” says Hanke.

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