Like Ash’s loyal Pikachu, the Pokémon franchise can’t be contained. Since Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game that lets players capture Pokémon in “real” life, burst into the mobile world on July 6, “Trainers” have been scouring their hometowns trying to gather critters while pausing at designated “PokéStops” to collect items and meet fellow fans. EW chatted up the crew from Niantic and the Pokémon Company to find out how the game came about — and whether there really is a way to be the very best like no one ever was.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Pokémon Go became the most popular free download in the iTunes app store almost instantly. Did you ever anticipate how popular the game would be?
ARCHIT BHARGAVA, Niantic product marketing manager: Oh boy. [Laughs] Pokémon is a huge brand, so we always knew it would be really well received, but I don’t think we expected the type of reaction that we saw. It’s unreal, the excitement. We’ve all been working non-stop.
What was the inspiration for the game?
ELVIN GEE, Pokémon marketing manager: It began with Google’s April Fool’s 2014 Pokemon Challenge [which had users “catching” Pokémon on Google Maps]. Google at the time shared the same building as the Pokémon Company in Japan, and [Niantic founder] John Hanke got in touch with [Pokémon Company CEO] Tsunekazu Ishihara, and they found they had a mutual interest in the game. The first [augmented reality] game Niantic did, Ingress, had a platform built that had potential for other uses.
BHARGAVA: Ingress was all about exploration and discovery, and the Pokémon video game has you exploring and discovering. We just put two and two together and thought, “Wow, if you could do this in real life, that’d be pretty awesome.”
So in two years, the idea went from an April Fool’s joke to the most popular app in iTunes?
BHARGAVA: Yeah. [Laughs] There was a little bit of, you know, working on weekends and late nights, but once the idea was fleshed out, we built prototypes, iterated, designed a beta, and did a field test in March. We were pretty agile in the way we worked.
In the game, players train and battle at Gyms and try to catch as many Pokémon as possible. Is there a way to win Pokémon Go?
BHARGAVA: There’s no endgame yet. Obviously, we’re curious to see who can catch the most Pokémon, but it’s so early, the community can go anywhere.
GEE: We wanted to start with the basics, but we never wanted to replicate the Game Boy experience.… This is also our 20-year celebration, so it’s been interesting to see how the fans of the original series and also new fans enjoy it.
It’s available in select countries now, so aside from rolling this out to other countries, what features are you hoping to add?
BHARGAVA: One thing we’re excited about is the device [in development] that you can clip on your shirt or bag or wrist that will vibrate or beep or flash a light when a Pokémon is nearby. You won’t have to be looking at your phone all the time.… We definitely know that trading [Pokémon] will exist in the game, but we’re still thinking about the optimal way to do it.
Pokémon Go has made headlines for some troubling reasons: People have been robbed at PokéStops! What are you doing to help prevent more of these Poké-related crimes? (Niantic released a statement last week saying the company’s aware of the incidents and encourages players “to be aware of their surroundings and to play with friends when going to new or unfamiliar places.”)
BHARGAVA: The app reminds people to be aware of their surroundings when it’s loading, but we’re trying to do what we can to find other ways in the app to do so. One of our goals is, when people are at PokéStops, we want to get them to look up, to admire what’s around them.
What reactions to the game have surprised you the most so far?
GEE: I’ve heard from different groups of people about how they’re seeing players go outside and talk to each other while playing the game, and they’re all saying it’s the first time they’ve seen something like this happen. For me, that’s the wildest thing to hear.
BHARGAVA: The comments on Reddit have been amazing. People have been supportive [of each other], and that, to me, is really cool. And I’m following everything on Twitter. I saw that the Dallas Mavericks are playing the game.
GEE: Yeah, we’ve had some really great celebrity engagement!
I hope you saw that John Mayer Instagrammed about purchasing 14,500 PokéCoins.
BHARGAVA: I didn’t!
GEE: Oh, that’s definitely a win.