John Hanke: The man who put Pokémon Go on the map

Pokémon Go could become the world’s first smartphone game to generate $4bn per year

Niantic chief executive John Hanke, developer of Nintendo’s Pokémon Go, speaks during an interview in Tokyo. Photograph: Toru Hanai/Reuters

Niantic chief executive John Hanke, developer of Nintendo’s Pokémon Go, speaks during an interview in Tokyo. Photograph: Toru Hanai/Reuters

 

A blockbuster new location-based application launches and breaks the internet. So overwhelming is consumer demand for the mapping service, its servers can barely keep up - which only fuels the hype about the new app.

It may sound like Pokémon Go this week, but back in 2005, millions of consumers were seeing their home from space for the first time using Google Earth - knocking out the search company’s servers in the process.

In charge of the launch of both apps was John Hanke, whose experience in building both multiplayer games and digital mapping services has left him running what analysts are already calling the biggest mobile game in US history.

Pokémon Go was launched by San Francisco-based Niantic, an augmented reality start-up at which Mr Hanke is chief executive. The company, which is named after a Gold Rush-era ship that now lies buried under downtown San Francisco, was incubated inside Google before spinning out last October.

Keyhole

Mr Hanke (49), had spent more than a decade with the search giant after it acquired his previous company, Keyhole, whose rich digital cartography and satellite images formed the basis of both Google Earth and Maps. For Mr Hanke, who worked for the US Department of State in Myanmarbefore moving to the San Francisco Bay Area to study for an MBA at UC Berkeley, it was his third start-up to be acquired. The previous two were both in videogaming and Keyhole was also originally spun out of another games company.

However, the early 2000s was a difficult time to launch a new internet venture, remembers Brian McClendon, who hired Mr Hanke and served on Keyhole’s board.

“He was able to turn Keyhole into a company . . . and to keep it alive in the very dark times of 2002 when you could not raise money and start-ups were dying like flies,” says Mr McClendon, who worked at Google from Keyhole’s acquisition until last year.

“Google Earth was one of the biggest internet launches of all time,” says Mr McClendon, who is now at Uber. “Pokémon Go is now in exactly the same situation.” Under pressure, Mr Hanke “can get intense but he stays calm”, he adds.

By 2010, after working on Google Maps and helping strike the deal to get it built into the first iPhone, Mr Hanke was looking for a new challenge. He set up what was then called Niantic Labs “specifically to explore that intersection between mobile apps and geolocation and entertainment”, he said in an interview with the Financial Times last year. “The notion was that it was augmented reality but it doesn’t require special glasses.”

Its first success, attracting 15 million users to date, was Ingress: a sci fi-themed game that sees two rival factions fighting for control of thousands of “portals” scattered all over the world. It still has many loyal players, with up to 10,000 people expected to show up at a Tokyo event this weekend.

Although more involved than Pokémon Go, Ingress’s GPS-based gameplay and user-contributed locations would form the basis of Niantic’s later hit. “The game is icebreaker and glue,” Mr Hanke said. “The real fun that people get out of it is going out of the house.”

Nintendo

Among Ingress’s fans in Japan was Tsunekazu Ishihara, chief executive of the Pokémon Company, which is jointly owned by Nintendo with developers Game Freak and Creatures. Google and the Pokémon Company had previously teamed up on an online April Fools’ Day prank in 2014, when the pocket monsters were hidden inside Google Maps.

Mr Hanke struck the deal to work on Pokémon Go before spinning out from Alphabet, when Niantic raised $30m from its former parent, Nintendo and the Pokémon Company. It was an unusual move inside Google that took negotiation and perseverance but Mr Hanke says it was essential for his start-up to flourish.

“We greatly benefited from the resources at Google, in terms of technical know-how,” Mr Hanke says. But being standalone made dealing with companies such as Nintendo and Apple “a little bit easier”, he said - “just because Google is Google.”

He says he is motivated by an urge to get people out from behind their computer screens and do more exercise, as players chase Pokémon around its virtual maps.

“I don’t think we were built to sit in a dark room with a piece of electronics strapped on our head,” he says, in a swipe at virtual-reality goggles such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift. “I’m more enamoured of going outside and building real social connections.”

Safety campaigners and owners of property that have been overrun by Pokémon hunters may debate the overall benefit to society, while it is yet to be seen whether the app can sustain its current level of usage.

Pokémon Go is slowly overcoming its teething troubles, with launches in Europe and Asia being rolled out. Mr McClendon says Silicon Valley engineers are always aspiring to make a “positive impact on the world . . . John has done it twice”.

The Financial Times Limited