You may have heard about it from your grandchildren? They may have ventured out not to be seen for hours on this new gaming, virtual treasure hunt! But while it feels as if it appeared from nowhere, Pokémon Go is painstakingly assembled from what came before it: an overnight success 20 years in the making.
“I love the game. I’m running around and playing it a lot. But it’s not like it came out of the blue,” says Dennis Crowley, whose life has been built around location-based games. As a technology graduate student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts interactive telecommunications programme in 2004, he built Pac-Manhattan, a real-life version of the Pac-Man arcade game on the streets of Manhattan. From there, he created location-based games including ConQwest and Dodgeball before co-founding Foursquare – a game-type app that lets users check in to locations to earn points and meet friends – in 2009.
Crowley points out that much of the game’s success rests on the longevity of Pokémon itself. Originally a pair of Game Boy games released in Japan by in February 1996, in early Pokémon a player travelled through the region of Kanto attempting to capture 150 of the titular creatures and train them to battle the Elite Four and become the champion of the region.
By the time the games hit Europe in 1999, they had extended into comics, cartoons and a trading card game, the last of which was arguably more popular at its peak than the Game Boy games themselves.
Eventually, the Pokémon craze died down, at least in the west, but the series never went away. Pikachu, the “electric mouse” Pokémon that has become the game’s mascot, has remained recognisable worldwide, and the main game series, still one of Nintendo’s top sellers, is entering its seventh generation.
At the same time, a Google subsidiary called Niantic was building its own, much smaller fanbase. Created from the remnants of an acquired mapping firm called Keyhole, which had built what became Google Earth, Niantic’s first major product was Ingress: a location-based social game in which players compete for control of points located at physical landmarks in their neighbourhood while increasing their own power in the conflict by tapping into minor landmarks as they play.
If it sounds familiar, that’s because Pokémon Go is almost totally based on Ingress. Niantic gained independence from Google in August 2015, a move that freed it to seek commercial partners for future projects, and the first one, with the Pokémon Company and Nintendo, was a winner. Crowley points out that the familiarity to millions was key: “I don’t know it would have worked if someone made up characters and called it something crazy.”