Matthew Miller
Sep 23, 2016

AR should mean more than a trick your phone does: Pokémon Go creator

How an April Fool's joke turned into a worldwide smash by staying true to a mission rooted in human experience.

Tatsuo Nomura
Tatsuo Nomura

SPIKES ASIA - Pokémon Go co-creator Tatsuo Nomura held a jaded industry audience rapt with a tale completely free of buzzwords but full of childlike wonder, a love of experimentation and a desire to do actual good for people.

Nomura (officially game director of Pokémon Go at Niantic Labs) started his talk by demurring that he is not an expert on innovation. And that may be true. But his straightforward recounting of the hit game's well-known origin story nonetheless conveyed principles that anyone wishing to innovate may want to emulate.

The importance of play

Nomura first experimented with turning Google Maps into playgrounds while working on the company's April Fool's Day pranks. "Wouldn't it be cool if I changed the Google Maps to look like an RPG [role-playing game], like Dragon Quest?", he recalled thinking. His own desire to build something he would enjoy, coupled with the company's famous support for such exploratory work, ended up paying off enormously.

The importance of the quick prototype

For that first April Fool's Day prank and a series of followups that led to 2014's Google Maps Pokémon Challenge, Nomura mentioned building quick demos in order to convince his immediate colleagues to adopt his plans. Even a crude representation of an idea is far more effective than a bunch of words on a slide, he said.

Seizing an opportunity

"By a very odd coincidence, the Pokémon Company, the holders of the Pokémon IP, are in the same building as Google Japan," he said. "So we took the prototype to them, and they got very, very excited about the project as well."

A meaningful mission, simply expressed

Perhaps the most powerful message to come through from Nomura's talk was the importance of a clear mission that everyone can articulate, and then making sure that all decisions flow from that mission. Niantic's mission is five words: "Adventures on foot with others". And Pokémon Go got a three-word distillation: "Explore. Exercise. Socialize."
 
Everything in the game design, Nomura shared, plays into these goals, from the need to search for the creatures to the meetup aspects of Stops to the teamwork necessary in Gyms, not to mention the need to strengthen your virtual creatures by walking them.
 
This is authenticity
 
Nomura came across a humble, artifice-free person. His almost childlike thrill in having created something that so many people have enjoyed was evident. Even more so, his satisfaction at bringing people together. 
 
"The fun is how you play with others," he said simply. 
 
Nomura also explained that the game has resulted in people walking 4.5 billion kilometres, nearly the distance to Pluto, he said. (Not quite. Pluto is actually 7.5 billion kilometres away. But we're sure that milestone will be reached soon.)
 
The talk concluded with a call for people to consider the term "augmented reality" more seriously. Most people think of it as overlaying virtual stuff onto a live image of the real world on a smartphone screen.
 
But to Nomura's mind, innovators should be thinking of augmenting people's actual reality, such as giving grandmothers and their grandkids a game that they can both enjoy and talk about, or inventing a game that helps people get outside and not only get some physical activity but also enjoy the experience of meeting and interacting with others.