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Niantic: Pokémon Go healthy and growing as it approaches its next decade

"Go Tour was by many metrics our most successful week ever."

Pokémon including Charizard, Pikachu and Vullaby standing in a green field.
Image credit: Niantic

How much does someone who built the foundations of Pokémon Go still play the game, eight years on? It's the first question I ask Ed Wu, senior vice president of Pokémon Go, as we set off on a walk together around a leafy London park - our phones in hand, Pokémon Go open. "I spend as much of my time beating up the game as possible," he laughs. This is often using work-in-progress beta builds, he admits, to ensure upcoming features are bug-tested. But he still plays his "official" main account when he can - and it's clearly a source of pride that his was the first ever user account - or one of the first, he can't quite recall - registered on Pokémon Go's live server back at launch in the summer of 2016.

"It's bananas to think this thing is going to be going into its next decade soon," Wu says. He'll hit a decade working at Niantic even sooner - when he began coding the building blocks of Pokémon Go from an office in Washington, as Niantic scrambled to stay in business. It's fair to say Pokémon Go did the job.

"It's not only healthy, but it's growing," Wu says of the game now. "And we're putting a lot of investment into ensuring it's a great game and has really firm foundations for the next 10 years." Indeed, Pokémon Go's most recent major update has been a major visual refresh to its overworld and encounter screens, where your real-world location and time of day are far better reflected. If you're standing in the countryside, you'll catch Pokémon surrounded by fields and trees. In the city, you'll be around skyscrapers. As we circle a lake in the centre of the park together, its watery backdrop is reflected on our phones as we catch. Wu can't help but stop and point it out.

The Mythical creature Shaymin appears in Pokémon Go.Watch on YouTube

"As we gear up for that 10th anniversary, we want a refresh that's befitting that next decade," he continues. "We're refreshing our avatar system next with a more improved experience, updated assets - a modern system that can offer more customisation." Online, I've seen people aware of the upcoming change celebrating the possibility of finally being able to have beards. There's been chatter, too, about a recent suggestion by Niantic that Pokémon spawns will become more diverse. It's an idea that nods back to the game's origins, Wu explains, when Pokémon Go featured just the basic 151 species spread across the whole world.

"When we launched, the core premise was Pokémon appeared in the real-world where you expected them to appear. We went to great lengths to pull in the right terrain data sets - I personally crunched a lot of that data myself!" The moment he knew the team was onto something was when the game's algorithm spawned a Psyduck - which became his favourite Pokémon - when he approached a nearby body of water. "I knew that after all that hard work it was right," he recalls. "Now, as we've grown past the original 151, we're making a concerted effort to go back to that biome variety." Could it get as granular as offering specific Pokémon around specific buildings or businesses? The ice cream Pokémon Vanillite near an ice cream parlour? Niantic's other game Pikmin Bloom offers something similar, I say. "Well," Wu laughs, "obviously we have the data." He pauses. "I think there's always a balance to be had. Ice cream shops are a good one, though... There's pretty much an ice cream shop in most towns..."

Sinnoh Tour success and revenue growth

Niantic is emerging from a rough couple of years - a spate of project cancellations and layoffs - with a smaller game portfolio and a sharper focus. But, seemingly, its renewed efforts to ensure Pokémon Go remains a success are paying off. Going into more detail on how the game was growing, Wu references February's recent Sinnoh Tour event as being a standout moment in the game's history.

"Go Tour was by many metrics our most successful week ever," he says - to my obvious surprise. "Like, hands down." More than the game's annual summer Go Fest events? More than previous Tours that focused on Kanto and Johto? "There are different ways you can cut the engagement metrics, but I can confidently say the game is growing," he continues.

"One thing I think is underappreciated is we launched this web store for our users, and they've taken it up quite a bit," Wu notes. "It allows us to give more value to them without..." he trails off. Giving 33 percent of your cut to Apple or Google? Wu nods. "When we see third-party reports on Pokémon Go [revenue] decreasing, I can say, very clearly, that they are wrong. And we know they are wrong because they don't have access to that data. They don't have visibility into non-mobile numbers." It's an eye-opening admission from a game that couldn't exist without Apple or Google devices and operating systems - though Niantic would hardly be the first to start pushing back against the dominance of mobile platform holders.

"Pokémon Go grew last year, including last spring - when we last talked," Wu continues, referencing the last time he and I chatted - then via Zoom - around the time Niantic made controversial changes to the game's remote raiding. Clearly, the much decried nerf to remote raiding hasn't dented the game's overall popularity. "One thing that's deeply satisfying to me is that, during [this year's] Go Tour, in-person raiding nearly doubled compared to last Go Tour," Wu reveals.

"Remote raiding decreased a bit, but ultimately raiding as a whole went up dramatically and that's because people were out with their communities. People banded together and went out and about. Maybe you already got your Shiny, but you were out with the group. Ultimately, experiencing the game together keeps the game healthy. We see that in the data." When asked for a more specific stat, Wu tells me that 100 million people played Pokémon Go last year.

Technical snafus, and millions of knobs

Still, eight years in, there's plenty of work to be done. As we begin a second lap around the park, I ask Wu where he feels the game is with its technical issues - seen most recently during a weekend raid event for the Legendary Pokémon Kyogre that caused the game to suddenly drop offline. Niantic eventually fixed the problem and the event time-frame was subsequently extended by several hours, but it was yet another example of where, even after almost a decade, things had not gone to plan.

"We can always do better, let me just be straightforward about that," Wu admits, before taking a beat. "There are literally millions of knobs in the game. And as a person who engineered Pokémon Go's original configuration system, it's stunning to me the scale at which it has been flexed over the past eight years. But as the game has had so many more features and become more complicated we have to be able to scale up our configuration testing processes to accommodate that. And that's still a process, I'll be frank.

"One area where we've made a huge amount of progress, generally speaking, is in our ability to scale. Compared to a couple years ago, where we would have a hiccup, particularly in the [Asia-Pacific] APAC region, where our events lead off... Based on scaling, those have decreased dramatically. And the reason is because we've put a lot of investment into our core server infrastructure over the past couple years. If you compare Pokémon Go to any other kind of game, there's basically nothing like it. We're talking about a single worldwide instance.

"Allow me to be an engineer for a second," Wu continues, getting visibly more exited. "It's a single instance serving tens of millions of people, and simultaneously! And how do other MMOs accomplish this? The typical thing is, if you look up something like World of Warcraft, that it's divided up into instances. But if we divided people up into instances that would violate this core precept that everybody lives in a single shared world together, so we can't do that. Other MMOs that do have a single coherent world, like EVE Online, they slow the game's world clock. We can't do that either."

The future of the internet

"In order to keep immersion, you have to have systems that can flexibly scale - no matter if we're talking about the most rural part of Iowa, all the way up to the densest parts of Tokyo," Wu continues. "When somebody drops a lure in Pokémon Go, everybody around them - within a second - has to see that. And you could accomplish that by just being enormously wasteful of computing resources - but that's not great for a variety of reasons. So having algorithms that can flex and scale between these dense portions of the world and where there's much less population, and provide a consistent experience for everyone, is what we've invested in these last couple years. Significantly."

He takes another beat. "I mean, again, we're not perfect. I don't want to say our job is done. But I feel much better about that now, rather than the position our infrastructure was in a couple years back. We have put a ton of investment and work into it and I'm blessed to work with some of the smartest people and engineers on the planet who really understand this stuff. And if you think about this more deeply, doing this kind of computing is actually incredibly foundational."

Wu says Pokémon Go has had to evolve past the way internet traffic is usually handled across servers, where traffic is largely homogeneous and people are "peanut butter spread" across them. But the game exists in the real-world, and the real-world isn't like that. More people want to play Pokémon Go in central London than in the Scottish highlands. "You can imagine all sorts of other spatial computing applications where coherent networked real-time computations process between multiple entities in the same place," Wu says, giving the example of a self-driving car network. User activity is inherently inhomogeneous, and growing ever more so as the bulk of internet traffic does become mobile.

"It's exciting. What we're doing here is not only working on a better, more stable experience for our Trainers, including in APAC, we're building the future of what computing will look like."

"Oh my god, there's so much timed research"

As we begin wandering back towards the park's entrance, I quiz Wu on some of the Pokémon Go community's current top topics of conversation, including the recent rise of in-game event tickets you buy with small dollops of real-world money. These add-ons give extra bonuses for playing, but have become ubiquitous - with multiple options available at any given time. I'm wondering whether these, too, has helped swell the game's finances.

"It's been a change in the way we engage with Trainers over the past year in particular," Wu admits. "There are times when there's zero tickets in the shop, there are times when there are three or four. I think there have been times in the past where you're like 'oh my god, there's so much timed research'. I think we want to optimise that a little bit in terms of making sure no one's overwhelmed - but also provide a consistent cadence of really great things to do.

"To me, tickets are emblematic of the kind of value we want to drive for Trainers, so it's not just like 'hit a button, something appears'. We want to create something that's actually joyful that people experience, with goals they can work towards. And yes there's a monetisation component to it, but one of the best things about it to me is it provides a coherent framework for narrative, or to have goals to work towards."

Could Pokémon Go ever offer more in terms of narrative? Longer stories or plotlines beyond the very basic seasonal research and shorter event quests seen at present? "There is a balance," Wu replies. "We don't want to put a wall of text in front of people and make it necessary to parse all of that. But there's fun things to learn about for those who want to engage with it. It should be - not simple as in simplistic, but just enough to create a sense of wonder."

Arceus, Pokémon Legends Z-A, and what comes next

The game's recent Sinnoh Tour added game-changing new Adventure Effects, but skipped over Arceus, the region's fan-favourite creature that - in Pokémon lore - acts as the god of all creatures. I asked Wu what Niantic's plans were for both in the future. "We're not deeply leaning towards a whole parade of them right away," he said of Adventure Effects, "but as we think about how to add new features to the game, when the timing matches we'll do it. And now we have the infrastructure, the basics in the system for folks to invoke them." And as for Arceus? "There are lots of ideas," he laughs. "Our aspiration is to get every Pokémon in the game, but we want to do it in the right way which befits them and is consistent in our ambition to get folks outside and exploring together."

So what is on the agenda for 2024? Wu was predictably tight-lipped on details of upcoming features, but once again promised a year with more big new additions. "I've been really thrilled we've been able to get back to putting work into large features and big launches," Wu says. "Some of my happiest moments at Niantic have been the launch of raids, the launch of friends and trading. As a development team, that's the trajectory we're aspiring to and getting back to. Even over the past year, with Routes - and by its very nature it wasn't something that, on day one, we had Routes covering the entire world - but as it's rolled out it's snowballed. I can very happily say we have now passed a milestone of more than 2m Routes published. Compare that to its earliest days when it was legitimately difficult to find a Route to engage with - it has been transformative to the game. It's not maybe as 'big bang' launch as some of other features like Shadow Raids, but it's something that changes the game as it becomes part of people's daily routine. And we have a commitment to launch major features which transform the way people play the game."

Could some of what's coming be influenced by the recent announcement of Pokémon Legends: Z-A, which returns to the franchise's Kalos region and its popular Mega Pokémon mechanic? Wu says his team was excited by the announcement, but keen to ensure Pokémon Go also remained focused on its own strengths. "We're extremely blessed to work with our partners at The Pokémon Company and that's a really close collaboration we've had on a daily, weekly basis for many years now," he says. "We're extremely excited both as fans and players and we're always taking inspiration from a wide variety of stuff - but we also want to always be innovating and doing things that are special to Pokémon Go, which is getting folks out into the real world.

"We have some really exciting stuff..." he begins, as we leave the park behind, phones now back in our pockets. "I should be careful, but we will continue to deliver huge, major features, and we have several lined up for later this year. In the same way we are making sure to improve the foundations of our game, gearing up for the next decade, collection is core to this game - and we're going to lean into that."

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