John Hanke arrives at Mijita on San Francisco Bay looking more like a middle-aged indie rocker than the chief executive of a company that this summer was estimated to be making tens of millions a week. His striped flannel shirt is unbuttoned over a T-shirt bearing a compass and the words, taken from a poem in The Lord of the Rings, “Not all who wander are lost”.

The slogan gives a knowing wink to Hanke’s status as the man behind the mobile gaming app, Pokémon Go, arguably the disruptive digital innovation of the year. Overnight in July it became a cultural phenomenon as it sent millions of people worldwide on to the streets searching for virtual monsters in real-life locations.

User traffic was 50 times higher than originally expected, infrastructure engineers at Google say, causing recurring outages. The real disruption, however, was not digital but physical. With its magical monsters appearing in the same place at the same time for each player, the app was accused of provoking stampedes, as groups of gamers took over the parks, malls and even churches where the game’s “Pokestops” are found.

“I’m happy we are past that level of frenzy,” concedes the 50-year-old Hanke as we head into the cantina-style Mexican restaurant. The crowds were, he admits, an “unintended consequence” of the game’s success.

Hanke’s company Niantic was already six years old when Pokémon Go launched — an aeon in start-up terms. So what was it like, after all that time pushing the concept of location games to a small but dedicated niche, to suddenly be swept away by this huge event?

“We were paddling for a long time, then we caught the wave,” he says, continuing my metaphor. “I’m really happy about catching the wave.” Even when it is 50 times bigger than anticipated? “Well, even the best ride often ends in a wipeout,” he says. “You get up and then you catch the next one.”


Number of daily users during the game’s mid-July peak

The sudden success of Pokémon Go also put a rocket under the share price of Nintendo, the venerable Japanese games company that invested in Niantic and licensed its 20-year-old franchise to the start-up. The price fell back to earth as investors considered longer-term prospects, but Nintendo is now pursuing the potential of mobile. Another of its famous games, Super Mario, debuts on the iPhone App Store next month.

“Are you a taco guy?” Hanke asks. Mijita is a popular haunt in the Ferry Building, a foodie haven that is San Francisco’s equivalent of London’s Borough Market or New York’s Chelsea Market, although it still serves its original function as a terminal.

We go straight to the till to order and Hanke recommends the steak tacos and the guacamole. I add a fish taco to the platter. We both take a Mexican Coca-Cola (made with cane sugar, rather than corn syrup) before heading outside to a table overlooking the bay.

Hanke, who lives in Berkeley on the other side of the water, gets to work by boat and bike “whenever I can”. The congested daily drive down to Silicon Valley was one of the reasons why last year he left Google, where Niantic was born as a sort of in-house start-up to examine how location services might be applied to gaming and entertainment. The idea, he elaborates, was “really about walking and rediscovering places where you live, slowing down a little bit”.

Pokémon Go put paid to the idea of a quiet life. In early September, Sensor Tower, an app tracking company, said players had spent more than $440m on the game in less than two months, topping the money made by many summer blockbuster movies. A lot of the “white water”, Hanke says, came from the “crazy one-time social media frenzy that erupted” — thanks to the “augmented reality” feature, photos on social networks of Pokémon overlaid on real-life locations sent crowds to particular spots, panicking some city officials and residents and sometimes causing damage.

Niantic had to learn fast how to become more “proactive” in engaging with mayors and park authorities, in some cases reducing the number of Pokestops if locals complained. Even so it prompted lawsuits from property owners in New Jersey and Michigan.

Despite the game’s initially chaotic impact, Hanke still insists there is an opportunity for local authorities to use Pokémon Go to “light up” neglected nature spots. “The sad thing is we have a lot of great parks that people just don’t use because everybody just goes home and puts on the TV and shuts their front doors,” he says. “We want to pull people back out into public spaces.” Some might even volunteer to clean up after themselves, he suggests optimistically.

Our food arrives quickly, though Hanke seems in no hurry to tuck in. He explains he chose Mijita not only because it is the spot where he crosses the bay, but because it reminds him of the food he ate growing up in small-town Texas. “I wouldn’t call it Tex-Mex but it’s one of the better options out here,” he says. The Texan variety involves a smothering of brown gravy and orange cheddar cheese, which our tacos thankfully lack.

Hanke says his upbringing in Cross Plains, a 1,000-person town in Texas, was like something from The Last Picture Show. “It was boring. I was ready to get out as fast as I could,” he says. Though he admits to being a “geeky person” and an introvert, at school he played basketball and in a jazz band, as well as learning about computers. At 13, he mowed lawns and saved up to buy his first: a Tandy TRS-80.

The first person in his family to go to college, he did not leap straight into Silicon Valley. After graduating as an arts and science major from the University of Texas at Austin in 1989 he took a job in the US Foreign Service in Washington DC and then in the US embassy in Myanmar. “I was third secretary and doing a bit of everything, as one does,” he says vaguely.

He did not return with a Steve Jobs-style spiritual awakening but maintains an affection for what was, until the last couple of years, one of the lowest-tech countries on earth. “The takeaway for me was just seeing people can be incredibly happy in the situation of extreme poverty and lack of development,” he recalls. “There’s this quiet happiness about the people that live in Burma.”

This idyllic view of the developing world seems hard to square with the smartphone-accelerated culture that Pokémon Go has helped fuel. Yet Hanke believes mobile apps such as his can actually bring health benefits to their users. Games can be “almost meditative” because they “take your mind off other things”, he insists. Pokémon Go also requires players to be active. This concept was “accidental at first”, he explains, but is now part of Niantic’s raison d'être.

Some Pokémon players found the game more hazardous than health-giving. There were reports of distracted players crashing their cars as they pursued Pokémon. Two players stumbled off a cliff while another discovered a dead body. “We want to encourage heads-up play,” Hanke says but, with warnings added to the app since its launch, some of the responsibility is on the player. “There’s a certain amount of, you just need to be smart and do the right thing.”

As I dunk a tortilla chip into a bowl of organic guacamole, I speculate that one reason for Pokémon’s overwhelming popularity in July was that it provided escapism from the year’s tumultuous world events. Hanke politely agrees but sees the year’s “anxious environment” as brewing for rather longer.

“I really see that as exacerbating a set of conditions that we actually have lived in for lots of years, which is, like, this constant drumming of technology and pressure and speed,” he says slowly. “There’s amazing capabilities, but there’s a downside that comes with it.”


Amount paid on eBay for an advanced Pokémon Go account

Given the stereotype of Pokémon players being inseparable from their phones, this response rather surprises me. I press him further on why he thinks Pokémon Go could be a “nice counterbalance” to such pressures. “I’m not going to say that there aren’t times when you’re caught staring at the screen and I would rather you were actually looking at the Gandhi statue over there, which is one of the original places in the game,” he says, gesturing to a somewhat incongruous statue in the middle of an adjacent car park.

Yet he insists that the solution to technological overload can be more technology. Niantic is making a Pokémon Go app for the Apple Watch, which lets players capture monsters from their wrists without having to look at their phones. Proponents argue that such wearables allow for hands-free play and favour a glance over a stare.

Wearable tech has been widely seen as the natural successor to the smartphone. Apple’s Watch has so far struggled to live up to its hype but Hanke says he’s still a “believer”. “I’m reminded of pre-iPhone smartphones . . . it didn’t mean it was a doomed concept, it just meant that nobody had gotten all the ingredients perfectly right.”

He is also excited about smart glasses such as Microsoft’s HoloLens or the headset being developed by secretive Google-backed start-up Magic Leap. “We will get to the glasses or contact lenses that give us the enhanced visual interaction with the world around us in a way that’s not as obtrusive as pulling your phone out,” he says, with the zeal of someone who lives in the only place on the planet that can bring such ideas to life.

Apple’s Tim Cook and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg are among the tech executives who have seized on the success of Pokémon Go as proof that consumers want such “augmented reality” — despite Google Glass flopping before it was even launched to the general public. “I think the hype just got away from them,” Hanke says of Glass. “To some extent they encouraged it when they shouldn’t have.” He draws a contrast with Fitbit, the fitness tracker whose more “modest” and “organic” approach makes it one of the Silicon Valley companies he most admires.

As for Pokémon Go, opinion in the Valley is divided on whether it can catch another wave. Slice Intelligence, which monitors consumers’ online spending, estimated in September that the number of people paying for in-app upgrades in the game had fallen by 79 per cent from its mid-July peak.

“There’s a drop-off,” Hanke concedes, although he does not seem too unhappy about it. Fewer than 200 of the more than 700 Pokémon varieties have been incorporated into the game to date and Niantic has hundreds of millions of users it can prod to pick the game back up.

In the meantime, it has made far more money than he expected. “We broke even and a lot more,” he says breaking into a rare smile.

We pick away at our tacos. I am enjoying the steak he recommended, which has a sharp kick to it, although the battery fish taco was a little bland. Returning to the game’s cultural impact, I ask how much responsibility he feels when he reads about accidents or muggings after players followed a Pokémon into the wrong part of town.

“Our reaction to that, any time we see an area of friction with the product, is to say, ‘What can we do to make the product better?” he says.

This makes it sound more like an engineering problem, I say, than something that affects real life. “No, everything in and around us gets designed, like how people queue up for the ferry,” he retorts. “What I’m talking about is how do you design a thing, whether it’s a digital product or a physical thing, to be as beneficial and free of harm as it can be . . . That’s just the burden you take on when you make something.”

He bemoans what he sees as a tendency for people to “fixate on the newness of the technology and not really appreciate that the problem itself is a deeper one that may have existed before”. For example, he suggests, if there is an area where kids might not be safe riding a bike by themselves then parents should not let them play Pokémon there unsupervised either.


Amount charged per hour by “pro” Pokémon trainers

This exchange has left Hanke looking grumpy and me feeling awkward so, with our table now getting chilly in the shade, I suggest taking one of the meditative walks that Hanke is fond of. We set out along the sunny Embarcadero, the waterfront that was redeveloped after San Francisco’s 1989 earthquake, towards the nearby Niantic office, and he expands on how the concept for the company was inspired by him trying to pry his own kids away from the screen and go outside. Many Niantic employees are parents, he says, with the average age a little older than the 20-something start-up average for Silicon Valley.

Whereas most people in Silicon Valley are desperate to put a dent in the universe, Hanke seems almost embarrassed about doing so. “I’m not going to go out and say that we’ve changed the world in a grand way, but we are going to try to change it at a very incremental level across a whole bunch of people.” People now have another option for going out together, he says simply, an alternative to the movies or sports. “We’ll just see what, ultimately, we can achieve with that.”

With that, Hanke jogs across the road to Niantic to shape the future. Like him, I am excited by the potential of smartwatches and augmented reality glasses. But can adding more tech really solve some of the problems it has created? At a time when trolling and viral memes can help swing elections, at least Pokémon are a friendlier kind of digital monster.

Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent

Illustration by James Ferguson

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
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