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Augmenting Reality with John Hanke, Niantic Founder and CEO

Last Updated: July 5, 2023
Boardroom spoke to Hanke about Niantic’s origin story, the business behind the games his company has developed, and where his tech company is headed next.

Niantic founder and CEO John Hanke grew up in a small town in Texas, where he found his love for gaming and maps at a young age.

He remembers discovering his love for maps around the sixth or seventh grade when his kindergarten teacher and neighbor knocked on his door with five grocery bags full of National Geographic magazines. Hanke said he went through every single one of them and pulled out the giant maps to discover the world throughout its history, from ancient Egypt to the Aztec Empire and beyond.

“I love maps,” Hanke told Boardroom in an exclusive interview. “I think they’re the coolest way to understand things.”

Hanke evolved his passions for gaming and maps into one when he built what was first known as Niantic Labs, a software development company known for creating augmented reality-enabled mobile games. Hanke’s company is the mastermind behind Pokémon Go and, most recently, NBA All-World.

Wanting to learn more, Boardroom spoke to Hanke about Niantic’s origin story, the business behind the games his company has developed, and where his tech company is headed next.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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MICHELAI GRAHAM: When was your first foray into gaming?

JOHN HANKE: I was programming games when I was a kid. It was back when programs would be printed in these magazines. You’d get the magazine and you would type in that code. When I was in high school, I sold one of my games. I was really proud of myself. I think it was, like, $175 or something.

MG: Tell me about your role at the video game design studio Archetype Interactive.

JH: I kind of took a hiatus after my high school programming stint, then I wasn’t involved in making games until Archetype Interactive, a company that got started when I was going to business school at Berkeley. One of my classmates and his brother were interested in starting this company, so we built it up while going to business and made this game called Meridian 59. We created one of the first massively multiplayer online role-playing games. It was an RPG with hundreds of people in the same virtual world.

Archetype was acquired by a company called The 3DO Company. I worked there for a while, where I met Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts. I actually wrote my essay to go to business school about Trip Hawkins and how he was this great visionary — he had just started 3DO at the time, ya know, so it was like this weird synchronicity that we started this company and he ended up buying that company. He was like an idol to me and I ended up working for him.

MG: Let’s jump into Niantic’s origin story. What’s the meaning behind the term itself?

JH: Niantic is the name of a town in Connecticut, and a ship was named after that town because it’s where they built whaling ships. Niantic was a ship that got sailed to San Francisco during the Gold Rush. It carried a bunch of people there, who headed for the hills to go get rich. And at the time, that was happening a lot. These ships were coming into the harbor of San Francisco, and there were literally not enough people to sail them away because everyone was coming and nobody was going. So these ships got piled up in the harbor, and there were no buildings. San Francisco was just this muddy mess.

The Niantic became famous because it was a ship that got repurposed to be a store, hotel, bar, and allegedly, a brothel. There were a few of them that got reused in that way.

So, in downtown San Francisco, the six blocks or so between the Financial District and the actual water, where they’re now, like, skyscrapers and apartment buildings and stuff, is all sediment where these ships were. The Niantic is a buried ship under San Francisco — it’s buried near the Transamerica building, and it was discovered when they were doing some work on the Transamerica. Some builders found this old ship under the streets of San Francisco, and it still had a case of champagne and some other weird things in there.

We named our company after that because I just thought the story was so cool. I heard about it on a podcast, and it was about hidden, interesting facts about the world that you sometimes stumble upon. It was sort of the philosophy of the company; we wanted to help discover those cool things about hidden gems like cool local businesses and historical facts. As we formed our core database, we started building games that took people around to those places.

MG: How did Niantic get started?

JH: After selling Meridian 59, I met this group that came out of Silicon Graphics that was working on high-end satellite imagery visualization for light simulators and stuff. They wanted to form a company to make a consumer product to basically create what you probably know as Google Earth. So, we formed that company and worked on making that product happen.

Google eventually bought us, and we came into Google and made it bigger and better. I worked on it for a bunch of years, and I kind of got bored. I wanted to try something new, and I went to Larry and said, I kind of have this idea about taking maps and mobile phones, and maybe there’s a gaming side to it, and I want to just, you know, experiment. Because we’d had a lot of success with Google Maps, he said yes to it. He let me pull a few people together, and we made this sort of skunkworks thing inside of Google. We called it Niantic Labs.

That’s how we got started, and we made this game called Ingress and an app called Field Trip, and then we spun out and build Pokémon Go and made some other games since then.

MG: When did you decide to bring augmented reality into Niantic’s mission?

JH: People were talking about augmented reality when Niantic was founded in 2010, which was also during the time period when Google was working on Google Glass. It was like a secret project.

People were talking about other things, like maybe you could do stuff with a watch or other kinds of wearable devices. So, it was a little bit in the air, and to me, I already felt like we are not going to use phones forever. Eventually, we will use something that is more ergonomic for us, like air glasses when they get small enough and look normal because it’ll be nice that we will have our hands free and we can see information easily. We kind of wanted to make a bet on that and start thinking about what kinds of applications would be really cool for that type of device when it eventually existed. Mm-hmm. So, the purpose of our group while still at Google was really to kind of invent the killer app for AR before AR was a thing.

MG: That’s a big bet to make, but it’s clearly paying off. How did you know that AR was going to be successful?

JH: I feel like you always have to make bets like that in tech. You’re always trying to think about what’s going to be cool in the future that we don’t have yet. AR seemed like an obvious one to me. I felt the same way the first time we got our game running at Archetype; it was the first time I have been in a 3D virtual environment.

MG: Tell me about Niantic’s first product, Ingress Prime.

JH: Ingress started with us wanting to build games around these places that have some special energy about them. These places were historical or cultural, so that premise became the core lore of the game, and the game’s mechanics kind of grew out of that. It’s about tapping into energy, and maybe that comes from some other dimension or part of the universe that’s trying to influence the Earth. That was the main story, to choose your faction and explore these cool energies.

Ingress took a couple of years to develop. We had to raise money, which included a $30 million Series A investment. Ingress is still active today; it just celebrated its 10-year anniversary and still has a lot of active players. We had an event last year in LA to celebrate the game. We hosted a live-play event where we were running all over downtown.

There were so many things we wanted to improve on the game to make the concept more accessible to people. Ingress is pretty dense to get into, so that led us in the direction of Pokémon. We’ve launched various games and apps since Pokémon Go including Pikmin Bloom, Peridot, and now, NBA All-World. MARVEL World Heroes is currently in soft launch.

MG: Niantic is working with the NBA and NBPA on NBA All-World. How do you feel about bringing this game and partnership to life this year?

JH: I’m stoked. I love the fact that people have responded in a positive way. You never really know when you put something out in the world how people are going to react, and the reviews have been strong. It’s resonating with people. To me, it’s a pretty obvious concept if you’ve had sports cards that people collect and you’ve had video games and people are somewhat familiar with Pokémon Go, so this just kind of weaves those ideas together.

MG: What’s next for Niantic?

JH: In the next 10 months, you’ll see us launch a game called Peridot, which I’m really excited about. It’s a Tamagotchi-type virtual pet that’s genetically unique that you have to hatch. It can be bred with other Peridots to create new-looking Peridots, and they live in advanced augmented reality environments. You can do stuff like take it on walks. It’s coming very soon.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Peridot launched on May 9. Click here to learn more and download.

We also have our Marvel game which has been in development for quite a while that we’ll be launching this year, and we have another game called Monster Hunter Now coming in September.

As for looking out for emerging tech, AI is kind of a beast; it’s really coming strong. We’re sort of processing how we can take advantage of that tech and respond and adapt to the growing industry.

We are also working on rolling out a new layer to our games this year called Campfire, which is a social layer that ties them all together. Most importantly, it’s organized around local communities, and you can chat and also arrange meetups. People do it on Discord and other tools today, so now we’re creating a way to organize within our own app. This is social and putting people together in the real world, which is kind of one of the most important things I think we can do. We’re helping people enjoy the games and enjoy themselves.

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