The Pokémon franchise has enjoyed decades of success since its first video game release in 1996 (Jones, 2019). Technological advancements play no small part in promoting and perpetuating such legacy. One of the franchise’s major collaborations – Pokémon GO was launched in 2016 by the North American software developer Niantic, Inc. The augmented reality (AR) mobile game has been attributed to the popularisation of location-based and AR technology in the gaming industry (Carter, Egliston, 2020).
This essay will present an analysis on the game developer Niantic, Inc., and its popular AR title, which put the company on the map of the tech industry’s intertwined ecology, as well as its transformative impacts on our real-world interactions and experiences.
The History of Keyhole Inc., and its succession – Niantic Inc.
Established in 2001 by founder and CEO – John Hanke, Keyhole’s technological focus was mapping technology, which also piqued the interest of the US the military (Carter, Egliston, 2020). Until 2004, Google acquired Keyhole for its Google Maps development. The rebranding of Keyhole to Niantic took place in 2010 as its operation shifted to focus on games. And in 2015, as an independent company, Niantic announced its Series-A funding backed by Google, Nintendo, and the Pokémon Company (Hanke, 2015). A few months later, the historic launch of Pokémon GO in July 2016 marked a new chapter of Augmented Reality mobile game.
Augmented Reality technologies enhance our experiences of the physical world by embedding digital elements onto our visual surroundings through an enabled device’s touchscreen and camera (Jones, 2020). Additionally, GPS tracking functions to capture and coordinate our movement via gameplay also permit Niantic to create an infrastructure and network of valuable logistical data. As Rossiter (2016, p. 5) has remarked
“Infrastructure makes world. Logistics governs them”.
Thus, credits for Pokémon GO’s success can be attributed to the nostalgic essence of the beloved franchise, the immersive capabilities of AR technology, logistical media and the popularity of smartphone ownership empowered by the likes of Apple and Samsung. As shown on figure 1, within the first 80 days, the mobile app were downloaded more than half a billion times and generated $470 million across the iOS and Google Play app stores, reaching more than 55 countries (Newzoo, 2016).
Figure 1: Pokémon GO’s financial performance upon its release in 2016 (Newzoo, 2016).
Niantic, Inc. and Pokémon GO’s Internet Ecosystem
As a prominent player in the AR race, Google’s interest in the technology is apparent in its strategic investment and affiliation. After Niantic’s emancipation, Google still remains in the game developer’s ecology as an investor and service provider. All of Niantic games are powered by multitude of software from Google Cloud Platform, including Dataflow for streaming analytics service and Cloud Spanner for data storage (Google Cloud Platform, 2018). Other suppliers include the two major app stores – Google Play and Apple’s App Store, where the games are made available for download.
Furthermore, Pokémon GO’s location-based data was built on Niantic-owned game – Ingress, whose mapping data was created and provided by Google Maps during its start-up time with Google (Ganzert, Gielnik, Hauser, Ihls & Otto, 2017). Thus, the business relationship between Google and Niantic is evidently resilient and impactful.
Figure 2: Niantic Internet Ecosystem with a focus of Pokémon Go. Created by Olly Nguyen
On its quest to explore the realm of AR technology, Niantic has made ongoing acquisitions and investment in other tech start-ups, such as Escher Reality (Hanke, 2018) and 6D.ai (Hanke, 2020). Intentions of these acquisitions are to improve and develop Niantic’s AR platform, with the former expanding on the company’s capabilities in “planet scale AR” multi-user experiences (Hanke, 2018) and the later for its innovation in real-time large-scale AR mapping. Through these investments, Niantic is reinforcing its prime position in the AR and location-based technologies so as to perpetuate its remarkable success.
Thanks to the phenomena of Pokémon Go and other game releases, evidenced by the 1 billion global downloads, Niantic has attracted a substantial and young user base, whose age group is primarily between 25 – 44 years old and almost 60% are male (figure 3). Ironically, despite the claim of attracting diverse players, the demographics also reflect the stereotypical nerd culture of the computing and technology industry.
Figure 3: Niantic’s user demographics in 2018, collected via surveys by Frank N. Magid Associates. Source: Sponsored Locations for Business (Niantic, n.d.). All rights reserved.
Niantic’s Pokemon Go business model is a hybrid of free-to-play and premium in-app purchases. Additionally, from its sizable collective of users, marketing partnership and brand sponsorships are lucrative revenue streams. Apart from Nintendo and the Pokémon Company, whose trademarked characters are licensed to Niantic to develop its AR game, other partnerships include Starbucks’s 7,800 stores (Niantic, 2016); 10,500 Sprint locations (Niantic, 2016) and recently Verizon (PokemonGoApp, 2020) in the United States, as well as a sponsorship agreement in Japan with McDonald to transform thousands of stores into a “valuable place for the game” (Liberati, 2017, p. 229).
However, as the game’s popularity gain momentum, questionable practices of other business are also inevitable, such as the e-cigarette retailer – Joyetech who peddled their vaping devices as shown on figure 4. Considering the appeal of Pokémon GO to young players, where almost 30% of its early adopters are between the age of 10 – 20 (Newzoo, 2016), such advertising practices of harmful products can have unforeseeable impacts on the young generations.
Comparing with other AR location-based game developers, Pokémon GO towers over its competitors. As showed on figure 5, 84% of location-based game downloads in December of 2018 are reportedly from Niantic’s game. It’s second and third competitors – Jurassic World: Alive by Ludia Inc., and The Walking Dead: Our World by AMC only account for 6% and 3% respectively. One reason for such vast market gap is Niantic’s massive network of Ingress portals that have previously mapped out virtually every landscape for its games (Tassi, 2018).
Additionally, figure 6 captured from Google Trends shows the search interest worldwide of the 3 franchises, reinforcing Pokémon Go as the competitor to beat in the Colosseum of AR location-based games. Hence, having the available resources and a head start in location-based technology have proven to be major competitive advantages for Niantic.
Figure 5: Market share of major location-based games in December 2018. Source: Kumar (2018)
Figure 6: Google Trends comparing the 3 franchises over a 1-year period from Nov 2019, reflecting the global interest that contribute to the success of each AR location-based games. Source: Google Trend (2020), screen captured by Olly Nguyen.
Finally, on the topic of digital regulation, data privacy has posed as a major concern for users due to the collection of sensitive information. Upon its early release, the AR game was criticised on media platforms for privacy violation that required full access and control to gamer’s registered Google Account (Irvine, 2016). The company then expeditiously released game updates that relinquished such access from the app.
The company also lists out a range of rights and options for players, citing adequate security measures are in place that comply with data protection laws. However, if a player decision is to not provide personal data as requested, access to its services can be denied. Thus, it can be assumed that there are no other ways to purchase a ticket to the AR world of Pokémon without giving consent to hand over our data.
The transformative impacts of Pokémon Go
According to the game developer (Niantic, 2019), 16.3 billion kilometres have been walked across all of their game releases, which is equivalent to a galactic walk from Earth to Pluto, and back. Niantic’s success with Pokémon Go has inadvertently led to the promotion of health and fitness among players. As gamers travel through different physical locations of gameplay, they also receive positive health benefits such as tackling obesity through regular exercising, which two-thirds of the American population is facing (Kamboj, Krishna, 2017).
Walking has also been attributed to positive impacts on mental health such as depression and mood disorders (Kamboj et al, 2017). On their research, Kamboj et al also remarked that familial relationships can also be cultivated across generations where parents, their children and grandparents can all enjoy. As shown on figure 3, 71% of Niantic’s users are among households with children, thus, reinforcing the familial bonding value that the game and the beloved franchise can deliver.
Additionally, a 2018 research conducted by Blasko and colleagues has noted the social benefits of playing Pokémon Go cooperatively in group setting, which is more enjoyable and motivating, especially for college students to establish connections with others who share similar interests.
Pokémon Go trailer. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sj2iQyBTQs (The Official Pokémon YouTube Channel, 2015) Standard YouTube License
Circling back to the addictive pervasiveness of Pokémon GO, trespassing and accidents have been reported as common issues as players wander and collide in real-world locations, while immersed on their phone screen (O’Rourke, 2016). As conveniently depicted during the last minute of the game trailer, an excessive number of players flock to the street to battle and capture the rare Pokémon Mewtwo in a legendary raid. Although the moment had been digitally produced before the game’s launch, it did in fact, foretold the game’s forthcoming.
At the game’s peak, players have been reported to exhibit poor social conducts and behaviours such as the trashing of Milwaukee County parks, causing traffic and making excessive noise after park hours (Signorelli, 2018). Due to the absence of spatial and temporal limits of AR games, where the augmented digital world never ends, players are thus lured into the pervasive and addictive behaviours (Liberati, 2017).
American technology companies have been relying on the US ‘safe harbour’ provisions that exempt them from the rigorous content regulation applicable to traditional media (Martin, 2019). Regardless, as shown in Joyetech’s campaign, the onus of content moderation and responsible marketing practices should rest on both the game developers and other internet ecology’s partners.
The above issues perpetuate an ongoing deadlock for legislative changes to address. In the U.S. where the game developer head quarter is located, beside the safe harbour provisions, the First Amendment can be extended to provide protection for game designers and players of location-based AR games in the quintessential public forums of streets, parks and sidewalks (Signorelli, 2018).
Regulating the designers would prove inefficient due to the burden of obtaining permit for every municipality where the company releases its game (Signorelli, 2018). Developer also has limited control over when people play their game. Regulating players also has its tension and such practice can prove challenging to enforce, requiring excessive resources to monitor the massive user base.
Niantic has established itself as a top contender in the AR and location-based game market. The company’s business relationships have in myriad ways, paved the road to its successful application of immersive experiences and recreated nostalgic memories, where players collect Pokémon as Niantic and its business partners gather users’ data. Thus, it is apparent that the technologies the company employs raise a multitude of concerns and data related risks. It is, however, still within our own rights and collective strength as consumers to voice those concerns and demand change from the company and other agents operating within the internet ecology.
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