It provided Borrud and Seismic with better opportunities to understand free-to-play mechanics and live-ops in a whole new way. Before long, Seismic was moving from mobile gaming into virtual reality and augmented reality. And then it was Disney Imaginarium knocking on their door to commission them to work on Galaxy’s Edge and Smuggler’s Run for Disneyland and Disney World. It was departure after departure from their newly defined comfort zones.
That’s what brought Niantic and Seismic together: a passion to “move into new areas to create new forms of entertainment.”
“Niantic was on the forefront of creating almost a whole new way of interacting and playing games,” Borrud said. “[It was] almost a new entertainment vertical, which is part of what brought us to Niantic. Niantic has completely transformed the way that we think about game design, the way we think about the world, honestly. It’s both scary and exciting.”
But with sheltering-in-place in effect in most places in the United States and in many places around the world, Niantic has had to move quickly and efficiently to adapt to circumstances while enabling its pillars — exploration, exercise, and social — to continue to stand strong. The games had to change to allow for staying at home and playing. All of Niantic’s major in-person events, such as Pokémon Go Fest and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite Fan Festival, needed to be transformed into something that anyone from anywhere could be a part of.
“It’s been challenging, I’m going to be honest,” Borrud said. “The first priority was really looking after our employees, making sure that we could safely and properly continue to work and develop our products, while they’re dealing with [wild] stuff. The teams [have been] amazing, both our development team and our cross-functional teams. Then, it was thinking about the products.”
Niantic has already proven that it can adapt in real time to real-time issues during events, whether that’s a looming storm cloud in Indianapolis during Wizard’s Unite Fan Festival or a global pandemic.
“When you have these real world games, you have to be able to be really nimble,” Borrud said. “So, I think the first thing that our teams did, which was just amazing, is that they went in and they did a lot of really quick changes to make sure that people could play from home. That was adjusting spawn rates, the types of things that spawn, [and] the types of activities that you do. Within hours or days, at the most, we were able to make these kinds of rapid changes.”
Beyond that, it was about identifying the kinds of content that players love to engage with the most. In Pokémon Go, Niantic created remote raids. For Harry Potter, it introduced the Knight Bus. Both of these games have embraced a remote mechanic that has enabled players to shelter in place while still playing.
Eventually, the world will return to some semblance of normalcy. People will be able to sit at the park and catch Pokémon. They’ll defeat dark wizards no longer need the Knight Bus. So Niantic isn’t only reacting to circumstances. It’s also looking ahead to new games and experiences — like Catan World Explorers — and the continued evolution of AR technology.
Right now, the world is driven mostly by mobile. But much like Seismic did by embracing location-based entertainment and VR, Niantic is also looking toward which platforms are going to be the future, such as wearables.
“Niantic, especially spawning out of Google, is as much of a tech company … as a game company,” Borrud said. “Most people think of Niantic as a game company, because of Pokémon Go, Harry Potter, and Ingress.
“But there is a huge group of people, some of the smartest I’ve ever met in my life, working on technology, working on the platform, and working on AR tech. So, that’s looking toward the near future, whether that’s monodepth, segmentation — just an understanding of the world through AR technology that we’re starting to develop. Those are all going to start appearing in our games. But in the further distance, whether it’s computer vision or machine learning, we’re trying to build a 3D map of the world.”
Geospatial technology in gaming has the potential to bring people together and create inclusive local communities. Niantic has become the gold standard of geospatial AR games. If the company continues to explore different intellectual properties and genres, we won’t get reskinned versions of Pokémon Go or Wizards Unite. Instead, we’ll see new, interesting IPs with different mechanics that invite players to make friends, explore the world, and stay healthy.
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