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Niantic is known for its approach to augmented reality and location-based gaming. In the summer of 2016, Pokémon Go changed the world and how communities form around mobile games. Greg Borrud, the general manager at Niantic’s Los Angeles studio, has watched the industry grow and evolve from a reliance on PCs to consoles to phones that are more powerful than our 1997 Pentiums.
I sat down during the second day of GamesBeat Summit 2020 to chat about Borrud’s origin story in the game industry, his work at Seismic Games, Niantic’s approach to AR during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what the future of AR may have in store for Niantic’s fans.
Borrud’s entrance into games is pretty familiar, in that he mostly fell into it.
“I was kind of working in the television business,” Borrud began, “and this is back in the day when [gaming] was doing a lot of full-motion video games. And I was on a film shoot for a full-motion CD-ROM game for Capcom. I started thinking, ‘Huh, instead of being on the film side, I’d love to be on the video game side.’”
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From there, Borrud launched his career in gaming at Activision, mostly in real-time strategy for PC, where he stayed for 3 years before striking out on his own in 1998 with the “unfortunately named” Pandemic Studios. Borrud wasn’t dissatisfied with his work at Activision, but the internal trend of subcontracting games to work-for-hire studios, including id and Neversoft, inspired him to found his own studio.
“As the industry evolved, at that point, consoles really started to become a thing,” Borrud continued. “So as a studio, we evolved from a PC shop into a console shop. And that’s when we really started moving into what would define Pandemic Studios with games like Star Wars: Battlefront, Mercenaries, Destroy All Humans, Full Spectrum Warrior, Saboteur. Just a great run of [games] for consoles.”
When Pandemic was shut down in 2009, two years after EA purchased the studio, and all 228 employees were laid off, “those people just spread throughout the industry.” Borrud continues to maintain contact and laud his former teammates as now working with “some of the finest studios in the world.”
But the culmination of Borrud’s years in the industry was in founding Seismic Games at the tail end of 2010. The idea was to bring together everything that Borrud had learned, the years of expertise and experience, and coalesce it into a new studio.
“Let’s take all of this expertise at building [games], take these people that we really love working with, and start looking at the new platforms,” Borrud said. “At the time, it was social, Facebook was in there for a hot minute, and then we were right onto mobile. It was the next phase of our evolution.”
Seismic worked on a number of different projects for Activision, including Call of Duty and Skylanders, but it really hit its stride on mobile with its partnership with Kabam and Marvel in Marvel Strike Force, which launched in March 2018.
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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