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Pokémon Go developer Niantic Labs is collaborating with sports-gaming developer HypGames on a new project. Working alongside the NBA, the companies are creating a new AR experience for NBA fans. The new game, called NBA All-World, gives players the opportunity to meet and play with some of the league’s biggest stars.

Mike Taramykin, CEO of HypGames, has quite the history in sports gaming. After Electronic Arts acquired Hypnotix, which was founded by Taramykin, he served as VP and GM over the Tiger Woods franchise until 2013. After shorter stints at Zynga and Fanduel, he opened HypGames in 2016. We had a chance to talk to Taramykin via Zoom about AR, game design, and the ever-changing world of video games.

GamesBeat: How did you folks come up with the idea to make an AR experience out of the NBA?

Mike Taramykin: Niantic Labs came to us early enough in the process. The desire was to build something that really leveraged the NBA community, passion, competitiveness, lifestyle and culture. We decided we should build something that is unique, stands up on its own and leverages the interesting parts of what the two companies have done — the successes that we’ve had separately — and put it together into something. It’s like any creative process, you start with big dreams and build products that hopefully live up to the original vision.

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GamesBeat: How much can you tell us about the new game?

Taramykin: Probably not as much as you’d like. I’ll say this, like any live service these days, it’s really about building products that people want to engage with and stay engaged with over time. A lot of what we do evolves. So, when we speak about high level goals and stuff, it’s really because there’s a way that we like to see people interacting with each other through our products. But a lot of that is really up to them. When you’re building a console game, you put out a list of features and say “we hope they work and we’re gonna put ’em out. If they don’t, we’ll do something again next year.” And I think when you get to mobile and live services, a lot of the future stuff like to us is really about the way we like to see people interact. And then we build games that facilitate that. Obviously, once people start interacting with it, that’s where we learn. What do they like? How are people engaging? And then we try to really lean into what we’re learning.

GamesBeat: With mobile games you can be more iterative. You can react to the data in real time.

Taramykin: It’s not so much that we patch or update, it’s more about the whole process. It’s about facilitating how people want to interact. In a way that’s a blessing and a curse. Live service is a daily business, right? It’s 24/7, 365. And there’s a difference between Saturday and Tuesday, you know, as far as like what people want to do. There’s a difference when the season is on, there’s a difference when you’re in the playoffs, there’s a difference when it’s Thanksgiving Day. It’s just like the world of sports. So, I think what we do is embrace the fact that our products are there to entertain people every day.

And if we think that we can come up with the list of features that will facilitate that forever, we’re going to constantly be disappointed. [Laugh] Because no matter what we do, we know people want more, they want different, they want variety. We of come at this from a standpoint of the features that we build are designed to bring people together in the spirit of competition. We bring them together so they can have fun, interact, play together, and keep score.

GamesBeat: On the topic of NBA All-world, I have to ask — will you have to chase James Harden through a parking lot?

Taramykin: [Laugh] Well, no, but I will say it’s interesting for me to answer that question in the broader context of getting people to go out. It’s about getting people outside, and part of what do in the process is we end up gamifying the real world.

Ultimate Golf by HypGames

As far as HypGames is concerned, one of our big products is a game called Ultimate Golf, which is available in the app stores. We launched it two years ago. We use a lot of real golf courses. So, we go out and we scan them in painstaking detail. We’ve got dozens of real-world golf courses, so that no matter where you are in the world, you could stop right now and go play Tory Pines or Bay Hill. Within 10 seconds you could be teeing off and playing. We built this whole digital community of players. At any given moment, there are thousands of people playing the digital version of Tory Pines in our game from wherever they are. All-World looks at the other end of that, which is “how do we take all these people that are actually out there in the real world that aren’t together and how do we gamify that experience for them?”

How do we make being at a certain place at a certain time with other people more interesting? Because we can add digital components to real life. For us, as a company, we love the fact that we can do both. We’ve always had a thing for innovation. You know, let’s do something that other people aren’t doing because there’s something about being first that’s interesting. But at the same time, one thing that we learned over the years is that just doing something different isn’t enough. How do you do something different that really connects with people so that you can build interesting products and a good business on top of that?

I think products like this are a great opportunity to gamify the real world and gamify being present with other people and add a layer of digital gameplay to that. In some other products it’s about taking people that are just sort of sitting in different places around the world and bringing them all together into this one virtual place. This is the flip side of that. And I think it’s equally exciting.

GamesBeat: I love golf games, but I’m so bad at actual golf.

Taramykin: We all are, man. We all are.

Bay Hill in Ultimate Golf

GamesBeat: I’m OK at Tiger Woods, but yeah, I’m not good at real golf.

Taramykin: That’s on purpose. We realized that we sold a lot more copies when you were better at it. [Laugh] There was an interesting kind of “ah-ha” moment that we had with Tiger Woods. All our research said that people wanted authentic golf. What we found is the more real we made it; the less people liked it. Then one day there was this breakthrough moment in a focus group. Somebody said “Yeah, I want it real. Like when I see Tiger play on TV.”

When you watch Tiger on TV, all you see is a highlight reel. All they show you is like the six or seven great shots. And, when you watch golf on TV, it really is just a highlight reel. Nobody watches 72 holes of just one player. Then we realized that if we made every hole a highlight, people would like it. I bet they’d say it feels more real. So, that’s why shooting a minus 20 in Tiger Woods is not a big deal, right? In real life, a minus five is amazing.

GamesBeat: How has it been working with Niantic Labs?

Taramykin: I think probably the right way to answer that is this is a true collaboration. When we got together, the exciting part for us was that both groups bring something to the table that really compliments each other. And so, for us, it’s very important that when people go out in the world and play the game, the game is there for them, you know? We collaborated a lot. I’ll put it that way.

GamesBeat: The whole idea of Pokémon Go is fascinating.

Taramykin: Absolutely. And I love this notion, which I will not take any credit for, of “the game comes to you wherever you are.” I found that fascinating with Pokémon at the time. When that happened, my wife was a teaching assistant. So, she had first and second graders and the kids just all wanted to go outside. This whole idea of video games leading to actual interactions with real people in the real world was the opposite of what our industry had been doing.

For a long time, we were focused on “bringing the world to you.” You stay on the couch. But now talking about hit games, we know the other part of the metaverse is just the people. It’s the interaction with real people, right? It’s about having relationships and competitions with actual people and this whole idea of being able to either bring the game to the person or the person to the game.

GamesBeat: Cell phones really opened up a lot of games for the masses. That and the rise of free-to-play titles.

Taramykin: Well, when you have a console in your pocket all the time … . Because of the business models that came out of social games, you were able to just jump into any game whenever you want. And then you decide when it’s time to pay. If you go back to the earliest games, you had to go to the store, put down a bunch of money, go home, and sit in front of your TV. Those were the only places you could play. And then if you liked it good for you. And if you didn’t, well, that sucked, maybe you could trade it back and get like half of what you paid for it and buy something used. But the market decided. And there was point in between the two where you weren’t sure which way it was going to go. But the people at home decided that they’d rather play while online at Starbucks and they don’t want to spend any money. And the industry facilitated all that and is now bigger than it ever was.

I think innovation is in a great place because there’s so many new ways you can kind of invent ways for people to interact with each other. And because the feedback loop is so tight, you find out minutes after something happens. You can measure it. You’re able to cater the experiences to what people want and that’s how it all evolves. The reality is that developers now can bring these experiences and are able to see in real time what people think. Then we’re able to build on that engagement. When you ask the question about features and stuff like that: we just want people to play the game every day and we’ll do whatever we need to do to make that happen.

That said, when you think about the partnership between us (HypGames), Niantic Labs, and the NBA, we have a lot to work with. [Laugh] And we’re creative people. I think the players will constantly be surprised by what we bring them. I don’t know what the features are going to be like today, but talk to me in six months, it’ll be a whole different story. [Laugh]

GamesBeat: Right, It’s a constantly evolving.

Taramykin: The thing is that it has to be, because you’re always trying to entertain people. And you’re trying to fend off the feeling that they’ve seen it all and done it all. So the challenge on us is to just keep inventing stuff and keep it interesting. We have a couple of tricks on how to do that.

GamesBeat: This might be an unusual question, but how do you design a game to be played in public and also keep it safe? I mean safe for the players and for people not in the game.

Taramykin: I’ll defer that answer because there are techniques and methodologies and ways to do that. The key thing is to make sure that everybody’s safe. We don’t like anybody rolling the dice on that. There’s a myriad of ways you have of validating, checking and ensuring. And not even necessarily just when we talk about location-based stuff, just gaming in general, there’s techniques that you put in place. Just to make sure that, while we’re bringing people together, we keep them safe too. There’s a long cadre of things that you can do there. But I think the key message is that we’re always very aware of that kind of stuff.

GamesBeat: There’s a lot of talk about VR and the Metaverse lately, and with that talk comes questions about mental and emotional safety as well. How do you design to situations that are not under your control?

Taramykin: I think that’s probably a broader topic. I don’t think games are immune from some of those things, of course, but I do think that the most important part is that everyone recognizes that going into it. And so the whole idea of designing games that are meant to entertain people and keep them safe is, you can’t underscore this enough, where you start.

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