Game On: A Discussion about AR and Gaming with Niantic’s CTO

Episode 71

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Phil Keslin (LinkedIn) first became interested in technology in the eighth grade and saw computers as a “great escape with interesting challenges.” He never lost that passion and today, he is the CTO of Niantic, the lab behind the game that broke the internet — Pokemon Go.

In this interview, Phil and Ian go through the painful launch of Pokemon Go and discuss how Niantic was able to scale its system when the game was massively more popular than anyone anticipated. Plus, Phil details what he loves most about AR, which is its ability to open up new avenues of discovery in the real world by getting people up, active and engaged in what is happening around them.

Best Advice for a first-time C-Level exec: “Build a great team.”

Key Takeaways:

What does working at Niantic look like? — (2:35)

At Niantic, technology is a tool to motivate people to get outside and explore the world around them. Phil’s role is to run the company’s engineering and technology departments, and those who report to him work in areas that run the gamut from corporate security to game development to AR and more.

“Finding ways to use technology to create the motivation to get people outside is really the key for what I want to do.”

The current state of AR and VR — (4:25)

At this point, Phil does not find VR compelling enough to be a fan. He much prefers AR because it allows for the opportunity to enhance the real world rather than replace it with something different. The launch of Pokemon Go was a perfect example of how this is possible. Using AR, Phil and his team were able to motivate groups of people to get up, go outside and explore the world through their game.

The biggest challenge, though, is creating an engaging experience. Of course, there are technical challenges as well — building on the AR cloud and getting the technology out the door for example.

“With VR, people talk about looking outside and replacing the real world with something different. I think the real world is a magical place, so I’d rather let that come through.”

“For us, creating AR is about creating a delightful experience.”

“The state of AR has a long way to go to create that unobtrusive experience I think people really want. But I think it’s coming, and I want to make sure this company is ready for that type of experience.”

“In the end, if you don’t create an engaging experience that gets people outside, then it really doesn’t matter that you spent all this energy and effort. If people don’t think it’s something special, everything you did becomes moot.”

Speaking to passionate fanbases and adding onto their experiences — (9:40)

With Pokemon Go and with the upcoming Harry Potter game, Niantic not only had to meet the high standards of fanbases, but the company also had to exceed those expectations and expand the worlds in which these characters existed. It helps that many of the employees working on these projects are themselves passionate fans.

For the Harry Potter game, Phil’s team wanted to create an experience that reflected the story the right way. There is a depth to the gameplay that is different than Pokemon Go, and the way it was built will speak specifically to those who love Harry Potter.

“The people here really love the things they are producing. They care about the story behind the game that they created. They’re passionate about the things that they’re building and the impact they have on people’s lives.”

The challenges of launching a product — (12:30)

Niantic had been working on Pokemon Go for a year before they spun out of Google and then launched the game nine months later. At that time there were about 50 to 60 people total working in the company, and the engineering team was only a group of four. The initial launch happened in New Zeland and Australia and they got 2.5x the expected number of users. When they launched in the U.S., it was even bigger. They had to scale their system incredibly quickly just to support the game, and they had to constantly deal with new, unexpected problems every day. It was a real team effort, and by working together, they were able to get their system stabilized before the launch of the game in Japan. The system was encountering millions of request per second and tens of millions of active users at a time. By focusing on ways to keep costs down and the performance up, and squeezing as much performance out of the system as possible, they were able to scale in the way they needed to support the fanbase.

None of this would have been possible without the right team or the ability to focus on where to put your resources and capital. Being fiscally conservative is the only way forward in an industry as risky as AR.

“If there were ever launches when we felt like our hair was constantly on fire [the U.S. Pokemon Go] launch was probably it.”

“They always tell you that every time you scale something by 10x, you encounter a completely different set of problems. We did that twice.”

“The hardest part is building a team to build all those games while trying to remain financially disciplined about it.”

“We want to build out an AR infrastructure, but that’s incredibly risky.”

“Social gameplay is fun. And if you can create an experience where the gameplay is shared between multiple people, it becomes even more fun.”

Educational applications of AR — (31:15)

Because AR is built on real locations, there is an opportunity to bring people somewhere new. While they are there, they can learn about the place, the people around them and more. Just by playing a game, you can discover something different and exciting. Players also contribute to creating an experience that they want to have by sending in photos, comments, and feedback, which Niantic can then incorporate.

“The game pulls you into these new and novel creations people have deposited in places. For us, it’s not just giving you the artifact you find in a location, it’s also about giving you some backstory that goes along it.”

“When you’re exploring the world, you’re not looking for something artificial. We want to combine the artificial with something that’s real that allows you to learn something about the place you live.”

Most excited about: “The opportunity to create truly delightful experiences for people that fit within the world around them.”

Fun Fact: Niantic is named after a ship called the Niantic that was buried underneath the Transamerica Tower.


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Phil Keslin, CTO of Niantic, joins IT Visionaries to talk about the risky world of AR and how his team is changing the way people think about AR with games like Pokemon Go.

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