Pokémon GO and the April Fools’ joke that made billions

The Niantic EC-1, Part II: The Spin-out

It’s the morning of March 31st, 2014, and the Google Maps team is about to release its April Fools’ Day gag to the world.

It wasn’t the first time this team had goofed around with an April Fools’ day joke. Google, as a whole, goes wild on April 1st. Maybe it’s for the resulting publicity. Maybe it’s to make the brand seem a little more fun. Maybe it’s to give employees a creative outlet that doesn’t seem so mission critical. It’s probably a mix of all three.

Google has used the first of April to “launch” everything from morse code keyboards, to AI-powered garden gnomes, to a translator for talking with your pets. They’ve “announced” that the company would be switching to Comic Sans as the default font across all of its products, and once spent the day suggesting that, despite whatever you might be searching for on YouTube, you probably meant to search for Sandstorm by Darude.

Most of the gags come and go (excluding Gmail, of course, which everyone thought was a joke thanks to its April 1st launch timing.) In most cases, everything is reset back to normal and everyone moves on.

This one would be a bit different. Within the next few hours, the wheels would be in motion for the product that became Pokémon GO.

This is Part 2 of our EC-1 series on Niantic, looking at its past, present, and potential future. If you haven’t read it, you can find Part 1 here. The reading time for this article is 31 minutes (7,900 words)

The joke that inspired it all

By April 2014, Niantic was still over a year away from its spinout of Google. At this point, it’s still Niantic Labs, an “autonomous unit” operating under Google’s roof.

They’d launched Field Trip, which proved to the team that there was something to this idea of focusing around real world points of interest, but didn’t seem to keep people coming back. They’d followed up with their first game, Ingress, which had a dedicated following but hadn’t made them very much money.

“Niantic was trying to figure out what was next, and what we should do.”

That’s Masashi (or “Masa”) Kawashima. He runs Niantic’s operations in Asia, having joined to grow Ingress in Japan at a time when the country was around 25th on the list by playerbase. Nowaday’s it’s number one or two, depending on which phone platform we’re talking about. His passion for Niantic’s games runs deep; he rarely stops smiling when talking about them. Every question I ask is answered with a story, and each one is packed with a million details. At no point am I tempted to stop him.