A chat with Niantic CEO John Hanke on the launch of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Just shy of three years ago, Pokémon GO took over the world. Players filled the sidewalks, and crowds of trainers flooded parks and landmarks. Anywhere you looked, people were throwing Pokéballs and chasing Snorlax.

As the game grew, so did the company behind it. Niantic had started its life as an experimental “lab” within Google — an effort on Google’s part to keep the team’s founder, John Hanke, from parting ways to start his own thing. In the months surrounding GO’s launch, Niantic’s team shrank dramatically, spun out of Google, and then rapidly expanded… all while trying to keep GO’s servers from buckling under demand and to keep this massive influx of players happy. Want to know more about the company’s story so far? Check out the Niantic EC-1 on ExtraCrunch here.

Now Niantic is back with its next title, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Built in collaboration with WB Games, it’s a reimagining of Pokémon GO’s real-world, location-based gaming concept through the lens of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter universe.

I got a chance to catch up with John Hanke for a few minutes earlier this week — just ahead of the game’s US/UK launch this morning. We talked about how they prepared for this game’s launch, how it’s built upon a platform they’ve been developing across their other titles for years, and how Niantic’s partnership with WB Games works creatively and financially.

Greg Kumparak: Can you tell me a bit about how all this came to be?

John Hanke: Yeah, you know.. we did Ingress first, and we were thinking about other projects we could build. Pokémon was one that came up early, so we jumped on that — but the other one that was always there from the beginning, of the projects we wanted to do, was Harry Potter. I mean, it’s universally beloved. My kids love the books and movies, so it’s something I always wanted to do.

Like Pokémon, it was an IP we felt was a great fit for [augmented reality]. That line between the “muggle” world and the “magic” world was paper thin in the fiction, so imagining breaking through that fourth wall and experiencing that magic through AR seemed like a great way to use the technology to fulfill an awesome fan fantasy.

Kumparak: The game has been in Beta in Australia and New Zealand for a while; any major learnings there?

Hanke: Lots of little things. We’re constantly tuning and tweaking various things, but there were no major directional shifts from the beta.

Kumparak: Can you tell much at this point about how adoption is going from the Beta? I know Pokémon GO had a similar launch with Australia and New Zealand getting it first.. can you compare the two at all?

Hanke: Well, not really. The way we did Pokémon GO was with a closed beta, then we started the worldwide launch… we did Australia, then New Zealand, then the US, and then other countries… but it was all part of an official launch where we said “Hey, this is coming now!”

So that starts very soon for us [with Harry Potter], but we haven’t entered that phase of launch. We consider the tests we’ve been doing in Australia and New Zealand as sort of semi-under wraps; we weren’t really hyping it, or promoting it. We wanted to get it out there and see if there’s anything broken or wrong about the game before we really launched it. [Note: That ‘official launch’ phase started shortly after this interview, with the game rolling out to the US and UK on the morning of June 20th with plans to roll out to more countries as the servers prove stable.]

What work had to be done on the platform front? I know this is the first big release with a third party building on the platform you’ve been building internally with your other games.

Hanke: The platform has really been developed organically with Ingress and Pokémon GO. As we built things, particularly for Pokémon GO, we tried deliberately to make them part of a platform that could be re-used in other games. The social features are a great example of that; those were built to support Pokémon GO, but were built to be easily adopted by other games, and you’ll find them at launch in Harry Potter.

Everything we’ve done around security, authentication, the Niantic login for kids [which lets parents approve and control their kid’s access to Niantic’s games]… everything you’ve seen in the past year and a half, two years in Pokémon GO have all been deliberately built as platform level code to work with other projects.

Our AR Development Kit is another example of that. That’s now being used to implement AR across all of our products, and as we add features and capabilities to the ARDK they’ll roll out simultaneously to Ingress, Pokémon GO, and Harry Potter.

Kumparak: You’ve talked a little bit about the Niantic AR Cloud project. Does that come into play here at all? [Niantic’s AR Cloud is a project the company is experimenting with that would use player-submitted photos and computer vision to build 3D maps of public spaces. It would theoretically allow for much more rich/persistent augmented reality experiences.]

Hanke: That’s still future-looking.

Kumparak: So nothing there yet with this game?

Hanke: No.

Kumparak: How far would you say this game is road mapped out?

Hanke: It’s road mapped out further than… well, there’s a set of features that extend out through the end of the year. We’re still debating exactly what’s going to come when… but there are far more things that we want to do than we have the resources to do, even with a large team.

So it’s amply road mapped. In a sense, I want to “un-roadmap” it, because I want to be able to be agile, and be able to respond to what we learn from launch, and what players tell us they want to see.

Kumparak: So there are general goals, but they could change based on what the players want?

Hanke: Well, some of both. There are features that are on the roadmap that will stay there, but we want to save some room with each of the release cycles, so if there are new features and things we want to do based on what we’re observing, we’ll have time to do those as well. It’ll be a mixture.

Kumparak: How does this process all work in partnership with WB Games? Who’s steering the ship in terms of what gets into the game?

Hanke: There’s a general division of labor between the two companies. They’re more client focused, and we’re more server focused, more platform focused, and more AR focused. If it’s more of an AR feature, it’s likely we’d lead on that. If it’s more client and more traditional gameplay, it’s likely they’d lead on that. In terms of where the roadmap goes, it’s a discussion between our producers and their producers.

Kumparak: There’s already a bit of a community building up around this game. There’s already Wizards Unite YouTubers. How does Niantic embrace that moving forward?

Hanke: Yeah! They’ve been following the game for a while, actually.

The community is both… there’s a community of people on social media, and then there are the players that may or may not be a part of that. The way we’ll embrace it is by drawing on things that have worked with Pokémon GO — things like… I’m not saying specifically that we’d do community days for Harry Potter [Note: “community days” are special, pre-announced days where certain rare Pokémon appear more frequently, and items that benefit all players around you work for hours rather than minutes. They’re meant to encourage players to meet up at their local popular play spots for a specific three-hour window], but that’s been really successful in galvanizing the community around GO. I hinted on stage that we’d do a big festival style event for Harry Potter.

Those kinds of events… we’ve done a dozen or more of them for Pokémon GO, and they’ve been hugely important for bringing the community together. They give people the opportunity to meet other players from their area, and really form those local player groups that form the core of the player base around the world. They really keep it going — these are groups that are meeting up weekly, and making it a core part of their social life. It’s great to see, and something we want to encourage in every way we can.

Kumparak: With this partnership with WB Games… who’s paying who?

Hanke: [Laughs] We’re both contributing financially to the project, and both sharing in the revenue from it, so it really is a partnership. We’ve got big teams of people from both companies working on it.

Kumparak: So Niantic brings the engine, WB brings the content, and there’s a rev-share agreement on the in-app purchase?

Hanke: Something like that. Yeah, that’s basically it.

Niantic CEO John Hanke at the launch event for Harry Potter: Wizards Unite at Universal Studios on June 18th

Niantic CEO John Hanke at the launch event for Harry Potter: Wizards Unite at Universal Studios on June 18th

I also had a moment to chat with Alex Moffit, one of the producers on Wizards Unite. Here’s our chat:

Kumparak: Can you tell me a bit about who you are, and what you do?

Alex Moffit: I’m Alex Moffit, a producer at Niantic.

The producer role is actually really simple when you think about the goal: help people work on the right things, at the right time. That’s obviously hard to do in practice… but all I’m trying to do is help super creative game designers, client engineers, server engineers… all the people who actually do stuff. All the stuff that gets in their way, I get it out of the way.

What I try to bring at the end of the day is really reminding people: what is that fan fantasy? What is that vision? It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day. Why exactly am I doing this thing? But you stop, pick your head up, and remember that there are millions of players out there waiting for us, and who love playing these things… it’s a little more motivating.

Kumparak: How long have you been with Niantic?

Moffit: I’ve been with Niantic a little over a year and a half, at this point.

Kumparak: Okay, so post-Pokémon GO, but right around the time Niantic started publicly talking about Harry Potter.

Moffit: Yeah! Exactly.

Kumparak: Can you tell me about how this project came to be?

Moffit: My teammates are whip smart. They had this little fledgling game, Ingress, where they were like “What would you do if you had Google Maps.. and you built video games on it? What would that look like?”

Then GO hit the world full-force, and they realized… this actually could work. People are willing to play a game out in the real world, and to get up off the couch, and go walk, and explore, things that seemed unthinkable at that time.

[When Harry Potter came up], we were just like “sign us up now!” Obviously, we wanted to do that game; everyone at the company is a huge fan, and we’ve all read the books multiple times over.

It’s a perfect fit for what we do; it’s the exact sort of IP we want to work with. It’s rooted in this world, your actual neighborhood, your streets that you’re intimately familiar with. It’s just revealing all this stuff that’s “hidden” in those little alleyways and cracks between buildings that you could never see up until this point. Now you have this magical object [with your smartphone,] and you can.

Kumparak: What does this project look like from the Niantic side of things?

Moffit: I think we’re always trying to uphold these principals of helping people explore their neighborhoods and their surroundings, and to help people, as we say, “accidentally” exercise and move through these places, and to socialize in the real world.

We think this community feel, of coming together, and staring at each other face-to-face, eye-to-eye, is really powerful and leads to a lot of fun, memorable moments. So we’re trying to bring our learnings from Pokémon GO… and, even though it might be a punchline of sorts, bring our server stability and know-how to this. [Note: he mentions the ‘punchline’ bit as the first few weeks following Pokémon GO’s launch were plagued with server outages, with user demand far exceeding the server architecture’s ability to scale. You can read more about that in Part 2 of the Niantic EC-1.] We’ve gone through the ringer, but it’s pretty amazing what we’re capable of serving and sustaining from a stability perspective these days.

There’s also all of the things our platform has to offer, right? Whether it’s augmented reality, or the mapping geodata infrastructure, we’re providing all that and meshing it with what Warner Brothers brings. We think we’re fans of the franchise, but holy… Mary [Casey, WB’s executive director on Wizards Unite] is on a different level. The depth of her knowledge astounds me, even to this day. To have them bring that, it’s perfect.

Kumparak: You mentioned the platform. From what I’ve seen so far, Niantic’s real-world platform has been opened up to folks like WB Games, and you’ve opened it up to a handful of teams through a developer contest… anything on the roadmap for opening it up more widely? Or will it always be case-by-case?

Moffit: I think we’re evaluating what’s right. Right now we’re all in on Potter, and it’s a big deal for us, and all eyes are on this. But we’re trying to assess what’s right for the company. Is it something where we want to exercise more control and work in an intimate fashion with [companies like] Warner Brothers, or is it something we really want to open up wide and let a bunch of people try out? I don’t think we’re exactly sure yet.

Kumparak: I know this game has been in beta for about two months; any surprises along the way?

Moffit: We definitely got some kinks out of the system.

It’s mostly just ironing out things.. but that leads to the main surprise, which is that the games ready. You’re always your own harshest critic. We’ve played for a long time. I’ve played it every day, for hours, for a long freakin’ time. To put it out there, and to have all these people who showed up today… and say “This is fun! This is really cool!” and they’re not your mom, or your significant other, or your friends, or any of these people who need to say something nice to pick up your spirits… that’s really cool.