Niantic’s director of production on the AR leader’s history and development

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Pokémon Go is one of the biggest smash hits in mobile gaming history, leading millions of players to go out in search of elusive pocket monsters in order to fulfill their dreams of becoming pokémon masters.

Developer Niantic is at the forefront of AR gaming, and is aiming to make the technology more accessible through the use of the Lightship ARDK. We spoke to the company’s director of production about the company’s history, its struggles, and where it’s going next.


Pocketgamer.biz: Firstly, can you please introduce yourself and briefly explain your role within your company?

I’m Kellee Santiago, Director of Production for Niantic’s gaming studios. In this role I get to work with our game team leads on developing best practices for production in AR and real-world game experiences, as well as oversee our Publishing slate. This includes our current titles Pokémon GO, Ingress and Pikmin Bloom. I also founded and now oversee the Black Developers Initiative, the goal of which is to foster more Black-led development studios in the AR industry.

What would you say has been the biggest change in the industry since you entered into it?

New distribution channels and new technology continue to shake up the industry – it’s what keeps me on my toes. When I started, the digital distribution of games through Steam, XBLA, and PSN were just starting. It very suddenly allowed so many people who had been previously shut out of the games industry to build businesses and careers. It’s been incredible to see the evolution of gaming and the way new platforms have redefined the way we are entertained.

And I feel the same way about AR now. It’s a new, kind of wild space for game development. The people doing it right now are personally motivated and very passionate. And new platforms such as wearables and mixed reality headsets will define how we use and interact with this technology – it’s a very exciting time right now.

This next evolution will be critical for realizing the true potential of what we call the ‘real world metaverse.’ As Niantic’s CEO John Hanke once said, our overall goal is to turn the world into a game board — to make our physical environment a more magical, fun place. For us, it starts with a technology that connects the real world (the atoms) with the digital one (the bits).

Did you see the above mentioned change coming? If not, how did you adapt to it?

It was when I was in undergraduate college that we started downloading music. There had been “shareware” downloadable games for a long time before that. So, I think as a consumer myself it wasn’t shocking to see games going this way. What WAS surprising was just how much it changed who got to make a game, and why, and the business terms between publishers and developers. It’s what propelled me from being an independent console game developer into exploring newer gaming mediums. But finding a company that is dedicated to both making incredible games as well as investing in AR was very difficult! Niantic was a perfect match for me. Collectively, the team at Niantic has made products that have touched hundreds of millions of people in different ways — including Google Earth, Google Maps, and of course, Pokémon GO. Today we’re building technology that connects the digital and physical worlds in that real world metaverse.

And Niantic’s mission is in sync with this – to inspire people to explore the world, together. There are clearly areas where we feel we can make the biggest difference, including our own games and applications, but we also now offer the Lightship platform for developers. We want to give even more developers the tools to create innovative, real-world AR experiences that inspire movement and encourage exploration.

Thinking back over the past couple of years, what is the biggest hurdle you’ve faced?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone, and lockdown had a big impact on Niantic’s mission to help people get outside, exercise, and explore the world, with the ultimate goal of helping people connect with others. Our development team needed to respond quickly and efficiently and put in place creative solutions that let players embrace real-world gaming safely.

For instance, we added to our product roadmap to enable more ways to play inside and around the home, such as tracking steps indoors with Adventure Sync and enhancing our in-game virtual social features to enable players to stay in touch when they can’t meet in real life. We made a lot of changes to help our explorers feel a sense of connection to each other despite needing to stay physically distanced.

This year we’ve also been able to take Pokemon GO back to its roots and what makes it so special as a game for exploring and meeting friends and new people outside. The summer of 2022 was amazing, with millions of Trainers catching 1.75 billion Pokémon and exploring 150 million kilometers in the first-ever series of five Pokémon GO Fest events. We also got to launch Pikmin Bloom one year ago, encouraging people to move around outdoors again with an experience focused on creating beauty and whimsy wherever you are.

Where do you think the mobile gaming industry is headed in the next few years?

Mobile is already the biggest sector in gaming, and continues to grow. Just like with PC and console, I expect to see the quality of mobile games go up, and the sophistication in craft and range of experiences will grow. The medium has only been around for about 15 years, so it is still very young.

For Niantic, we’re going to see games and apps that push AR experiences into something even more immersive while also helping foster the growth of real world communities. It’s still a very new technology and it’s exciting to think where we’ll go with upcoming titles like Peridot, which is a game played entirely in AR.

Niantic has helped push technologies like AR and location-awareness closer to the mainstream. Which, if any, other technology excites you most?

Niantic is still very focused on AR and location-awareness, and we’re always looking to improve and expand these technologies beyond what people think is possible.

An important innovation is Lightship Visual Positioning System (VPS), which gives developers the power to localize users and AR content with centimeter-level accuracy in seconds. Lightship VPS is currently available at over 100,000 locations with particularly robust coverage in six launch cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, London, and Tokyo, and it is a big area of investment for us. It’s kind of the piece that’s been missing for AR creators, and I’m really excited to see what we make now.

Edited by Lewis Rees

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