Niantic was formed as an internal project at Google in 2010. In 2015, it parted ways with Google under the leadership of its CEO, John Hanke. Within one year of venturing out alone, it had released Pokémon Go, one of the most popular and most downloaded games of all time. If you’ve ever wanted to find out more about the makers of your favorite augmented reality games, now’s your chance. Without further ado, here are 20 things you didn’t know about Niantic.
1. Its CEO is a serial entrepreneur
Niantic was founded by John Hanke, a 53-year-old entrepreneur from Cross Plains, Texas with a Harvard education and a history of launching highly successful tech companies. In 1995, Hanke founded his first start-up, Archetype Interactive, during the second year of his MBA studies at Harvard. After gaining international attention with the development of the world’s first 3-D graphical multi-user massively online-role playing game (MMORPG), Archetype was sold to 3DO in June 1996. Hanke’s second start-up, The Big Network, proved similarly successful and was sold to eUniverse for $17.1 million in an early acquisition.
2. It was created at Google
In 2001, Hanke launched his third start-up, Keyhole. When the company’s mapping technology began being used in media reporting overlays in the early stages of the Iraq War, people started sitting up and taking notice. Among the admirers was Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who ended up becoming so impressed by both Hanke and Keyhole, he bought the second for $35 million and offered the first a job as Vice President of Product Management for Google’s Geo division. In 2010, Hanke was tasked with developing a new gaming unit within Google. With that, Niantic Labs was born.
3.. It took its name from a whaling vessel
It’s not often that you hear a name like ‘Niantic.’ It’s even rarer that you get to hear why a company was given the name it was. Thanks to an interview Hanke gave to inc.com, we get to do just that. As he explains, The Niantic is the name of a whaling ship that came to San Francisco during the gold rush of the 1800s. Like many other ships of the era, it eventually got dragged on shore and built over. You can now stand directly on top of The Niantic without any idea of what’s under your feet. Explaining the decision to name his new project after the vessel, Hanke says “So it’s this idea that there’s stuff about the world that’s really cool but even though it’s on the Internet, it’s hard to know when you’re actually there. It’s hard to stop every 10 feet and do a Google search to try and find stuff about what’s in front of you.”
4. It started small
When Niantic formed as an internal start-up within Google, it was tiny. Most of the team consisted of people Hanke had worked with during his time as the Vice President of Product Management for Google’s Geo division, and with whom he’d developed products such as StreetView, SketchUp, and Panoramio. Although its ranks swelled with the years, by the time its first product launched in 2013, it still had just 35 employees.
5. Its first game was a huge hit
As Wikipedia explains, Niantic gave Hanke the opportunity to return to his gaming routes. Determined to create a game unlike any that had come before, Hanke and the Niantic team set about developing an augmented reality location-based multiplayer game called Ingress. The game was released in 2013 to huge fanfare. Within a year, it had picked up a million players. 2 years later, that number had expanded to 7 million.
6. It broke away from Google in 2015
In 2015, Niantic broke away from Google after raising around $30 million in funds from Google, Nintendo, and Pokémon. Hanke remained as the company’s CEO and Niantic set up its headquarters in San Francisco.
7. It released the fastest growing app ever
Having broken away from Google, Niantic set about creating their next project. The result was Pokémon Go, an augmented reality mobile game developed in collaboration with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company. The game utilizes GPS to allow players to locate, chase and capture cartoon creatures that appear as though they’re in the player’s actual location. In the first week of its release, the game, which is free to play, achieved 10 million downloads, becoming the fastest-growing mobile game of all time. Far from being the fad that many people dismissed it as at the time, its popularity has continued unabated. It’s now grossed over $6 billion in revenue and achieved over a billion global downloads.
8. It’s created carnage
As Cnet (Pokemon Go turns one: an interview with CEO John Hanke – CNET) reports, Niantic is one of the only companies to have developed a game so big (Pokémon Go) that people have not only died but killed other people while playing it. According to Axios, people’s habit of driving while playing the game has led to a disproportionate increase in vehicular crashes, injuries, and fatalities in the vicinity of PokéStops. Although Niantic has never publicly acknowledged that people have died while playing the game, founder Hanke has insisted that the company tries to make all its games as safe as possible. “We try to make our games as safe as we can. We, I think, have a best-in-industry practice in terms of trying to discourage people from using our application if they happen to be driving or doing something elsewhere there’s a distraction. Distracted use of cellphones is an industry-wide, worldwide thing that I think people are paying more attention to,” he says.
9. It has a benevolent message
Niantic may have created one of the only games that people have died while playing, but at the heart of Niantic is a deeply benevolent mission statement. Speaking to vmware.com about his reason for creating Niantic and developing it along the lines he has, founder Hanke explained that he’s always intended Niantic to foster an increased sense of community. “I think the biggest benefit is the fact that (our apps) pull people off their couches and get them out into the parks,” he explained. “That seems super valuable to me, to just start rebuilding some of the community that maybe we’ve lost in some ways.”
10. It’s raised $470M in funding
Since spinning off from Google, Niantic has raised around $470 million in funding over 4 rounds. During Series A funding, it raised $30 million from Google, Nintendo, and The Pokémon Company. $20 million of that was paid upfront, with the remainder paid on reaching certain milestones. It also secured an additional $5 million in Series A funding from investors that included Alsop Louie Partners and You & Mr. Jones Brandtech Ventures. In November 2017, the company announced it had raised $200 million in Series B funding, The round was led by Spark Capital. During the latest round of funding in January 2019, Niantic raised $245 million from investors including Institutional Venture Partners (IVP), AXiomatic Gaming, and Samsung Venture.
11. It sued Global++ for $5 million
If you go to the effort of creating games as successful as Ingress and Pokémon Go, you’re not going to take too kindly if someone starts stealing your ideas. In 2019, Niantic sued Global++, a group of hackers who’d taken to distributing tweaked versions of the games, under the allegation that the spoofed copies were violating their intellectual property rights. The judge agreed, and Global++ was forced to stop distributing their products and stump out $5 million in damages.
12. It’s been sued in multiple lawsuits
Niantic may have won its court case against Global++, but it’s been less successful in the various class action lawsuits lodged against it. In 2019, a lawsuit involving aggrieved homeowners who’d had PokéStops placed near their houses ended in Niantic agreeing to implement several new features and policies to protect private homeowners from trespassing and harassment. The year prior, Niantic was forced to hand over $1.58 million to the Pokémon Go players who’d been besieged with gameplay issues during a real-life event in Chicago’s Grant Park.
13. It’s on a buying streak
Over the past few years, Niantic has acquired numerous companies and apps. In 2017, it kicked things off with the acquisition of the film-making app, Evertoon. The following year, it acquired augmented reality company Escher Reality, computer vision and machine learning company Matrix Mill, and gaming studio Seismic Games, as well as making a significant investment in DigiLens. Other acquisitions include the UK-based development studio, Sensible Object, the 3D world-scanning software company 6D, and the community gaming platform Mayhem.
14. It gave away $1 million in an AR game contest
In June 2018, Niantic unveiled the Niantic Real World Platform, a developer kit that includes various tools and features to build new mobile games. The technology had already provided the backbone to games such as Ingress and Pokémon; now, Niantic was hinting at opening the platform up to third-party developers. 6 months later, it made good on its promise when it offered third-party developers the chance to use the platform to build a new game experience. Just as tempting as the technology on offer was the chance to compete for a prize pool of more than $1m. Understandably, the contest proved popular. “There were teams of all kinds from seasoned game developers to new independent studios to university students,” Kellee Santiago, head of developer relations at Niantic, told VentureBeat. “They created apps for games but also for fitness and education, from Gettysburg artifacts to pirates, and kaiju.” The eventual winner was declared as JC Soft, who created a social running game named “Run to My Heart.”
15. It’s investing in the next generation of developers
Niantic’s generosity to third-party developers didn’t end with its $1 million AR game contest. In 2019, it announced that it would be establishing a $10 million fund to invest in new innovative location-based and augmented reality projects that use the Niantic Real World Platform. To apply, developers will need to pitch their idea to Niantic. If Niantic sees potential, the developer will then receive funding, tools, and other assistance.
16. It’s released four games so far
Since its launch, Niantic has released 4 games in total. The first was Ingress, an augmented reality game released to the public on Andriod in October 2013. An iOS version was released in 2014 and in November 2018, Niantic released a revamped edition of the game named Ingress Prime. In 2016, Niantic released its most popular game to date, Pokémon Go, for both iOS and Android devices. The game has since exceeded 1 billion downloads. 2019 saw the release of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, while the following year witnessed the release of the massively multiplayer location-based game, CATAN World Explorers.
17. It’s created a TV series
Games might be the heart and soul of Niantic, but it’s not opposed to exploring new mediums from time to time. In 2018, it partnered with Craftar Studio to develop the animated TV series, “Ingress: The Animation.” The show, which is based on Niantic’s augmented reality game of the same name, follows the adventures of Makoto, a special police investigator with the special power of being able to read the memories of any object he touches. After premiering in Japan on Fuji TV’s +Ultra in October 2018, the show made its global debut on Netflix in April 2019.
18. It’s got more games in the pipeline
According to its official website, Niantic currently has numerous games in development. One of the most hotly anticipated is a yet unnamed smartphone app for the Pikmin franchise. The AR project, which is the first to be developed by Niantic’s Japanese division, is expected to be released later this year.
19. It’s moving into hardware
In March 2021, Niantic founder Hanke teased his Twitter followers with a photograph of what appears to be a pair of Niantic-branded glasses. If they are what they seem, the glasses will represent the first project to come from Niantic’s new, multi-year collaboration with chip giant Qualcomm, not to mention its first foray into AR hardware. Although Niantic has yet to release any firm details about the project, Hanke’s Twitter post (“Exciting to see the progress we’re making to enable new kinds of devices that leverage our platform”) certainly seems to suggest we’re one step closer to seeing a pair of Niantic augmented reality glasses.
20. It believes in civic engagement
A San Francisco startup that makes a point of giving back to the community isn’t unusual, but few do it in quite the same way as Niantic. In 2017, it announced a multi-year partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The partnership aims to advance civic engagement by leveraging Niantic AR technologies at community events supported by The Knight Foundation.