Why the company behind Pokémon Go – Niantic – is getting crypto-curious


It has been an extremely difficult year for cryptocurrency projects as prices crash, daily scam revelationsand the ongoing usability nightmare Blockchain-based computing has made venture capitalists’ next big gamble look more like a pipe dream than anything you could reasonably call “web3.”

Crypto-based video games, which last year looked like they could draw large audiences to start collecting non-perishable tokens, have instead sparked collective outrage over developers’ perceived greed. game giants have largely fled the space as a result

And so, with that in mind, today let’s talk about a leading company going the other way.

“I think it’s something that could have the biggest impact on this industry, but it’s also probably the most controversial thing we can talk about,” John Hanke said.

Hanke, CEO of pokemon go developer Niantic, closed his keynote address at his company’s first-ever developer summit on Tuesday morning. Niantic had already unveiled the new version of its augmented reality developer platform Lightship, which includes a location mapping feature called the Visual Positioning System. Hanke also announced Campfire, a social networking app that opens to a map and allows people to find and interact with players and events. pokemon And his other games

However, when his talk came to a close, he wanted to talk about one thing: Niantic’s early explorations of incorporating blockchain technologies into its games.

Earlier this year Niantic had met the team behind it SpotX games, a Miami-based company that describes itself as “a web3 innovation studio for the true metaverse.” His specialty is creating crypto-based quests that transform the experience of playing into digital collectibles.

“When we met them, they started talking about using blockchain as a way to inspire people to get outside, explore new places, and have fun with friends,” Hanke said Tuesday. “It was like we were talking to ourselves.”

Hanke was impressed with SpotX’s work and acquired the studio.

At South by Southwest in March, SpotX demonstrated a scavenger hunt game who offered cash prizes for visiting various locations in Austin and interacting with them through web-based AR tools on mobile phones. Anyone who has completed the game can generate an NFT highlighting the places players have visited. It looked like this:

Hanke loved that the NFT was more than a ‘pretty picture – it’s a memento of what you’ve done’.

This offers a hint of where Niantic could try crypto-based gaming in the future, using the technology to verify and commemorate experiences as players travel the world. The idea behind putting all this on the blockchain, a SpotX employee told me during a demo Tuesday, is that the data is hard to falsify. (I don’t know why anyone would fake a visit to Austin, or win a scavenger hunt, but as usual with crypto, the technology is still ahead of the use cases.)

“It’s still early here,” Hanke said on the podium on Tuesday. “You’ll be hearing more from us in the future, I think, on this subject.”

Leading up to Tuesday’s event, I hopped on Zoom to discuss Niantic’s latest offering with Hanke. The company proved with pokemon go that it could take a nascent technology like AR and make it massively mainstream, generates an estimated $5 billion turnover in the first five years.

That’s why I found myself interested in Hanke’s tentative embrace of web3. The company seems a long way from bringing the technology to a flagship like pokemon. But this year, gamers have rebelled against purely suggestion that NFTs could eventually come to their favorite titles. That’s why I wanted to know about the blockchain that appeals to Hanke and his team.

Like many people, Hanke is drawn to crypto’s promise of decentralization – the idea that interacting with the internet through wallets will empower individual users at the expense of platforms.

On Tuesday, he said onstage that today’s web3 debates reminded him of the time he was a young founder in the dotcom era. In 2000, Hanke co-founded a company called Keyhole; Google acquired it four years later and turned it into Google Maps.

In the late 1990s, as there are now, there were plenty of get-rich-quick schemes and peddlers, he said. But there were also important ideas that were about to become big companies.

“The potential of web3 is to bring us back to a more decentralized version of the Internet,” he said. “And to get back some of that spirit and vision that was there when it started.”

One question I had for Hanke is, even if all that is true, why do you need a blockchain for it? His answer is that crypto can authenticate you to websites with much more limited data than we give away today by logging in with Google, Facebook and similar services.

Hank told me:

Most people use an identity from one of the big companies. It’s our main passport for everything we do, for apps and online. In a way, we’re selling our digital soul when we do that. It’s a habit we’ve built, and it’s kind of like the way things work now. But web3 would allow us to self-sovereign identities† So instead of using one of those buttons, you could use a web3 system that wouldn’t leak your personal information, and wouldn’t put a middleman between you and the service you’re using that could intercept or store information in any way that you may not want it to happen. So to me that just really feels like the way it should work.


This kind of use made me want to bet on it as an integral part of the future internet. Blockchains are useful in that context, because there is no central authority.

I think in practice it can be quite difficult to make wallets more personal and more secure than our existing identity tools; Molly White has written convincingly that: crypto wallets tend to share Lake data than we feel comfortable withbecause they are on public blockchains and there are no guarantees that anonymous wallets will not be deanonymized.

I also wonder if consumer demand for decentralization is as strong as the web3 founders bet on it. Centralized platforms enable many services we have come to depend on, from password resets to transactions that can be reversed in the event of fraud. Until now, decentralization meant that we had to give up all that, with disastrous consequences for the user experience. It’s no wonder that relatively few people have set up a crypto wallet.

At the same time, the frustration with giants like Apple, Google and Facebook is real, Hanke said:

Solving the wallet onboarding problem – everyone sees that as something huge. I don’t think it’s an impossible thing to solve. I guess setting up and making a wallet today is not really for the faint of heart. [But] the reward there is very great. So we’ll see if consumers continue to care about those things — whether they care more over time, and stay wary of people looking over their shoulder and constantly looking at their personal information or not.

For what it’s worth, I think the issue here is not so much whether consumers would be interested in more personal methods of doing business online, rather than whether those methods are safe and convenient. Hanke told me that he sees challenges around designing a good user interface, and that some “healthy skepticism” is in order.

My last web3 question for Hanke was why he thought average people would be excited to see NFTs and other crypto products in their games. He said that those products allow players to more directly reward makers, with middlemen getting a much smaller discount than before, and that people are happy to support independent projects. (Equally interesting to me is what he did not say – that adding NFTs to video games would make them more fun to play.)

On the one hand, it might be a little unfair to pressure Niantic so hard which is clearly some very early plans. Hanke was clear about the fact that the company has more questions than answers about web3. NFTs may very well never come pokemon go or any of the other great titles.

On the other hand, Hanke sounded serious to me. And Niantic has something that very few other crypto-curious game developers do: tens of millions of users. That gives the company an influence that its rivals do not have. And, assuming anyone can figure out how to make crypto useful or fun, the user base could also provide the still private company with a significant opportunity.

“Honestly, it’s really easy to dismiss that whole bunch of technologies just based on some of the things we read about,” Hanke told developers. “I think that would be a big mistake. I think there’s something really important about this technology.”


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