Entertainment

Niantic’s future hinges on mapping the metaverse

The maker of Pokémon Go is hoping the metaverse will deliver its next big break.

Niantic’s future hinges on mapping the metaverse

Niantic's new standalone messaging and social app, Campfire, is a way to get players organizing and meeting up in the real world. It launches today for select Pokémon Go players.

Image: Niantic

Pokémon Go sent Niantic to the moon. But now the San Francisco-based augmented reality developer has returned to earth, and it’s been trying to chart its way back to the stars ever since. The company yesterday announced layoffs of about 8% of its workforce (about 85 to 90 people) and canceled four projects, Bloomberg reported, signaling another disappointment for the studio that still generates about $1 billion in revenue per year from Pokémon Go.

Finding its next big hit has been Niantic’s priority for years, and the company has been coming up short. For much of the past year or so, Niantic has turned its attention to the metaverse, with hopes that its location-based mobile games, AR tech and company philosophy around fostering physical connection and outdoor exploration can help it build what it now calls the “real world metaverse.”

Niantic has struggled to replicate Pokémon Go. It’s starting to look like an AR version of Nintendo’s monster-catching franchise was a flash in the pan, combining a novel use of phone cameras and geolocation with a popular and enduring gaming concept. Because Niantic has not had a similar hit since.

  • The company nabbed a coveted license from Warner Bros. to develop an AR game around Harry Potter, but the resulting Wizards Unite mobile game never took off. Niantic shut it down earlier this year. Niantic also canceled an in-progress app based on the popular German board game Catan.
  • The company currently operates Pokémon Go; an updated version of its first-ever location-based game, Ingress; and a casual step-counting Pikmin game called Pikmin Bloom. A vast majority of the firm’s revenue comes from Pokémon Go, which has surpassed $6 billion in player spending, according to estimates from analytics firm Sensor Tower.
  • Niantic still has two games in the works: a pet simulation game called Peridot (its first new IP since Ingress) and the newly announced NBA All-World, an AR sports game made in partnership with the basketball league and its players’ association.
  • The canceled projects include Transformers: Heavy Metal, an AR take on the popular toy franchise, and a project called Hamlet from Punchdrunk, the production company behind the immersive theater show “Sleep No More.” The other two canceled projects were known as Blue Sky and Snowball, Bloomberg reports.

Campfire is an example of Niantic’s new focus. While Niantic appears to be winding down its third-party projects based on popular media franchises, it’s now trying to build new kinds of software experiences more in line with its real-world metaverse vision.

  • Campfire is a new kind of social network and messaging app linked to and layered on top of its existing games, like Pokémon Go. It allows players to find others, friend them and communicate about and coordinate around in-game activities by integrating the map and game data from Niantic’s products.
  • Niantic Product Lead Ivan Zhou told Protocol this week that Campfire is launching for select Pokémon Go users starting today with the intention of rolling it out to more players, and eventually more of Niantic’s mobile apps, over time.
  • Campfire exists both inside of Pokémon Go and as a separate app, and Zhou tells me Campfire will now be the unified account and identity system for all of its products going forward.
  • The app features messaging and location sharing, but it also has a groups feature called Communities that adopts the look and feel of popular channel-based chat apps like Discord and Slack. “Communities is our version of taking the familiar channel and server context and bringing in a location element,” Zhou says.
  • The ultimate goal with Campfire is to get players organizing and meeting up in the real world with fellow players, but doing so on Niantic’s platform instead of through alternative means like SMS or chat app group texts, Discord servers and Facebook groups.

Niantic is far from giving up on gaming. But the company clearly sees its future less in striking gold again with another Pokémon Go and more in building out the software products and technical infrastructure that support its vision for next-gen computing.

  • Niantic last year launched Lightship, its AR developer platform designed to let third-party software makers build products using the same tech it features in Pokémon Go, including its more sophisticated AR tools for blending virtual objects with real environments.
  • "AR is still in the phase where we want to encourage exploration," Senior Director of Product Management Kjell Bronder told me of Lightship at the time. "Our stronghold and foothold of course is in gaming. But we want to expand from that and look into adjacent industries: education and entertainment, and also wellness. Niantic is about exploration and getting people outside."
  • Niantic’s CEO, John Hanke, famously called the metaverse as it was conceptualized by competitors like Meta a “dystopian nightmare” back in August 2021. He said his vision is one of a future where “worlds that can be overlaid on the real world,” driven by the question, "What if technology could make us better?"
  • “We believe we can use technology to lean into the 'reality' of augmented reality — encouraging everyone, ourselves included, to stand up, walk outside, and connect with people and the world around us," Hanke wrote.

Niantic now appears to be facing a significant roadblock in realizing this vision, where its attempts to create a new revenue driver like Pokémon Go have been met with failure, and it’s looking for new frontiers to expand into.

But the company’s excitement around the promise of AR has been unwavering, and its unique approach to the metaverse may ultimately prove prescient. What Niantic might need is not another game but a breakthrough hardware device — like AR glasses.

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