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‘Pokemon Go’ creator applies same recipe to NBA game

Seven years ago the mobile game Pokemon Go took the world by storm, and now its creators are aiming to infuse the same “real-world” appeal into their new basketball game.

While players of Pokemon Go were guided by their mobile phones to real-world locations to collect magical creatures, NBA All-World allows players to challenge each other to games in the street.

John Hanke, founder and chief executive of Niantic Inc, which produces both games, stresses that just as with Pokemon, players of the NBA game will also require only a mobile phone — no expensive virtual reality (VR) headsets or goggles.

Photo: AFP

He is pushing this hybrid-style game as a “real-world metaverse,” distinguishing it from the experience promoted by Microsoft Corp and others of users sitting at home with masks strapped to their faces.

“I think it’s important to support what we do in the real world as human beings, like going out to the restaurant, meeting our friends and not staying at home,” he told AFP in an interview. “Putting on a VR headset by yourself, to me it’s a very lonely and scary future. I hope that humanity doesn’t go in that direction.”

In NBA All-World, released last week in France and tomorrow globally, players choose their favorite NBA star as an avatar and get to meet and play others in the street.

The social aspect of the game, Hanke said, made mobile phones the perfect device to play on.

“It is mobile, low cost and almost everybody has one,” he said.

Niantic is hoping to cash in with microtransactions — players can spend small amounts on virtual items that allow them to move through the game faster or customize their avatars with sneakers from brands such as Adidas AG or Puma SE.

Hanke concedes that the success of Pokemon Go has helped Niantic get high-level corporate partners onboard.

“The success of Pokemon Go certainly helps us,” he said.

Now a cultural phenomenon with more than 1 billion downloads, Pokemon Go has generated roughly US$1 billion a year since its launch in July 2016, according to estimates from analytics firm Sensor Tower.

However, Niantic has been unable to produce another hit even approaching that level.

And it has had notable flops.

It launched Harry Potter: Wizards Unite in 2019, only to shut it down in January last year because of a lack of interest. Like many other firms in the tech sector, Niantic also made swingeing cuts to its workforce last year, slashing 8 percent of its staff and halting four video game projects.

With this in mind, Hanke is playing down any suggestion that his latest game could reach Pokemon levels of success.

“Pokemon Go, as the very first game of its kind, I think took the world by surprise,” the Niantic boss said. “Maybe another game we create for the future will have the same kind of instant viral success, but that’s probably not a realistic expectation because it’s kind of an unusual case.”

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