Pokémon Go released last week, and the game is already huge, jumping to the top of iPhone and Android app charts and forcing people out of their homes to catch Pokémon. We spoke with John Hanke, the founder of Niantic, the developer that took Nintendo and The Pokémon Company's hugely popular monster-catching franchise and ran with it. Hanke and Niantic developed Ingress, a predecessor to Pokémon Go that tested the waters for many of its geocaching gameplay mechanics.We asked Hanke how it feels to be behind the phenomenon, what's in store for the game's future, and how involved Pokémon's creators have been in the development process.

Game Informer: Can you give me a little bit of your background, John? You worked on early MMOs, and now you’re doing this strange thing with Pokémon. Can you tell me a little bit about that path?

John Hanke: My gaming resume, other than playing games, starts back in 1994 when we founded a company called Archetype Interactive that made a game called Meridian 59. Which is one of the first internet 3D MMOs, I think it was the first. We started it as an independent company, we were acquired by 3DO. Look that one up in Wikipedia – Trip Hawkins’ failed console game company-turned game publisher. But yeah, we brought that game to market, and I was there. We ran it for a couple years, and then I rolled of to do another company. I had a chance to soak in the early days of MMOs and some of the first online guilds that got formed and watching the whole social dynamic of that type of game emerge in the early days. That experience was definitely at the front of my mind whenever the concept for Ingress was being created. It was really very simply to take that MMO experience and hopefully the social-team cooperative gameplay element to that and bring it out into the real world.

How did Pokémon Go come about? Did The Pokémon Company come to you? Or did you bring a pitch to them and show them Ingress as a possible template?

Yeah, we went out and talked to them. So, we launched Ingress in 2012 – November 2012. Yeah, we’re growing that product and seeing it be a hit worldwide. And then in 2014 – I believe if that’s the right date – that year just keeps getting mixed up in my head, Google and The Pokémon Company did an April Fool’s joke around Google Maps, where Pokémon spontaneously appeared in Google Maps, which ended up being tremendously successful; it went viral. There’s a video about it that got umpteen million views. And so, within the Niantic team, we were thinking about, we built the game, it’s our intent to build a platform, what would be the next step towards growing the platform? And Pokémon was the idea that seemed incredibly obvious to us, given just the structure of the game, given the fact that it’s about chasing Pokémon and capturing Pokémon out in the real world seemed to be super natural to just substitute a mobile phone for the Pokémon and Pokédex. So we actually surfaced the idea with The Pokémon Company, there was interest, they were actually playing Ingress, and Mr. Ishihara, the CEO of the Pokémon company – I met him maybe a month later, and he was like a level 11 Ingress player, so he compulsively played. And his wife was a – and I guess they are still playing – his wife was a high-level Ingress agent as well. So, they’ve been playing together, then a lot of people in The Pokémon Company were Ingress players, so when we pitched this idea of a Pokémon-like game built on the concept that we’d built with Ingress it was very well-received. I mean, we both brought ideas, being the very obvious thing. And yeah, we started the project, and here we are.

And how involved were they during development? It sounds like they were Ingress fans, did they just trust you or were they checking in a lot? And did they have a lot of feedback?

You know, they stayed pretty involved. Junichi Masuda – he’s the producer on the new Pokémon game, he was a programmer going back to the very first Pokémon game – so he’s kind of their go-to guy for canon and the Pokémon universe. So, he has been an invaluable asset for us, he’s been involved in playtesting all the way through, and giving us lots of feedback and helping us shape an experience that's true to the Pokémon world. I mean, it’s a great brand, it’s been around for 20 years. So, I would say that they've been very attentive and very involved with what we’re doing. They want to protect it and protect the brand. They perceive Go as a really wonderful evolution of the Pokémon universe.

I was surprised at E3 when showing Pokémon Go, that Miyamoto was on-stage, clearly excited about the game. As an outsider, I assumed he wouldn't be involved in Pokémon Go. Have you talked to Miyamoto? Have you gotten feedback from him, especially following the launch?

Well, I haven’t talked to Miyamoto-san post-launch, but certainly we’ve been in touch with Nintendo and Miyamoto. He was on-stage with us when we announced the project, it had been under development for some time, but he was onstage when we publicly announced it in Japan back in September of last year. So, it’s definitely something that he’s been aware of and has provided his perspective on.

He’s been giving feedback through the course of development? It seems like something he’s excited about. Would you say that’s true?

I don’t want speak for Mr. Miyamoto. I have a huge amount of respect for him, so I don't want to put words in his mouth. I hope he likes our game. He is aware of it and we have gotten feedback from him. At the same time, he’s not been involved as a producer or game designer, he’s not been hands-on in that way. I was very, very honored to be on stage with him whenever we did our initial announcement and had the opportunity to hang out with him, talk about games, and bluegrass music. It turns out he’s a big bluegrass music fan.  He plays the banjo. Very interesting guy.

The game’s out now. The servers are having a hard time under the weight of so many users. I’m curious about your expectations of the game. Now that’s it’s out, is it about the level that you guys expected it to be or is it already exceeding expectations in terms of downloads and people talking about it online and all that?

Yeah, I mean, we hoped that the game would be successful and we had ambitious goals for it. But it definitely exceeded our expectations in every way. I mean, hitting that number one in the free apps and top-grossing apps yesterday was unexpected for us on day one with a partially launched product. So yeah it’s been amazing. More impressive than the charts and the raw numbers have been the social activity, engagement, all the user stories that are flooding Reddit and flooding online social platforms – great stories about groups of people going on giant organized Pokémon walk in Sydney, I heard something like that’s getting organized in Los Angeles, I saw photos this morning of big groups of people that had congregated around gyms last night just sort of spontaneously. So that part of it is super exciting to us because our whole thing, the whole mission for Ingress is to get people out of the house and encourage people to exercise and get out of the living room and go out into the neighborhood, those are the most exciting images for us. People getting out, going to new places, and making new friends, and socializing, playing with their existing friends out in the real world, that’s awesome to see.

How are PokéStops and gyms established and selected? How does that work on the development side?

Well, PokéStops and gyms are the results of three years worth of work at Ingress. Ingress is also a game based around locations. Ingress is a sci-fi game, the locations are puzzles in Ingress, players can control portals to power them up, to link them together, to form fields, or two teams. These portals – when we started that project with with Google – we seeded that database of global locations, with historical markers, and a database of public artwork, and statues. There were a few hundred thousand of them, it was enough to get the very early data of the game started, and then we encouraged of user within the game to submit places that they thought should be portals within their neighborhoods where they were playing Ingress. And we gave them... you could earn a medal for that, you could earn badges for submissions of portals. And we established some guidelines: It should be safe and publicly accessible; it should be a work of art, important piece of architecture, or unique local business; and then we had a group of operations personnel that reviewed those submissions and approved the ones that seemed to meet our criteria. Those had then been edited and revised over the past several years, new submissions throughout that time period, but also people correcting the location, adding names and descriptions, and deleting things that weren't good portals. It’s not perfect, but it’s become a pretty good, a pretty mature, global data set of these public visible, visually identifiable locations. So we used that, and select a subset of that for the gyms and PokéStops.

And are you guys planning on opening those doors for Pokémon? We really want to make our office a gym.

We are actively working on a way to re-enable submissions of portals within Ingress. Whether or not we extend that within the Pokémon Go app or not, I don’t know at this point. But we actually shut down the submissions about six months ago or around the time we spun our, certainly before then. Because we just had so many submissions worldwide and it was a huge burden to process them.  We felt like we needed to put that on pause and we’ve been working a crowd-sourced, user-voting solution so that we can re-enable submissions and with the help of users process new ones. But, no definitive timeline on that, it’s just something we are working on, though.

For more from Hanke about the game's lack of a tutorial, why so many churches are PokéStops, and how often the game will be updated, head to page two.