Turning an April Fools’ joke into the most downloaded mobile game ever

JAY KIHIU AND DANIEL DRUHORA | August 11, 2016

How one recent USC Viterbi grad “augmented” the team responsible for Pokémania

Pokémon Go became the top grossing app in the U.S. within 13 hours of launch Photo/Getty Images

Pokémon Go became the top grossing app in the U.S. within 13 hours of launch Photo/Getty Images

If the first gig you were offered as a recent graduate of the No. 1 game design program in North America was an April Fool’s joke, would you turn up your nose?

What if the prankster was Google and the joke eventually became a multi-billion dollar global obsession?

As it turns out, USC Viterbi alumnus Khaled Rahman, M.S. ’14 computer science, was handed this very opportunity upon graduation. He would manage production of Pokémon Go  in its early stages and co-write the original game document, describing the game’s look and features.

Getting “augmented”

Rahman joined Google in June 2014 after presenting Bloom, a game he directed during his time at USC, to none other than the brains behind Pokémon Go – John Hanke, founder of start-up, Niantic Inc., which was created inside Google and spun out of the company last year.

Hanke was at Google because he’d sold it a digital mapping startup called Keyhole in 2004, providing the 3-D satellite imagery used in Google Earth. He then became vice president of product management for Google’s “Geo” division: Google Earth, Google Maps, Local, StreetView, SketchUp and Panoramio.

It was Hanke’s insatiable curiosity with the world around him and Niantic’s deep knowledge of maps, along with its mantra “adventures on foot with others” that made up the hybrid DNA of Pokémon Go.

“It couldn’t have happened anywhere but at Niantic,” Rahman said.

The Internet giant planted the seed on April Fools’ Day in 2014. On that day, Google created a “game” that had users search Google Maps for Pokémon in the style of “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego.” The little pocket monsters popped up as icons on the classic map screen, the same way restaurants and theaters do.

“You couldn’t actually interact with the characters,” Rahman explained. “To catch one, you’d just tap on it, the same way you drop a pin on a coffee shop.”

The gameplay was also accompanied by a video showcasing backpacking adventurers hunting Pokémon in the wild using Google Maps. Its goal, the company said, was to hire the world’s best “Pokémon Master” — because it valued technically savvy risk takers who can “navigate through tall grass to capture wild creatures.”

Health was a top priority

Hanke fell in love with the idea and charged Rahman and the Niantic team to set out to turn Google’s Pokémon joke into a breakthrough for augmented reality (AR) — a growing field that involves layering digital images onto real-life settings.

“The stories that have poured in are incredible. People who had difficulty walking outside or didn’t socialize are doing much more of that now with the help of location based gaming -Khaled Rahman”

More than this, they were to transplant the company’s principles of health and exploration into the Pokémon Go project.

“Health was totally a priority,” Rahman said. “AR appeals to very different markets than virtual reality (VR) and traditional gaming. There’s some intersection, but VR is pretty stationary. You either sit in a chair or stand. Our message was: ‘get off the couch, go explore the world, interact with your environment.’ Games are a great motivator for that.”

As optimistic as Rahman was about the game during its initial phases, even he couldn’t fully imagine the intense magnitude and worldwide impact the game would have just weeks after its launch.

According to Venturebeat, Pokémon Go has generated approximately $35 million in revenue within its first two weeks. The game brings in approximately $2 million each day from iPhone users alone and has shot to the app world charts at No. 1. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s value has doubled to over $42 billion, making it more valuable than rival Sony for the first time in two years.

Khaled Rahman, product manager at Google and one of the early developers of Pokémon Go. Photo/Ansley Braverman

Khaled Rahman, product manager at Google and one of the early developers of Pokémon Go. Photo/Ansley Braverman

But for Rahman, the real thrill is seeing the power of games to affect people in a positive way:

“The stories pouring in are incredible,” Rahman said. “People who had difficulty walking outside or didn’t socialize are doing much more of that now with the help of location based gaming.”

Rahman also credits his early career success to the “serious games” culture at the USC GamePipe Laboratory under director and mentor Mike Zyda.

“At USC, I was given the chance to lead my own project, Bloom, ramping the team up from just three people to sixty at one point,” Rahman said.

“Building Bloom taught me a lot about team management, game design, UX, large scale engineering – all of which are essential for product managers in the entertainment space. Some of the mistakes and successes we made building Bloom were excellent lessons that helped kick start my career building large-scale projects more efficiently.”

This fall 2016 semester, Rahman returns to USC GamePipe Lab to give back. Apart from his ongoing work at Google, he will teach CSCI 599: Advanced Game Development, a USC Viterbi graduate-level class that focuses hands-on game development and production, taking students through all the steps needed to build a high quality game prototype.

Learn More:

USC GamePipe Laboratory
USC Games
USC Viterbi Department of Computer Science
CS@SC
Pokemon Go stats

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