We caught up with three big names at Niantic at the latest Pokémon GO live event in Las Vegas

We talk the future of Pokémon GO–including everything from opportunities for making friends to the GO Battle League. 

Our Japanese-language reporter and resident Pokémon GO expert P.K. Sanjun loves participating in live events for the hit mobile game made by Niantic. Most recently, he even had the opportunity to attend the Pokémon GO Tour: Hoenn event held in Sunset Park, Las Vegas from February 18-19. Hoenn is the region first introduced in Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire, Generation III of the core Pokémon RPGs, which were released in Japan in 2002 for the Game Boy Advance.

During the first day of festivities, P.K. couldn’t believe his luck when he then got the chance to interview three of the biggest leaders at Niantic who were responsible for bringing this event and others to life. Before diving into the interview itself, let’s take a moment to introduce each of them and their roles on the team.

Michael Steranka is Niantic’s Product Director of the Pokémon GO live game. According to P.K., he’s possibly the most famous person at Niantic and often takes part in the game’s Community Days or plays in the GO Battle League. He’s a fan of Machamp.

▼ Michael

Humberto Kam is Niantic’s Director of Global Live Events. He oversees all kinds of live festivals, Safari Zone events, and more in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. As expected, he played an instrumental role in getting the Hoenn event up and running. He’s a fan of Garchomp.

▼ Humberto

Go Nagano is Niantic’s Asia-Pacific Live Events Manager. Beginning with the Sapporo GO Festival in 2022, he’s overseen a rapid succession of live events in Goyang [South Korea], Taipei, and Singapore. He kindly served as the interpreter for this interview. He’s a fan of Blastoise.

▼ Go

Let’s get this show on the road, shall we?

P.K.: Thank you very much for the opportunity to interview you. Please feel free to speak candidly without being too formal. First, let me pose a question to Humberto. How does this Hoenn event differ from other live events in the past?

Humberto: “While this event is of course unique in that it specializes in the Hoenn region, what we really went all out with this time was recreating things that happened in the game at the venue. We worked hard to make the union of reality with the game our biggest theme yet.”

P.K.: There’s a Team Rocket tent at the venue which is where the mission begins. I thought it was a very new initiative, but I was concentrating so much on the game that I didn’t realize it until much later (laughs).

Humberto: “Thank you very much! (laughs)”

P.K.: OK, next question. I myself absolutely love live events, but there’s a bunch of trainers who have unfortunately never been able to participate in one. I think that Pokémon GO would be able to hold its ground even without live events, so I’m curious as to the reason why your company holds them. 

Humberto: “There are many reasons, but we especially feel that after the onset of the pandemic, trainers want to gather together and enjoy Pokémon GO more strongly than ever before. Providing spaces for that is one of our biggest missions.”

Michael: “Yes, and I would add that I think live events are a must for Pokémon GO. Just by looking at this scene, which is different from the Tokyo Game Show or ComicCon, I think you can sense that live events are absolutely essential.”

▼ The scene at the Hoenn event at Sunset Park, Las Vegas

P.K.: Yup, I completely get it. It’s just that live events are like the Super Bowl or World Series, so I think there are a lot of hurdles in order to participate. What’s especially important is having a friend to take part in the event with, so how are you supporting people in making friends? Especially since many Japanese trainers are shy…

Humberto: “You understand something very important. The first is Campfire [“a new social app that helps Niantic Explorers discover new people, places and experiences around them”]. As we’ve advertised, our theme for 2023 is ‘social.’ In the U.S., we’re experimenting by selecting local community leaders through Campfire.”

Humberto: “We’d like to stay in close communication with the community leaders and get different regions more and more excited. Eventually we’d like to be able to expand that idea globally.”

Michael: “Also, one of the reasons why we started Elite Raids [in October 2022] was because we thought it could be a good chance for trainers to make friends. We’re always trying to think of strategies for getting a large number of people to gather together and become friends.”

▼ Hoopa Unbound appears in an Elite Raid

P.K.: Got it. If there were official community leaders, then even solo players might feel relieved. Huge amounts of people descend on Elite Raids,  after all.

Michael: “We’re also careful not to make it seem like we’re forcing people to make friends. We always keep in mind that it’s a fun game to play with others AND a fun game to play alone.”

Humberto: “Speaking of making friends, I think that live events themselves are suitable for that goal. I’m still enjoying a gift exchange that began when some Japanese trainers called out to me at last year’s event in Sapporo (laughs).”

▼ A giant inflatable Pikachu from last year’s Pokémon GO Fest in Sapporo

P.K.: Live events definitely provide opportunities to get to know others. OK, on to the next question. Recently my six-year-old daughter has begun playing Pokémon GO. What’s been hard for her is earning PokéCoins. Moving forward, will there be another way to earn PokéCoins besides through gyms? 

Michael: “That’s actually exactly what my team is grappling with right now. At this stage I can’t tell you anything concrete except that we’re definitely conscious of ways to get PokéCoins. It might be a simple approach to replace the method of getting coins through gym battles with something else.”

Michael: Pokémon GO has many components to it so we also want trainers to be able to enjoy it in various ways. Among those is how to go about getting PokéCoins. We’re currently in the process of looking into a variety of possibilities.”

P.K.: I see, thanks. Next one: Within the game, there are Pokémon that appear relatively frequently versus those rare ones that haven’t shown up for years. For instance, the Santa Pikachu is one of them. Do you have any plans for those kinds of Pokémon to reappear?

▼ Santa Pikachu

Michael: “That’s a tricky question (laughs). But it’s an incredibly important one to us. For example, at this event there’s a Pikachu with a knitted hat, right? Because it’s such a special Pokémon, I think a lot of trainers have a strong emotional attachment to it.”

Michael: “That’s why we’re not thinking of having Pokémon like that appear again and again. Our aim is not to let the memories become weak. If anything, perhaps it’s a good chance for trainers who don’t have a special Pokémon to make friends in a trade. Also, I think it’s important to maintain a balance with the new Pokémon that appear. The number of Pokémon is always growing.”

P.K.: Next, something that I simply have to ask you, Michael, is how you’re thinking of increasing the number of players of GO Battle League from here on out. 

Michael: “This doesn’t just go for Pokémon GO but for Pokémon as a whole. I think the wonderful thing about Pokémon is that there are so many ways to enjoy it–just by seeing Pokémon that you like, or by filling up your Pokédex. GO Battle League is ultimately just one of the ways to enjoy it. I’d love for trainers who enjoy battling to enjoy GO Battle League, and in a sense it’s designed to have the ultimate battles. For me personally, getting to the Legend rank is really difficult, and I get that only a very few percentage of people reach Legend status. Because of that, I think the sense of accomplishment and special feeling for someone who reaches the Legend rank is extremely high. I know that it’s extremely difficult to get there, but we’re using this system because I want those who really enjoy battles to enjoy it.”

▼ Great League, Ultra League, and Master League symbols in the GO Battle League

P.K.: There are elements that appear in the original core Pokémon games such as Z-Moves that aren’t implemented in Pokémon GO. Is there a possibility that they’ll appear in the future?

Michael: “As a major premise, we can’t bring over every element from the core games into Pokémon GO since the concept behind our game is ‘What if Pokémon existed in the real world?’ Of course, we’re taking lots of inspiration from the core games and I’d like to implement such elements if they fit in with Pokémon GO. Conversely, I’d also like to continue building in all kinds of things that don’t exist in the core games but that would be a good fit for the concept of Pokémon GO. All of that also needs to be done while closely communicating with the Pokémon Company.”

P.K.: Does that include recent developments like new Pokémon sizes?

Michael: “Exactly! We thought that if Pokémon existed in real life, individuals would definitely come in a range of sizes (laughs).”

▼ A small Helioptile appears

P.K.: I’m personally thankful for Pokémon GO and think that it’s a wonderful game. It’s because I have such high standards for it that I feel like I have to say this, but I’ve been dissatisfied with Niantic’s response when dealing with things like bugs.

Michael: “That’s something [as developers] that we have to take very seriously.”

P.K.: I mean, I get that there will always be bugs. However, it’s the fact that the response afterwards isn’t always consistent that I can’t accept. It’s exactly because I like Pokémon GO so much that I even feel embarrassed. For instance, Larvitar’s Community Day [January 2023] reappearance was terrible. The company should stop being completely silent on such matters.

Michael: “I agree that it’s something we need to work on. Pokémon GO is a global game and so we always need to first figure out if a bug’s happening in one area or to the game everywhere and then where to check, so I can’t deny our lack of speed. Even so, we need to improve the response time as soon as possible.”

▼ Larvitar

P.K.: I appreciate that.

Michael: “I don’t know if it’s something that we could implement soon, but I’ve been wondering if there’s a way for players to notify us in-game. I’d definitely like to speed up the response when something happens.”

P.K.: I look forward to that. Lastly, I’ve already said how much I love live events. Would you be able to tell me anything about the prospects for live events moving forward?

Humberto: “I think that Niantic views live events as part of the top-level, most important missions. Having all trainers congregate in one space is very important.”

P.K.: Hmm…

Humberto: “Also, as a result of Covid, I think there can be more than one structure for live events. I don’t have any specific news to share now but we’re always looking for new formats, so please stay tuned.”

▼ Signs welcoming trainers to the Pokémon GO Tour: Hoenn event from February 18-19, which featured Primal Kyogre and Primal Groudon for the first time in the game

P.K.: Live events really are the best! To wrap things up, would the three of you please share a message for trainers in Japan?

Michael: “I look forward to meeting all of the trainers in Japan! Including in battle (laughs). Please don’t hesitate to come up and talk if you ever spot me. Let’s battle together.”

Humberto: “I look forward to returning to Japan. I’ll be very happy if I can see those friends that I met in Sapporo again.”

Go: “We’ll keep working hard to be able to offer more fun events. Give a shout if you see me somewhere. I’m also a little nervous right now because this is my first time showing my face during an interview!”

▼ This trio will work hard to make more Pokédreams come true!

Because it was the first day of the event, P.K. was also a bit nervous, but he was very thankful at the end of the interview that all three of the Niantic leaders had been very polite and kind to him. Humberto and Go also aren’t often featured in the media, so be sure to recognize their faces and give them a kind greeting if you cross paths at any point. P.K. was also relieved to learn more about Niantic’s commitment to live events. Since he’s never been to a bad one so far, he hopes to encourage as many others as possible to attend one when they can. No matter where the next live event takes place, P.K. is confident that it will be one to look forward to.

Best wishes to all of the Pokémon GO trainers out there regardless of whether your personal mission is making friends, battling rivals, or baking Pokémon pancakes!

All images © SoraNews24 (screenshots from Pokémon GO mobile game)
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