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Pokémon Go owned the summer of 2016. Gaggles of players took over parks and other public places, using their smartphones to find and capture elusive creatures in an augmented reality world layered over real-life maps.

COMING SOON: Inside Niantic’s Seattle-area engineering center.

Since then, the frenzy has cooled, but Pokémon Go has remained a top-10 mobile game, reportedly closing in on nearly $2 billion in lifetime revenue and 800 million downloads as of earlier this year. Niantic, the Google spinout company behind Pokémon Go has been steadily adding new features and making the game more social in order to keep things fresh for its audience.

Niniane Wang, senior director of engineering at Niantic, and Server Engineer Christina Quan talked about the continued evolution of the game at the GeekWire Summit and the continued effort to make it seem more life-like.

Wang, who co-founded Google Desktop Search and led engineering on several other key Google projects, helps lead engineering for Niantic’s upcoming Harry Potter game, as well as its first game Ingress. Quan, a University of Washington computer science grad, engineered the servers for some of the recently added social features for Pokémon Go.

Niniane Wang, senior director of engineering at Niantic, and Server Engineer Christina Quan talked about the continued evolution of the game at the GeekWire Summit and the continued effort to make it seem more life-like. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

The first of those new features, Raids, forces players to band together to battle and catch a stronger Pokémon.

“We saw hundreds of players gathering to do legendary Raids with each other,” Quan said. “Players form real-life friendships and communities based around Raids, and we found this to be one of our most popular features. This made it natural to continue to add social features to our game.”

Other recent social additions include the ability to add fellow players to a friends list and give gifts to each other. Pokémon Go is already a social game because everyone plays in the same world, with Pokémon showing up in the same spots, which makes the map and the realistic nature of it key.

“When you encounter Pokémon in Pokémon Go, it’s important that they make sense with the actual real world environment they’re found in,” Quan said. “We do this by using geographic data to determine what type of location the player is in and making corresponding Pokémon appear such as fish-type Pokémon showing up near lakes and oceans.”

One of the most popular criticisms of AR games like Pokémon Go, which Wang acknowledged, is the limitations of smartphones as the vehicle. Battery limitations and the need to constantly stare at the phone can pull players out of the experience. To compensate, Pokémon Go has added a lot of real world touches, like having the weather in the game mimic conditions outside.

“We make the experience even more magical, when the weather they see right in front of them matches what they see virtually in the game,” Quan said. “We use weather data not only to show these different changes in the in-game client, but also to have different game behaviors such as snowy Pokémon appearing when it’s snowing. By using these different types of data, we’re able to create an immersive experience where we create the illusion that Pokémon really exist and live among us.”

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