Pokemon GO and the April Fools joke that made billions

Its the morning of March 31st, 2014, and the Google Maps team is about to release its April Fools Day gag to the world.
It wasnt the first time this team had goofed around with an April Fools day joke. Google, as a whole, goes wild on April 1st. Maybe its for the resulting publicity. Maybe its to make the brand seem a little more fun. Maybe its to give employees a creative outlet that doesnt seem so mission critical. Its probably a mix of all three.
Google has used the first of April to launch everything from morse code keyboards, to AI-powered garden gnomes, to a translator for talking with your pets. Theyve announced that the company would be switching to Comic Sans as the default font across all of its products, and once spent the day suggesting that, despite whatever you might be searching for on YouTube, you probably meant to search for Sandstorm by Darude.
Most of the gags come and go (excluding Gmail, of course, which everyone thought was a joke thanks to its April 1st launch timing.) In most cases, everything is reset back to normal and everyone moves on.
This one would be a bit different. Within the next few hours, the wheels would be in motion for the product that became Pokemon GO.
This is Part 2 of our EC-1 series on Niantic, looking at its past, present, and potential future. If you havent read it, you can find Part 1 here. The reading time for this article is 31 minutes (7,900 words)

The Joke That Inspired It All

By April 2014, Niantic was still over a year away from its spinout of Google. At this point, its still Niantic Labs, an autonomous unit operating under Googles roof.
Theyd launched Field Trip, which proved to the team that there was something to this idea of focusing around real world points of interest, but didnt seem to keep people coming back. Theyd followed up with their first game, Ingress, which had a dedicated following but hadnt made them very much money.
Niantic was trying to figure out what was next, and what we should do.
Thats Masashi (or Masa) Kawashima. He runs Niantics operations in Asia, having joined to grow Ingress in Japan at a time when the country was around 25th on the list by playerbase. Nowadays its number one or two, depending on which phone platform were talking about. His passion for Niantics games runs deep; he rarely stops smiling when talking about them. Every question I ask is answered with a story, and each one is packed with a million details. At no point am I tempted to stop him.
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