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Pokemon chief hints at big plans for augmented reality smartphone game

It's been more than a year since "Pokemon Go" took the world by storm, getting people to wander outside and look for virtual monsters with their smartphone

It’s been more than a year since “Pokemon Go” took the world by storm, getting people to wander outside and look for virtual monsters with their smartphones.

The game became a social phenomenon, with adults and children gathering in parks and public areas to train their Pokemon. The fad is still going strong, with new characters and upgrades being added regularly. Though down from its peak, more than 65 million people still use the app each month. In the United States, the game is among the 20 most-lucrative apps this year, holding the top spot for about a week in July.

For the companies behind “Pokemon Go” — Niantic Inc., Pokemon Co. and Nintendo Co. — the game has been an earnings bonanza, with revenue estimates ranging from $1.5 billion to $2 billion. Nintendo has reported ¥23.6 billion ($215 million) in income from equity stakes in other companies, the bulk of which came from its partial ownership of the Pokemon company.

Tsunekazu Ishihara, CEO of Tokyo-based Pokemon, says this is just the beginning. Earlier Pokemon games spanned titles on Nintendo’s handheld players, trading cards, cartoons, comics and toys, creating a rich pop-culture history and consumer affection the smartphone title has tapped into. But Ishihara has bigger plans for “Pokemon Go,” including the ability to trade the virtual monsters and battle one-on-one — key features seen in other Pokemon-based games.

While others have mentioned these might be coming, this is the first confirmation by the company itself. By adding new elements to the game, Ishihara is betting that people will keep coming back to play to discover new things.

“We’ve only accomplished 10 percent of what Pokemon and Niantic are trying to do, so going forward we will have to include fundamental Pokemon experiences such as Pokemon trading and peer-to-peer battles, and other possibilities,” he said during an interview on the future of the smartphone title and Switch, the new gaming machine.

“Depending on location, there are many Pokemon with different characteristics. So what do we do with those and the real world? One view is to have chilly Pokemon in a cold climate, but then that would also mean that people born on a tropical island won’t be able to catch them. So we are always thinking of how to find the right balance between game design, how our Pokemon should exist, and how players feel about their collections,” Ishihara said.

“Right now, if you go to the coast you can catch water Pokemon. For example, if you have a setting for electric-type Pokemon (such as Pikachu) to appear at power plants, is that really a good idea for you to find one in such a location — is it safe, and is it OK regionally? We see it as a very realistic problem.”

“On the other hand, it has created a lot of social problems. When too many people gather, it causes mass confusion. Also this isn’t limited to ‘Pokemon Go,’ but the issue of staring at smartphones while walking is something we have to focus on and think about.”

In June, Ishihara revealed that a role-playing Pokemon game was under development for the Switch. A 16-second clip of the announcement caused Nintendo’s stock price to jump as much as 3 percent in U.S. trading, as investors bet the new title will boost Switch sales. Ishihara shared a few more details about the game, which is set to be released in 2018 or later.

“With the Switch, we see it as a chance to create Pokemon that goes deeper and with a higher level of expression. As a result, that makes it an extremely important platform,” he said.

“Right now we’re using 7- to 8-inch screens, but on a high-definition TV you can express a whole different world with graphics and sound.”

“Until now, games were made as one for one person, but now you can go home and play with everyone — so how do we tackle these themes, and how do we make sure it’s not complicated?”

“I can’t say that we’ll release accessories, but I’d like to think of that possibility.”

“Unlike smartphones, the Switch is not a game device that assumes that there’s constant network connectivity. So from our perspective, it’s really not that different from DS or 3DS in terms of connectivity.”

Ishihara also spoke at length about augmented reality, a technology that superimposes virtual characters and scenes onto real-world images. He said that this fits well with the Pokemon company’s vision of blending fantasy with reality, as “Pokemon Go” did as a location-based game.

“With current AR, even if you say Pikachu is there, no one really thinks that. But that reality is just one step away. For example, you’ll be able to find Pikachu, and it can sense this table and jump on it, and you can see its shadow on the table, and then it faces you and starts talking to you,” he said. “We will see the birth of this reality that is another step up from the current ‘Pokemon Go.’ And I’ve only mentioned the visual aspect, but you can add haptic and rumble technology to that.”

“Voice-activated assistants are increasing. Whether it is Google Home or Amazon or Apple Homepod, there are many of them and we could see these dialogue-based devices give birth to a new form of entertainment,” he said.

“Switch is just one of the possible platforms. I think we will open up more possibilities from all these platforms. Playing in a more realistic way should be possible.”

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