MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Pokemon Go, the location-based mobile game that has become a massive hit, began as an April Fool’s joke.
In 2014, Google unveiled “Pokemon Challenge” for Google Maps complete with a promotional video, inviting users to find and capture the fictional monsters within the application.
The feature was active for a short while before it was turned off.
But John Hanke, chief executive officer of Niantic Labs, took it seriously. The company that was then part of Google had already scored a hit with the location-based game Ingress. Combining the world of Pokemon with such game play was an obvious step.
He asked Masashi Kawashima, director of Asia Pacific for Niantic, whether “it could be done in the real world.”
Pokemon Go has grabbed peoples’ attention by blending the spheres of Pokemon and mobile gaming.
There’s a ready-made generation of fans, nurtured on playing cards, video games, and cartoon shows, familiar with the storyline of finding, training, and pitting “pocket monsters” against each other.
With the new game, players are encouraged to traverse their physical surroundings, phone in hand, to find new characters.
The game’s popularity has sent people into bars and pizzerias, led to the discovery of a dead body, and might be helping robbers target victims.
In Toledo, two Pokemon Go players were charged with fourth-degree criminal trespass after they scaled a fence at the Toledo Zoo while it was closed early Thursday.
They were found sitting on a bench near the tiger exhibit after being observed on a security camera.
If convicted, Adrian Crawford, 26, and Robin Bartholomy, 25, face up to 30 days in jail and $250 fines. During arraignment Friday, Toledo Municipal Judge Michelle Wagner told the pair to stay away from the zoo or face additional charges.
Ms. Bartholomy said she hoped the case could be resolved through community service or by paying a fine.
“This is probably the first smart phone game that has spawned a social phenomenon,” said Hideki Yasuda, an analyst at Ace Research Institute in Tokyo. “The key thing is that this is happening globally. And Nintendo has proved that it can still come out with hits that have broad appeal and can earn money.”
Nintendo Co. was at the nexus of the efforts to introduce Pokemon Go. A team of developers from Nintendo, Pokemon Co. (which is partly owned by Nintendo), and Niantic was assembled to build the game.
In 2015, Niantic was spun out of Google, backed by funding from Nintendo, Google, Pokemon, and other investors. The project had the full support of Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s president who died last year.
Mr. Iwata, who was instrumental in turning Nintendo around by bringing hits such as the handheld Nintendo DS and motion-based Wii to market, had always advocated for games that got people out of their seats and moving.
While Pokemon Go is free to download, people can enhance their performance by buying Pokeballs and other items that make it easier for players to find and capture Pokemon.
That’s helped boost Nintendo shares by more than 50 percent since Wednesday, when the game debuted in the United States and shot to the top of download charts.