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Where’s Waldo? Inside Google Maps–And Here’s How He Got There

This Google April Fools’ extravaganza involved lots of work, a quick turnaround, and the noble goal of engaging a billion people rather than annoying them.

Where’s Waldo? Inside Google Maps–And Here’s How He Got There
[Image: courtesy of Google]

Once you hear about it, it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Of course Google was going to get around to incorporating Where’s Waldo? into Google Maps, and was probably going to do it for April Fools’ Day.

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After all, the company’s practice of bringing iconic fictional characters with a yen for travel into its mapping app is well established, with that reknowned labyrinth explorer Pac-Man having shown up in Google Maps for April Fools’ 2015 and his equally peripatetic wife doing so two years later. Just three weeks ago, Nintendo’s always-adventuring Mario drove his go-kart into the app to mark his own holiday, Mar10 Day.

Waldo, British illustrator Martin Handford’s bestriped, bespectacled globetrotter, is the most natural possible candidate to add to that mix this side of Carmen Sandiego. And for the next few days, there he is in the desktop, Android, and iOS versions of Maps. He’s inside the app so–this probably won’t come as a complete shock–you can find him, in a game featuring scenes adapted from Handford’s book artwork. Waldo’s friends Wenda, Woof, and Wizard Whitebeard have also made the trek, along with his doppelgänger/nemesis Odlaw.

[Animation: courtesy of Google]
All this is part of a Google’s April Fools’ legacy dating to 2000, when a new “feature” called MentalPlex claimed to let the search engine read your mind (which probably sounded less creepy back then). Last year, the effort spanned at least 10 different products, from Google Cloud to Chromebooks, and included Google Maps’ Ms. Pac-Man integration. Clearly, this company is serious about being foolish, in a way which–for better or worse–has infected the entire internet.

But it turns out that there’s no secret Google brain trust orchestrating this annual companywide barrage of shenanigans. Actually, Waldo is making his Google Maps debut because a couple of 23-year-old Google Maps product managers, Max Greenwald and Shreena Thakore, thought it would be cool, and were able to marshal enough resources to make it happen quickly. Though the game itself is nothing wildly complex–it’s Where’s Waldo? as we’ve always known it, with multiple levels and a dash of interactivity–there were plenty of complications along the way.

Staying Foolish

The Waldo game isn’t just Greenwald and Thakore’s first contribution to Google’s April Fools’ tradition; it’s among their first Google projects, period. Both are fresh out of school and in their first year at the company. But they already loved its April Foolery, and pretty much don’t remember life without it, since they were both five years old when it began. “As we were growing up, we would check out what Google was up to for April Fools’,” says Greenwald. “Now that we work here, we were like, ‘Sweet! We should try it for ourselves.'”

Hey, where’s Waldo? [Screenshot: courtesy of Google]
In January, the two coworkers began brainstorming possible April Fools’ concepts over lunch with other Google Maps colleagues. Some of the initial ideas they spitballed included a mode that would calculate how long it would take a snail to travel to a particular destination, and having directions be recited by Morgan Freeman rather than the app’s standard canned voice. Ultimately, however, they concluded that anything that disrupted basic functionality might be unwelcome. (Some past Google pranks have messed with users in a way that not everyone found so hilarious.) Besides, even if they got in touch with Morgan Freeman–who lent his godlike tones to Google’s Waze app in 2016–translating his patter into multiple languages sounded impractical.

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When they landed on the notion of building a Where’s Waldo? game into Google Maps–more of an act of gentle whimsy than a prank–they knew they had something. Anyone who just wanted to use the app to get from point A to point B could simply ignore the game. And thematically, Waldo was a perfect fit in multiple ways. Along with his tendency to get lost in scenes set all over the world–a habit which made sense inside a mapping application–he appeals to almost everyone and does it in a way that’s visual, not verbal. “We have to be thinking about folks all around the world,” says Greenwald. “The grandmother in Argentina who speaks Spanish, the boy in Russia who speaks Russian.”

Seventy million Waldo books are in print, in 31 different languages; he’s also starred in video games, TV cartoons, and comic strips, and is a perennial favorite of trick-or-treaters, cosplayers, and everyone else who wants to don an instantly recognizable costume. For an app with a billion-plus users, that universality was crucial. Embedding a game inspired by, say, BoJack Horseman would have been a nonstarter.

Waldo, Woof, Wenda, Wizard Whitebeard, and Odlaw. [Image: courtesy of Google]
Striking the deal to put Waldo inside Google Maps required getting the blessing of the two companies which co-manage the property, Candlewick Press (the U.S. arm of Walker Books, which has published Handford’s picture books in the U.K. since the start) and NBCUniversal (which came into the picture when it acquired DreamWorks Animation, which itself had bought Classic Media, the owner of rights to an array of familiar characters from Mr. Magoo to Lassie). They were enthusiastic–Candlewick immediately overnighted a box containing all of Handford’s original tomes to the Googleplex for inspiration–but also protective of Waldo and his world, and fussy about details such as the wording of explanatory text. “You’re not ‘spotting’ Waldo, you’re ‘finding’ Waldo,” explains Thakore. “I think we ended up with a good sense of who Waldo is.”

“We made sure the optics around searching and the voice were on brand,” adds Mary McCagg, Candlewick’s key partnership manager and director of licensing, who has been responsible for wrangling Waldo for the past 12 years. “It truly makes it accessible to everyone–it’s one of those great properties that you say is for all ages, and in this case that’s really true.”

Waldo’s international popularity did introduce a complication: Not everyone knows him as Waldo, a moniker he originally got when his books came to the U.S., published at first by Little Brown. In the U.K. and some other locales, he’s always been Wally; in France, he’s Charlie; in India, he’s Hetti; in Croatia, he’s Jura. Along with the standard translations of text in the game–which Googlers in multiple countries helped perform–the app had to get the character’s name right on a country-by-country basis, based on a master list provided by Candlewick. (Even members of the far-flung Google Maps team couldn’t agree on their game’s protagonist’s name: “Folks in Australia kept calling him Wally,” says Thakore.)

Localizing Waldo involved lots of translation–and remembering that much of the world doesn’t know him as Waldo. [Images: courtesy of Google]
Greenwald and Thakore’s concept involved sending Waldo and his cohorts on a world tour plotted out in Google Maps, giving players the ability to earn badges as they found characters. The scenes in question would repurpose existing art, but the two Googlers wanted to make sure they were culturally relevant for as many users as possible. They also had to lend themselves to a game that involved tapping on a screen, without being too easy or too hard.

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Some intriguing possibilities–the Louvre, the Mariana Trench–fell out of contention for one reason or another. Among those that made it into the game are Surfer’s Paradise Beach in Australia; the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium in South Korea; and Buñol, Spain’s La Tomatina, an annual festival that involves everybody flinging tomatoes at each other.

Those are just examples. Google wants to keep some of the levels as surprises, and has scattered Easter eggs throughout as rewards for ardent players. That too is part of its attempt to make the game as broadly engaging as possible, so it speaks to both “a casual user who wants five seconds of quick delight and then moves on and power users who really get into it,” says Thakore.

April 1 Or Bust

Like many tech-company April Fools’ stunts, Google Maps’ Where’s Waldo? game is popping up well before it’s April 1 in Silicon Valley, a development that I always thought was prompted by their creators simply wanting to get a jump on the most joke-intense 24 hours of year. Not so, at least in this case. Google timed its launch so that Waldo would show up when the earliest time zones clicked into April Fools’ Day, and didn’t think it made sense to try to hold him back on a region-by-region basis. “You’d have news reports coming out of Australia saying ‘Google is doing this fun thing,’ but people in the states wouldn’t be able to play it,” says Greenwald.

Ask the Google Assistant where to seek Waldo, and ye shall find. [Screenshot: courtesy of Google]
Even without that twist, any April Fools’ project has the hardest of hard deadlines; you can’t exactly delay your launch until April 2. And as much as Google cares about April Fools’ Day, it isn’t anybody’s day job or most essential responsibility. In the end, the Google Maps team completed most of its heavy lifting on the Waldo game in about six weeks. “It’s something we’re doing in our free time,” stresses Greenwald, who found himself still at work on the iOS version of the game at 3 a.m. one night and just crashed in a pod at the office rather than going home.

Steering the Where’s Waldo? game through to completion has given Greenwald and Thakore exposure to a wide swath of their company’s inner workings, reaching up to the top Maps executives who had to sign off on effort and beyond. (Ask the Google Assistant “Where’s Waldo?” and it will not only helpfully suggest looking for him in Google Maps, but also remind you to update your app.) It may be the least conventionally useful thing these two Google newbies do all year–but that doesn’t mean they won’t look back at it as a meaningful moment in their careers, as well as a crash course in getting stuff done at Google.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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