Pokemon Go’s first anniversary report card
July 6th, 2017, marks Pokemon Go’s first year anniversary. Love it or hate it, it’s a game that quickly made a global impact. It’s been released in at least 129 countries since January 2017, while MMO heavyweight World of Warcraft doesn’t even have Middle Eastern servers, let alone any located in Africa. Niantic has kind of waffled back and forth with its labeling of the game as an MMO, but the comparison is clear. While PoGo is more of a local multiplayer game, Massively OP staff have noted that local, non-digital games are also quite popular in MMO gamer circles. It may not be a true MMO, but Pokemon Go as a Massively Local Multiplayer Game feels like a logical evolution of our genre. ARPGs are one thing when they’re solo, but trying to build a game that puts a literal global audience on the same map feels significant.
It’s not a simple evolution, though. The genre itself is already being attacked in the courts. It has led to players being mugged, shot, and even killed, a situation we’ve seen in MMOs before. Luckily, we’ve yet to see trainer vs. trainer real-world violence. As many of you probably experienced, part of that may be due to the 80% reduction in playerbase before today’s first anniversary, though the game continues to make money.
Let’s review what the game’s changed since it’s release last year.
I myself haven’t been playing the game since launch. I was teaching in Japan at the time; we got the game there about three weeks after the US did. While we saw news on of the game and its power to bring strangers together in the west, the Japanese Pokemon Go experience is quite different from the American one. Since I’d been moving around quite a bit since launch, I’ve also experienced the game in cities and rural areas, with kids and older folks, gamers and non-gamers, and people of wide-ranging backgrounds and ethnicities. As you can probably guess, I haven’t just been playing the game for fun — I also play it for social purposes.
As I’ve seen the game from several angles, I figure I should try to approach the game with a holistic perspective and give the game a grade in several departments, based more on a feeling than points. For those not familiar with the American grading scale, assume A is the best of the best while F is failing. We’ll be looking at content growth, innovation, business model, community, and value.
Content growth: B
Before we get into the content growth, let’s be clear: Pokemon Go launched too early. While I’ve called it a tech demo, these days it feels more like a beta, so that’s an improvement. However, I’d wager the game’s best days will be behind it because no matter what state you say your game is in, allowing Timmy Power Gamer and Non-Gamer Nick into the same virtual space without a screening process makes the game seem to be in a release state. We had an interesting tracker that was completely scrapped, personalized Pokemon names suddenly stopped being publicly displayed, and the gym system was held hostage by spoofers (not to mention the yet-to-be-implemented trading). That’s the game most people will remember unless Niantic can get people to come back and change their minds.
That being said, we’ve seen some interesting improvements that make the game feel more finished. Moveset changes/shifts may not seem like much, but they sometimes reward long-term players for playing early, though when those same shifts are used to force us to spend Dust and Candy (the game’s grindy leveling currencies) on new Pokemon, it feels as if we’re being punished, even if I recognize it as a mechanic to ensure a level playing field. The addition of Buddy Pokemon helped ease the candy grind, but it also helped add new evolution mechanics for later monster additions. Dailies and events, while nothing new to the genre as a whole, were much-needed features, though I’d wager dailies could and should be handled in a way that makes them more social.
The advent of the Generation 2 update, genders, and the twists that are Ditto and Shiny Magikarp all helped make the collecting and catching aspects of the game more interesting, though they’re largely underutilized. The new Pokemon behaviors and berries also helped to make catching more interesting, though this still hasn’t made the system feel “fun,” just a diverse way to complete a checklist.
While people have largely quit the game over the Pokemon tracker, I’ve found Niantic’s done a good job at slowly improving it. Showing Pokemon near Poke Stops is useful, but I’ve also noticed since the June update that the tracker sometimes switches to “nearby” mode for Pokemon not near stops, sometimes using both methods at once.
The recent and much-needed gym rework, Technical Machines to help modify move sets, and now raids have all made combat significantly better. Previous gym updates relied on the old system that rewarded gym stagnation and promoted “gym shaving,” the act of using a second account from an opposing team to knock allies out of a full gym so one would have the ability to place one’s own Pokemon inside. The new system hasn’t exactly fixed the latter, which is technically against the game’s TOS, though I’ve yet to hear of it being strongly enforced. Still, forcing defenders to be unique and making them weaker over time were changes no one suggested but Niantic made work, and I congratulate the studio on coming up with that change.
Still, what really makes the new systems tick is the Gym Badge system, a kind of reputation grind makes sense here where it wouldn’t in most other MMOs, which constantly push players into new areas with new factions to grind. Pokemon Go’s system is more reality-based, rewarding you for playing in the areas you’re most likely to visit and (potentially) meet other players again and again. Not only does it build in-game reputation, but by rewarding players for doing group activities, it gives people a chance to build “reputation” with other real players.
And raids not only make certain Pokemon less rare for collectors but gives gym battlers a better way to get strong Pokemon. The problem is that the way the content is gated behind a paywall has ensured that in my experience, both in my own rural area and in the city, I was unable to easily find fellow players to play with.
Making raids common was a good decision, but locking players out of a social aspect of the game by trying to monetize it is a bad decision even EA has learned from. If Niantic really needed to, the paywall should come in to increase the rewards, not to permit social activities. The first few days after the raids were released helped me meet more local trainers and gave us rural players a reason to organize, as gym and team stagnation made gyms a civil war. Raids were new, so even casuals put out some money to try them. Even now, one of our local players was able to get people playing in their cars to come out and work together on a raid in the downtown area.
However, this seems rare, and the only time I’ve heard it happening. I’ve found people don’t want to risk their one-free-raid a day, if they even want to bother with it. There was a Snorlax raid in the Los Angeles Convention Center during Anime Expo, which is known for its huge lines. The raid took place in the morning while many of us were waiting to get in, and (at least for me) game connectivity wasn’t that big of an issue. I’d mentioned that the raid was live to people around me who were just standing in line. However, even my friend who was cosplaying Sailor Saturn as a Pokemon Go trainer didn’t have the patience to deal with the game’s connectivity issues. On my own, I tried again, and though a few people mentioned having played the game, they weren’t interested in jumping in for a few minutes during the convention, opting instead to take pictures of people in Pokemon costumes. It’s entirely understandable given the situation but shows how weak of a grasp Niantic has on its former players.
We’re still missing trading and one-on-one PvP. The lack of breeding, while understandable, is also a bit of a disappointment when a game adds genders from a specific game entry that added baby-making. The game’s content feels more fulfilling and complete, but launching without the core features seen in its trailer and still lacking them a year later continues to be a problem.
Despite adding an above average amount of content to Pokemon GO since release, most of the content has already been done. Daily quests aren’t just an MMO standard but a mobile standard, and launching without these probably helped contribute to the game’s rapid loss in popularity. Events are fairly normal, as was adding Generation 2 ‘mon. Shinies are random skins (and that’s limited to a single Pokemon so far), and TMs aren’t nearly as fun as other, similar functioning mechanics in other mobile Nintendo titles. Most of the games’ changes seem to be Niantic borrowing from the MMO genre with mixed results.
For example, one of the very first dailies the game should have had was one related to gyms, the only in-game multiplayer aspect of the game. Even with the new gym system that promotes gyms switching hands, this absence seems not only tone deaf to the genre but as if Niantic forgot its own mechanics.
Social media integration is also still sorely lacking. Nintendo and the Pokemon Company, largely known for being pretty bad at this, have gotten on board for their other mobile titles, even for Magikarp Jump. Pokemon Go, however, lacks not only a friends list but in-app sharing options for pictures taken with the game’s AR camera. It’s a glaring mistake, especially as Niantic employees told me during E3 that their playerbase is largely made up of millennials who are known for their social media obsession, not minors who need to be protected. Like Ultima Online players taking to ICQ when the game lacked guild chat, Pokemon Go players are forced to go outside the game to make up for the creators’ lack of features. And to add insult to injury, Niantic has repeatedly come down on third-party app developers.
Even worse is the fact that the game doesn’t connect to Nintendo’s overall social platform. People I battle and befriend through Fire Emblem Heroes can become my Nintendo Switch friends, but as Pokemon Go lacks any kind of friends list, it keeps PoGo firmly outside of the Pokemon and Nintendo platforms, even though the official Pokemon Trainer’s Club (that non-Google log-in option) has a friends list. For a company that grew out of Google, Niantic oddly doesn’t make use of tie-ins to Google Maps, Calendar, or YouTube, the latter of which would really help it attract and monetize streamers. All of these would be great for socialization, not to mention would increase player retention and possibly help with advertising.
That being said, Niantic has done well in some aspects. I’ve already mentioned how the badge/reputation system is an improvement on a trope done to death in MMOs, in addition to innovations in the Gym system. However, if you think about territory PvP in MMOs, Pokemon Go has innovated a bit on that as well. Since Pokemon have to be defeated for their owners to get coins, players actually want to lose gyms now (after a certain amount of time). While this isn’t entirely new, it does show that Niantic is capable of creating a kind of PvP system that gives other teams a reason to work across factions. This helps to prevent real-world tension among people of the opposite factions, though it also calls into question why this kind of PvP was put in the game at all.
Raids feel much more relevant and new to the series. Most main-series staples make Pokemon battles PvP-only, not PvE. It’s a surprisingly decent addition to the series but not exactly great in terms of immersion. Why are there boss Pokemon in gyms? Why no random battles out in the field, or maybe found through a puzzle? Why can’t bosses get stronger as they defeat players, creating a kind of bounty-system?
This might be why the people who seem to be enjoying the raids the most are people who were already enjoying gyms, as it largely builds on the old combat system. That isn’t to say that collectors don’t like them, but the ones I met before anecdotally did them a few times and have once again disappeared from our local scene. Big city players probably are affected differently, but those of us in small communities are basically on the MMO equivalent of dead servers with no chat system. Niantic’s been in the ARPG field already with Ingress, and so its inability to give at least some temporary way for (rural) players to get help from outsiders is disappointing. I’m slightly surprised at what Niantic’s come up with, but given its history with Ingress, I’m underwhelmed that a lot of this has come during launch, not beta.
Business model and service: C-
Without a doubt, Pokemon Go is pay-to-win, and the addition of Premium Raid Passes while the raid feature is still in beta makes this all the more obvious. Collectors can pay to get through collecting faster, while gym players like yours truly get a significant boost in power the more we spend. Raid passes and incubators give us better access to stardust and candy, the former of which has become scarcer. I’ve spent a good chunk of money on the game, and it showed when I came back, as I was easily competing against players who had played the game a month longer than I had.
Free-to-play may have made the game more accessible, but it also made it more disposable, just like most of the shop’s consumables. Even Pokemon themselves seem as if they largely have limited value, with few exceptions. While the gym and raid systems have made certain Pokemon feel more valuable and easier to invest in, that investment is hard to reach. I’d feel better about spending money on skins and breeding materials than egg-shaped lockboxes and raid passes that lock players out of group content. The terribly unfriendly UI and its issues, plus bugs that can waste premium items, combined with a level of customer service that’s driven me away from several big name MMOs, reveals that Niantic is still largely leaning on the goodwill of the Pokemon fanbase.
I will say that I respect Niantic’s current choice of ending raids at 9 p.m. local time. While some people have noted that crime happens at all hours of the day/night, the same data notes that 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. isn’t a safe time to be out in many places. It gives me faith that the company is becoming a least a little more responsible for its players’ well being.
Let me start off by saying I harbor no personal malice against any developer. Like devs, I deal with fans who can be really passionate about their hobbies, one way or another, and I don’t even get health coverage for my work! I don’t think anyone intentionally makes a bad game or bad development decisions, even if some fans sometimes will say that.
However, Niantic as a developer seems extremely thin-skinned. Talking about toxic posts and communities makes me feel as if they are grossly out of touch with the gaming community. Pokemon fans cheer each other on for trying new things and experimenting. One only need to try the same thing in the MOBA community to see how different that’s perceived elsewhere.
Perhaps this is because Niantic largely makes its press rounds with tech outlets rather than fansites or gaming outlets (with Polygon being the only gaming-centered outlet pre-E3 that I can recall it talking to). It’s disappointing not only as a member of the gaming press but as a fan. Pokemon already has a large fandom. We’ve settled into our own gaming spaces across the internet. From a fan perspective, ignoring gaming outlets and their audiences seems like strange public relations.
Pokemon fans are passionate, but also upbeat. Niantic may dislike criticism, but as a freelancer writer, I can tell you the only thing worse than fans rising against you is silence from them. Niantic gets not only a lot of feedback but some good feedback comparing its work to other games, genres, payment models, and more, often with statistics, graphs, surveys, and heck, even fellow developers. Pokemon Go has a great online community that’s both passionate and often fairly professional.
You have people upvoting, retweeting and being positive with people talking about weight loss, making new friends, and getting over social phobias while discovering new places in their towns. That’s the current community, not just what we saw at release. Although Pokemon Go is one of my main games, even I need to ask for tips once in awhile, but I’ve yet to have been made to feel foolish for doing so, even on Reddit where I often hesitate to tread in certain circles.
The problem is that there is little to no in-game community. We play in our local area only. Spoofers are often the only “visitors” we may recognize, and we have no way of communicating with them in-game, much less with locals. On the one hand, that makes it easier to get to know people in the local community if they don’t play in their cars. On the other, it means those of us in small communities will never be able to get a “server transfer” or other method of boosting our local scene.
We can strengthen and organize our local players, but if those players are largely disengaged and prefer to play ultra-casually, highly engaged individuals like me exist in relative isolation, slowly losing our passion for a social game simply because it lacks, well the proper society to hold us there. Even worse is that the game’s fad status has made Pokemon Go players seem behind the times, so non-players who already looked down on gamers in general only continue to do so now.
Despite my complaints, there’s a reason I still play Pokemon GO. I’ve talked about how anti-social the game can be, but I’ve had more positive social moments with PoGo than in other games I’ve tried in the past few years, especially with new Pokemon fans. It’s a bad exercise game due to certain mechanics, but it’s motivated some people to get out of the house, including me on my bad days. I’ve really been searching for good games for exercise and socialization beyond traditional sports, and Pokemon Go is filling that niche quite well.
I don’t think Niantic’s done enough in the past year to regain the loss of its once huge playerbase, and I don’t think it ever will. Comebacks like Final Fantasy XIV‘s aren’t common but are possible. If you stopped playing Pokemon Go because of the lack of features from the trailer, I don’t think there’s enough to warrant your return yet. The game’s monetization still makes me resent giving the company money for ephemeral rewards, rather than making me happy with my purchase, and the community is a real crap shoot. However, there’s enough going on at a reasonable pace that I still feel I can recommend the game to certain people, especially to hardcore MMO players looking to return to meat space.