The Soapbox: The disastrous Pokemon Go Fest was just Niantic being Niantic, and that has to stop
I know I complain a lot about Pokemon Go in my articles here, but there’s a reason for this. I’m a huge fan not just of the Pokemon series but of what Niantic is trying to do with its game on a basic level. The idea of getting games outside with the rest of the world instead of hidden in our rooms and offices is hugely appealing. I’ve even applied to work at Niantic before (though obviously I wasn’t selected), so for me especially it’s frustrating to see a company I want to succeed repeatedly making the same kinds of mistakes. These are mistakes that plagued the game’s launch, several events, feature reworkings, and now not one, but two birthday celebrations within the same year.
I actually got sucked into the hype recently and even said that the events surrounding the festival might give people a reason to come back. I’ve finally removed my foot from my mouth after previously downing some crow, but I’ve realized that, now more than ever, Niantic needs some tougher love, and here it is.
Since the advent of raiding, my local area finally has a “guild” (well, extended raid group). Nothing on social media (though one apparently found me on reddit), just texting. However, several of the people in the group didn’t know anything about the big global event for those of us who couldn’t get tickets to the Chicago party. These people use throwaway email accounts or have someone (like a parent) monitoring it, so they don’t get emails. They’re not really into social media, something I wouldn’t be using if this job didn’t necessitate it. What they do is play the game, and in the game, there was no event. No announcement, no goals posted, nothing. It’d be like going to work on Monday, doing your job, and then having your boss announce later that secretly you’d actually been to a party the day before, she just forgot to tell everyone.
Pokemon Go did send a very vague, general statement the night before the event, but that was all. This was when several members in my guild started asking questions. Answering some of their questions was hard because even those of us who frequent the major POGO fansites would feel a little confused at times. We were pretty certain of the day and time, but when the actual events were occurring, nothing happened in game. No announcements, nothing stating the goals or time limits or… anything. The official social media was dead for most of the event. Anyone who wasn’t checking outside the game for in-game activities would think it was just another day in Pokemon Go.
What we did know was that Niantic started messing with some things the night before, as we’d heard reports that raids suddenly became a lot harder. Niantic being Niantic made last-minute additions to the game the night before a major event that temporarily broke the game. This should have been foreshadowing about what would happen the next day.
Tech problems from the tech company
In my local neighborhood, you couldn’t tell there was any kind of Pokemon-related event. I saw two other players during four event rounds, but only for the first round. They may have quit or gone elsewhere (The Pike Outlets in Long Beach, about an hour away, is our closest and most welcoming hotspot). Smarter people who didn’t have to work Saturday went there, while locals like me tried to make the best of it. Without people knowing about the event, though, I was seemingly the only one left in town and unable to play in a big group, though guildies say the only thing different beyond numbers that day was an unrelated Hawaiian festival.
That already sounds better than what people who traveled to Chicago dealt with. The line to get in lasted longer than the event rounds. Tech issues made those challenges nearly impossible, with one person noting he caught only four Pokemon in four hours. Niantic’s stream was failing, which was terrible since it was the only source of progress we could view (and apparently only being shown while we were supposed to be out catching anyway). There were even reports of people at the event spoofing (cheating) around the park. While Niantic did offer refunds and bonuses to attendees, there’s some concern about that.
Paying for power
As we noted in our earlier coverage of the train wreck, it seems attendees were treated to some nice bonuses. Not only did attendees get some digital and real-world badges, but the local stops were giving out special Pokemon eggs with rare-ish Pokemon. We’ve had events like this before in the past, and that would be fine if it ended there, but it didn’t.
There was talk that a certain regional Pokemon might be at the event, and it was. Heracross, a bug/fighting Pokemon (above), is actually the best regional Pokemon available. Without looking at the value of future generations (some Pokemon get even stronger later), Heracross is a highly useful Pokemon when compared to not just other regionals but many other basic Pokemon. Remember, regional Pokemon require you to either cheat or physically travel to other countries in order to obtain them. Most are for show. Heracross is more than that.
Unown, a Pokemon so rare that many hardcore players (including me) haven’t even seen one in the wild, also made an appearance. While not nearly as useful as Heracross, its rarity does make it quite the bragging piece. One of these two I could understand to a degree, as I’d been previously told the event was for socializing. However, there were apparently free raids at the event as well.
For non-POGO players, imagine your weekly MMO raids could be done multiple times per week if you were willing to pay real-life money. Remember, that’s only you, so your friends and guildies would need to pony up as well. Now imagine that people who went to a real life event would suddenly have both the players and a free pass to raid as much as they want, and they’d all get loot rewards.
Add to that top-tier legendary Pokemon available only for those who paid to attend. Again, these are raids that require multiple people and the right, powerful non-legendary Pokemon to beat. Although I live near a city, when legendary raids went live Saturday night, they were nothing like in the trailer: no free raid pass, no notification to go to a certain location, and certainly no Pikachu being used because failing these might cost you real cash. Organizing them is hard work where I live. Maybe in a major metropolitan city, zerging might be possible. It’s not like that here, though, so getting legendaries and free raids, which grant items to make legendary Pokemon even stronger, is ridiculous in the context of a social event.
Let’s put this into perspective. I caught about 200 Pokemon during Saturday’s event (and I played much longer than usual). Nothing I caught was remotely useful beyond leveling fodder, and that’s normal gameplay. A single Heracross or Unown would have made my month. Both at once would be crazy. Having frequent access to both (as Unown are shaped similar to alphabetical letters, making each one even rarer) is insane.
Now for raids. We’re only allowed to do a single raid per day, or two if I skip a day (you can’t stack, but there’s kind of a way to cheat for a single day). However, since we’re adults and people have families, we maybe only raid 2-3 times a week. If win-trading in the gym system goes smoothly, I can pay for a ticket every two days, but even though I play daily, that isn’t always the case. However, I’m one of the more hardcore players; most players don’t have access to “free” tickets as I do, but I don’t buy them because there isn’t enough of a playerbase for me to even do high-end raids daily. Already you can probably see how unlimited raid access at a huge player gathering would be appealing.
It gets worse. Organizing the raid and getting people only from my neighborhood down to a local raid takes maybe 15 minutes if everyone’s fast, often longer. If things go well, we’re done in about 5 minutes. Travel time is going to take us maybe 10 minutes to repeat this. We’ve had people take significantly longer, or due to bugs, service issues, or lack of players, we’ve failed outright. Most of the time, we do only one raid, and the rewards are rarely any good. In the past month, I’ve gotten only two good hauls from 20 raids. I mostly get junk, except for rare candy.
The problem is, after doing two legendary raids on Saturday, I had zero legendaries, as did others in my group. It’s a mixture of bugs and capture difficulty combined with, again, lack of communication from Niantic. Kids showing up late unthinkingly wasted raid passes hoping they could zerg the Pokemon. As in most MMOs, once you finish the raid, you’re locked out, so kids (and the parents who buy the replacement tickets) learned the hard way that you need to coordinate with others to get these done and that impatient adults would screw people over. That being said, with that small pile of rare candy I’ve collected as “junk” rewards from raids since launch, a single legendary, especially Lugia, would become one of my stronger Pokemon almost instantly and help me reinforce my Poke-dominance around town.
While it may be for the best that the event did have issues, players who managed to at least capture the two event Pokemon and do a few raids came back not only with collector’s items (physical and digital, including a legendary Pokemon and $100 worth of in-game currency), but powerful items/Pokemon that are going to make an impact on their local scene. The legendary raids have given my group and others a reason to reach out across the internet, but we players are doing that externally with other services. My casual friend, who started playing before I did, has yet to do a raid simply because she doesn’t know anyone near her who plays, and I’m betting there are others just like her.
History repeating itself
While all this may sound bad in isolation, keep in mind Niantic’s history. Especially before recent optimizations, Niantic has seemed more like a tech company than a game company, and not one that was interested in user experience. Many Niantic employees are coming from the same universities or straight from Google. While I’ll be the first to admit that gaming not only needs new blood but new ideas and that a lot of real-world skills from other disciplines could translate well into gaming, you still need experience in the games field!
That being said, with all the tech people on Niantic’s team, why were there last-minute changes made right before a major event? Why would Niantic attempt to squeeze so many people into a single location in a country as big as the USA instead of reaching out to fansites or other communities to handle things (like other companies do)? With all the internet issues that go on with non-tech events, why did Niantic think it could host one that revolved around all attendees playing a fairly fragile game at the same time? Knowing how many people were going to attend, what went wrong in the automated stress tests Niantic executed prior to the event that missed so much? At this point, is it naive of me to assume the studio even did internal stress testing of this? These aren’t new problems, they’re old, and for all events, not just tech-related ones.
Then there’s the issue with communication. Niantic has failed on this level so many times. Why didn’t the community manager ensure that the player community was kept abreast of the events in game? Why did the social media manager announce only the start of the first round and not the others? Why wasn’t there a graph communicating the goals on Niantic’s home page, or the Pokemon Go (fest) page(s)? Again, these are very basic issues that mundane social clubs tackle at their non-tech events. I think we should expect more from a company that’s profited to the tune of a billion dollars.
Niantic isn’t new to running events, but clearly, Pokemon is significantly larger than Ingress. How The Pokemon Company hasn’t relegated Niantic to tech support as a more seasoned game developer team makes this game is beyond me. Perhaps others are intimidated with the admittedly new fields that Niantic is crossing into. It’s scary, and I’m glad someone is doing it, but it’s painful to watch.
This is a company that is making a lot of choices anyone who just plays MMOs would know not to make. The RP community knows about announcing its events not just on the forums, but in game too. Guild leaders know that gated content decimates community numbers, especially if people have to pay real-world cash for access. Socializers know that high-value loot for low effort puts people in farm mode, not chat mode. And achievers know that raid-lockouts and timed events mean leaving behind unprepared casuals, or even fellow hardcores that may be trying to slow progress down to help them. All these issues are as old as our genre, and I don’t feel Niantic has seriously taken them into consideration when designing Pokemon Go.
When dealing with GPS issues, AR being underutilized, and moving from abusive gacha-monetization to charging for socialization (an issue I’m already seeing my group struggle with, without needing a CEO to explain why milking us is bad), Pokemon Go’s core gameplay was ignored for far too long. The original anniversary celebration was underwhelming. While I applaud Niantic for its attempt at fixing it with its other celebrations, I am wholly confused as to how the company could make so many mistakes so fast, especially in areas it’s supposed to excel in.