A lot of critical things have been said about Pokemon Go and Niantic in the past. Professionals that tried to defend certain UI elements still had plenty of suggestions a non-professional could have made. Same goes for players and professionals that noted the need for quests. In fact, Niantic’s insistence on doing local events instead of global events created some huge PR problems, and that’s without noting that, for a social game, the game actually lacked a lot of social features.
But there’s a weird thing: Niantic’s addressed many of those issues. Several are ones I’ve previously suggested. There’ve been several UI improvements, new quests, at least two events per month since February 2018 that aren’t just cash shop sales, and a push towards community building. It’s far from perfect, like the glaring omission of in-game communication or a social media connection, but we’ll ignore that for now. What I want to focus on is how Niantic’s taken feedback and enhanced Pokemon Go.
The Generation 3 transformation
It feels to me as if everything changed with Niantic’s Generation 3 update. The update brought new Pokemon and new mechanics, much like Gen 2, but while Gen 2 added nearly all the Gen 2 Pokemon at once with some “gamey” mechanics, Gen 3 was a revolution. With more than 220 ‘mon available already, Niantic wisely released the new Pokemon in batches.
While refusing to release all the Pokemon at once may seem stingy, it worked wonders. Niantic had already released a few Gen 3 monsters during Halloween, which is essentially a ghost-type event. That allowed players who were missing certain Ghost-type Pokemon (well, basically just the Ghastly family) to harvest candy more easily, but it also gave veteran players something new to search for.
This was the route Niantic followed for Generation 3. Not only were we getting new Pokemon, but there were themes, making it easier to get Pokemon from previous generations that we may have missed. By spreading it out over a few months, players had time to focus on hunting specific Pokemon before receiving a new batch to concentrate on.
And truthfully, they’re not done yet. Of the non-legendaries and mythicals (think Mew and Celebi) the Nincada line (3 ‘mon), Spinda, Kecleon, and Clamperl line (3 more ‘mon) are all that’s currently missing, as they have unique features Niantic has to consider when translating into the game. Well, not Clamperl exactly, but as evolution items are rare, adding 2 more could be problematic. As with Ditto before it, players are waiting to see how Niantic may mix things up, and the comapny’s been showing more and more often that it’s capable of innovating not just tech but games too.
While I’ve complained several times that Niantic didn’t seem to learn a lot from Ingress, especially in terms of responsibility towards its players acting oddly in real spaces, the company has made a few good decisions. The E3 reveal of the new gym system, which made newly established PvP zones difficult to attack at first and slowly eased the difficulty of repeated assaults, was a great concept I hadn’t seen in other games. The “egg” for raids, showing what time a raid would begin, was also a good way to give people some time to coordinate, even if Niantic still didn’t give players any in-game tools to actually communicate with.
But Gen 3’s weather system shook up the game and design in a way I still feel are underutilized. Dynamic game weather systems that impact gameplay still feel rare, so having real weather affect gameplay still feels unique, even when you know how it works. It’s not just a display change. It’s not just that certain weather makes certain move types stronger. It’s not the stardust bonus that makes grinding lower, the fact that Pokemon that enjoy that weather come out more, that said Pokemon can go over the traditional level cap for caught ‘mon, or even that they’ll have a higher chance of having better stats. It’s all of that.
The weather system solved a lot of the game’s grind problems, Pokemon availability issues, and level disadvantage between hardcores and casuals. Weather became a very real factor in-game. Different weather could motivate players to get out, go to different locations, and communicate where the in-game weather took place. (We’ll ignore the problem how encouraging people to play in potentially dangerous weather for now, especially as Niantic’s at least added in warning about “extreme” conditions and an option to report weather issues.)
Combined with the Gen 2 changes, Gen 3 felt like Pokemon Go’s Elder Scrolls Online: One Tamriel update. Where once we had fairly standard gameplay with highly stratified levels, we now have more dynamic gameplay where players of all levels feel, well, relevant. And this was just the beginning of that feeling.
Some of you may recall my argument that Pokemon Go doesn’t feel like an MMO, primarily because it lacks an in-game communication system. The short argument was that without any kind of communication allowed in-game, you didn’t have a virtual world, simply a virtual setting. It’s why I don’t think many of us get hooked on Facebook games even though they can be fun. The lack of real community teamwork for anything beyond a simple click or friend addition doesn’t imitate the world as we know it. While POGO tried to haphazardly push people together, it wasn’t in a way that really built a community.
That’s where Niantic’s Community Day push comes into play. Community Day generally involves a nice bonus like triple XP, a popular or rare Pokemon becoming very common, a shiny rare variant of said ‘mon appearing in the game (and being more common), and a rare move granted to its evolution line for a few short hours. All of this combined creates very good incentive to go out and play the game.
Let me be clear on something first: Community Day does nothing to solve in-game communication issues. Niantic may never even solve that, and it may be OK with that. What it does do, however, is create an artificial prime time.
As the game is location-based, it means known hotspots see higher-than-average foot traffic during Community Day. My friend, who plays the game off and on, generally has work on these days. However, during the last Community Day, she was off. She’d seen a bunch of people playing, and thinking they were simply doing a raid, she texted me the game was suddenly taking off again. I immediately gave her a rundown of the event, which she had heard of but never experienced. It got her excited enough to jump in for a bit. She was even able to get enough candy to evolve the rare Pokemon and its shiny variant.
That’s just on an individual level, though. As an MMO player, I’m used to guild events, so I organized my local WhatsApp PPGO group to meet locally. While there are better places to play, playing locally as a group has made it easier for us to find other local players.
Our numbers have swelled thanks to Community Day. While Niantic has taken action against certain websites that made doing raids easier, having more local people (again, out of the game) communicating potential raids has made sure that we can continue raiding despite the loss of an invaluable tool. If Niantic wants people to communicate exclusively outside of POGO, Community Day and pushes to promote out of game communities are paying off.
Community Day was just the start. In addition to the slow drip of Gen 3 ‘mon, Niantic has had some kind of mini-event reinforcing the same idea. It’s not just that it’s an event; it’s that it’s a relevant one. For example, starting as early as the first Gen 3 drip, Niantic promoted water and ice type Pokemon, which were useful against the ground-based legendary raid boss Groudon and dragon type Rayquaza after that. After that, Niantic did a dragon-type event, and as dragon types are weak to themselves, it’s made assembling teams for the Eon Duo dragons, Latias and Latios, easier. The current fighting-type event is doing the same I think, preparing us for the next legendaries who are weak to, you guessed it, fighting types.
Niantic is not only giving us tools for future content though but giving us the ammo to make the best use out of them. Increased candy and stardust events ensure that we’re getting the consumables needed to power up our new Pokemon so that even if we get a great low-level catch, we can raise it to a usable level. Even those of us who have full teams already prepared can use the additional consumables to raise Pokemon that aren’t relevant to the meta but are just fun.
The constant stream of events does a few things. First, it prepares the community for upcoming game challenges. Second, it gives us sprint periods where we can spend or hoard leveling materials. And finally, it also gets people out a bit more where we can hopefully run into our fellow players.
I could almost end this here. Dynamic content, community building, and lots of fun events… it’s the stuff people like to hear about in their MMOs. But there’s one other thing that’s been added to make POGO gamier: quests.
Quests as tutorials
One of PoGO’s biggest weak points is its lack of a good tutorial. Intentional or not, when that lack of a tutorial is paired with the lack of in-game communication, Niantic ensured that isolated, casual players had every excuse to get frustrated with the game. The launch website was less than helpful, there was a lot of misinformation out there, there are no in-game communities to help you, and people in real life would troll you, both players and normal people.
Niantic perhaps put too much faith in normal people and not enough in its own game. I love the idea of getting people to help each other out, but the execution (at least from what I viewed in Japan) was less than stellar.
Gameplay has also been pretty basic once you understand it, but it involves setting your own goals and visiting fansites. That’s high engagement stuff most players don’t deal with. It’s why I’d wager friends of mine who are deep in other mobile games quit POGO for long periods of time: They have guided experiences.
Enter Pokemon Go’s quest system. The tasks, especially the main quest line, are simple enough: You catch three of one type, make three “Nice!” throws, evolve a Pokemon. They’re things hardcore players already know or are maybe “done” doing because they’ve been playing for so long. However, they’re also things a new player may have ignored. Curveballs, for example, are something a few of my raiding partners still couldn’t do. The trick is simple to teach but requires practice. Knowing they can encounter special Pokemon or get rare items for pulling off a tricky move motivates people to practice. It even works on vets like me!
That’s not all, though. Certain quests require weird things, like finding Ditto (a pokemon that disguises itself on the map as other ‘mon), or catching 10 ghost-type Pokemon. Some aren’t worth it (like hatch three eggs, a minimum of 6km walking for free to play players, to get a few very common berries), but others are very rewarding. Much like eggs and raids, Pokemon caught through the quests have higher chances of having great stats. Because of this, communities report the locations of unique Pokemon and quests to each other.
Reward Pokemon aren’t always great, but some are. The main quest awards Mew, as seen above, and the encounter is a huge reference to perhaps my favorite non-main series entry, Pokemon Snap. Mew’s flexible but not overpowered.
However, for people who do dailies, getting seven stamps (one per day, but you don’t have to do them in a row) rewards you with a legendary Pokemon encounter. For people who missed the early raiding days, this is a great way to catch up, but it also allows vets another chance to get a better ‘mon or just get candy to raise them.
While some quests can be boring or not equally award their required effort, they’re generally good at teaching the game, motivating players to practice skills, motivating players to communicate, and helping people catch up.
Towards the future
Make no mistake: Pokemon Go is far from complete. Beyond my personal desire for an in-game communication system, social media tie-in, and breeding, I am the first to say that advertised features like trading and duels are still missing. The curve-ball is still not taught in-game but something you accidentally learn or get taught. Raids have a small window of opportunity to coordinate, which is really tough for people with full-time employment outside of major cities.
That being said, Niantic has improved the game by leaps and bounds. The game is in a state where I can finally recommend it as a social mobile game, though maybe not quite to hardcore MMO fans. It’s certainly on the cusp, though, especially for people who play MMOs for the community. While the game’s always had a vibrant online community, finding a local one has been difficult, especially for casual player. Niantic has held events, but mostly with large corporations and governments, and aside from holidays, these local events in huge cities not everyone could attend.
Now the game feels more open. MMO fans who already make their own content, build guild sites, and host guild meets will find that Pokemon Go hits the right notes now. Future updates will hopefully do more than add more monsters to collect, but features that will support the community. In-game communication, trading, and yes, breeding would make the game feel like less of a button mash battle simulator and more like a virtual world. However, the new game enhancements and real-world push at least makes it feel like you’re mashing buttons with people you’ll be seeing again, rather than that “PUG” feeling when you drive out of town to play.