Today is Pokemon Go’s second-year anniversary. Last year’s report card had to grapple with things like the game’s rapid rise and fall as a fad, its severe lack of promised content even with its first major update, crimes associated with the game, and being somewhat anti-social – and that was before the disaster known as Pokemon Go fest 2017. It was probably the worst way to start off a new year for your game, and it’s probably no surprise that our coverage of the game waned after the fallout.
But something happened. Whether it was because series Director/Producer Junichi Masuda was there to witness the horror or because some internal change in Niantic’s process changed, we’ll probably never know. But change came. Generation 3 became Pokemon Go’s One Tamriel. Suggestions I’d made previously happened and are still happening. The numbers are showing that the improvements are paying off, as the game’s playerbase is at the highest it’s been since its 2016 peak, after having gone through a brutal 80% dropoff. I thought I was being overly optimistic with my 2018 predictions for the game, but so far, so very good!
Making the grade
As we did last year, we’ll be looking at content growth, innovation, business/service model, community, and value using the American grading scale, with A as the best mark and F as the worst (we skip E, so it’s just 5 marks). We don’t normally score games at massively, but I figured a holistic system might help show growth a bit more visual.
Last year, I gave the game a B in content growth, B- in innovation, C- for its business model and service, C(?) for community, and a B for value. The question mark next to community was largely because, especially as we’re an MMO site, not being able to interact with other players in the actual game in a meaningful way made the game seem about as social as the typical Facebook add-all-your-friends-and-spam-them-with-requests type game.
The external, online community has been great. One of the best I’ve been a part of. Not just The Silph Road taking a more research and (sometimes aggressively) positive slant, but various Pokemon websites, forums, subreddits, hashtags, and even a few streamers, both pre and post Go era Poke-fandom, make it great.
But I stand by that confused community grade, especially after trying some other augmented reality games that, frankly, suffer the same problem, but fix others. The genre is still new, especially to the persistent, online genre. However, my B- for innovation probably could have been a C+. I even specifically mentioned that Niantic had just plus-one’d aspects we see in other games, though sometimes in delightfully pragmatic ways considering the issues unique to the genre. Keep all this in mind with this year’s grades.
Content growth: A+
Now, before anyone gets excited about over-hyping, let me say that I am a notoriously harsh grader, not just when I freelance for other sites that require scored reviews but when grading student work. That being said, there’s a reason I penned the previously mentioned article on Generation 3 being Pokemon Go’s equivalent of Elder Scrolls Online’s One Tamriel update.
The short version? Niantic made progression flatter but content options much broader. Gyms, the territory PvP objectives that give bonuses to raids that spawn on them, already scaled to match the player’s level. That was last year. This year, we got the weather system, which boosts relevant, themed Pokemon’s level and IVs, the hidden stats that dictate the potential strength of the Pokemon. This allowed players to more easily play “catch-up” with veteran players. The stardust bonus (think enchanting mats) from these Pokemon allowed veteran players with top-tier teams to raise more niche or less meta-relevant Pokemon for fun and/or experimentation.
Combined with the new Star Piece piece consumables boosting received stardust and Community Days– events where for several hours, rare Pokemon become common and/or gain unique moves that often boost the ‘mon’s meta relevancy – that’d be enough for a single, solid patch.
But Niantic did something that, last year, I would have said would never happen. More shinies? Of course. More hat pikachus? Predictable. Daily quests that act as tutorials, give players additional ways to catch rare and retired Pokemon in addition to building on the lore? Very nice, but far too late for a launched game.
No, Niantic added not just a friends option but trading, a core feature the game was supposed to have at launch, but done in a way that makes sense for the genre.
I say this as we see trading in the core MMO genre in danger. The threat of secondary markets taking over in-game economies is problematic, and to be honest, it’s depressing that developers are starting to choose to lock players out of those and force auction houses on the masses (even if AH PvP is one of my favorite pastimes). We’ll get to this later in innovation though.
In terms of content, friend ranks slowly increase raid damage and the amount of premium balls you receive, making raids even more accessible. Friends can also send each other gifts, giving each other (now small) amounts of supplies of fairly useful items, making their actual use more common. Gifts also give eggs with a small hatching pool, so they’re less of a gamble than the normal egg reception method, even if they provide no meta-relevant power.
Part of this is a welcomed change is because Generation 3 legendaries largely are small improvements over other Pokemon in both the current and future generations, unless you’re trying to tackle raids with as few people as possible. That being said, trading does offer a path to getting those powerful Pokemon for a hefty price (which scales down significantly as your friend reputation increases).
This is where trading really increases the game’s overall content. People like me, who have been hoarding Pokemon for two years and who have hit the level cap, can help our friends catch up in terms of their Pokedex entries and power. For example, my friend is short on larvitar candy and lacks its final evolution, Tyrannitar, which is unfortunate because it recently had a Community Day. I luckily held on to a few “just in case” and it’s already paid off.
I sent several to her, costing us both some stardust. In exchange, I got more larvitar candy than I would have gotten from a normal transfer (the farther away the Pokemon were caught, the larger the candy bonus for the ‘mon you’re trading away), and she got access to candy that’s fairly difficult for her to get. She also got higher-level ones (but nothing over her level cap, as they scale down). While it would have been nice if the game kept their IVs intact, the game rerolls them, meaning even junk legendaries I saved just to help her complete her collection can become high-stat terrors.
This means that you can not only help less experienced players catch up but gamble-trade low IV S-tier Pokemon (just once!) and possibly improve them. Heck, it’s not even the best of the best. Trading actually completely changes the way you play the game, but I’ll discuss that as well in innovation. In short, trading makes the collection aspect more accessible, the raiding scene more casual, and supports the core catching gameplay with a more social system in game.
While legacy moves (retired abilities) are being reintroduced in accessible ways, they’re still scarce enough to hold value to some trainers. It doesn’t sound like much, but trading someone her favorite Pokemon or a rare version of something she can no longer get feels good. What was once a game that could be mostly played with the touch of a button is feeling more like, well, a Pokemon MMO.
Last year, I admit that this score might have been just a little high, so this year, I’m being stricter. Niantic’s additions of Dailies, Friends, and Trading are all improvements on systems other games have already done, and they are generally small ones. Dailies also act as a tutorial, but I’ve seen games like World of Warcraft do this for years. The in-game friend system may bring a lot to the game, but essentially functions as a social reputation grind. The gifts you receive from PokeStops that can’t be opened by the person who initially finds them (encouraging trade) – that’s uncommon but not unheard of, so again, it’s a nice tweak on an old formula. C+/B- material.
Trading is where we start to get real. Again, this is a feature we’re starting to see go away. What Pokemon Go does differently is randomize the stats, which can increase in effectiveness as you gain friendship. While this is disappointing for the sick freaks who collect Pokemon with 0/0/0 IVs (the cap is 15/15/15, with hatched, quest-caught, and raid-caught being no lower than 10/10/10), it’s a boon for everyone else. It means that every Pokemon you catch has a second chance to have great IVs.
In MMO terms, imagine you and your friend just got a sweet-looking sword, but the randomly generated stats are awful. Instead of disenchanting it, you can pay a little gold and trade it to your friend. This gives you both an opportunity to get not only better randomized states but some additional enchantment supplies for improving it. No good? You can still chuck it for more dust.
Gameplay-wise, that’s a little fun. Solid B material. However, socially, that’s beautiful. It gives you a reason to play with other people, which is good for any game but especially for games with persistence. For an ARG played in the real world, it promotes social groups and chances to meet and join up with new players. While that does mean some criminal out there could try to lure POGO players into fake friendships and lure them into dark allies, it’s no worse than telling someone there’s a Dragonite in the back of their van. In fact, because the game favors long-term friendships and gives discounts for that, it means forming groups of familiar players, which should (in theory) make playing ARGs in public safer.
Perhaps slightly less revolutionary but certainly more innovative is the weather system. Weather that’s more than looks is already uncommon in the genre even after all these years. Tapping into Accuweather reports for a local area and reflecting that prediction in game is something I haven’t heard of in any other game, and rewarding players for going out into the elements is good, to an extent. The game formerly locked you out of the system in dangerous weather conditions, which I praised. This right here would be A material. At the release of the system, my local area had fires that were making the air visibly dirty at times. Taking away that incentive felt like a good change.
However, the trigger for “hazardous” conditions was relative. A few inches of rainfall was normal for me in Japan, but Californians freak out from it. As rain is a rare condition here, having it almost always trigger warnings was, well, annoying and disappointing for those of us who wanted the rain bonuses. While Niantic does grant the bonus even in these conditions, there is at least an in-game warning still that suggests players stay alert.
Finally, getting back to friends, the initial release showed that gifting possibly could have been used to solve rural players’ lack of PokeStops, causing severe item shortages. As a suburban player who has to play in the “right” places or else risk going a supply shortage, I had city-level item overflows. I had to toss even items I generally coveted.
And I was fine with this. I still wanted to use PokeStops to receive quests, gifts to send my friends, and during an event, perhaps eggs. I could play with high-end materials, use my best Pokemon in gyms instead of my fodder group, and could use extra berries for additional gym defense (and stardust/candy ammo).
As another MOP writer mentioned after the gift-nerf, Niantic once again showed that it doesn’t understand how difficult the game is to enjoy for its rural audience. This is where we get knocked back down to B range. While games like Maguss and Jurassic World have solved this issue, Niantic still struggles (though claims that POGO players will no longer need to rely on Ingress players for Points of Interest submissions are welcoming). Not only that, but the system is buggy and broken in terms of progress. That being said, PoGo still feels more multiplayer, more persistent, more massive than the other two so, meh, we’ll give them a B+.
Business model and service: B
At release, the game was pay to win (or “pay for power” if you want a more specific term). Incubators provided the easiest source for powerful Pokemon, plus tons of candy and stardust required to level them. While most hatched Pokemon besides Chansey have been replaced by a legendary Pokemon, they still remain a great source of stardust, needed not only for leveling Pokemon, but for powering trades. As legendary Pokemon require a lot of stardust to trade, this still holds true.
Legendary Pokemon released shortly after the game’s first birthday were rotated in and out of the game for about a week at a time. Paying about $1 per raid attempt to get Pokemon that are still very useful (and the incredibly rare candy needed to power them) gave those players a good leg-up on the competition… until later generations showed up. Intentional or not, the early legendary raids acted almost as a balancing phase to test how often raids should happen, how long a Pokemon should be available, and even how to balance their stats to keep their power in line.
Paying more to get these advantages is nice, but especially without hardcore PvP, it’s too significant. On average, I probably spent less than $10 a month on the game. I rarely did more than a single raid per day, if that. There are people in my local POGO group with much more powerful teams than me, but I can hold my own, to the point that others will vocally say how much easier a raid is when I come out.
Free to play players are at a disadvantage, but those of us who pay make up the difference. In fact, external pay-to-win feels more powerful: People who can afford a second phone and play a second (or more account) add much more firepower in the long run than a single powerful account. Between incubators essentially acting as enchanting mat boosts and raids as almost an arcade-like group play session, I’m fairly comfortable with Niantic’s model. I just wish shiny variants weren’t also tied in as a skin-gamble mechanic, but compared to what other games have done with loot boxes, this is nothing.
With Community Days and in-game friends that can trade and benefit each other, it’s much easier to talk about community. Yes, the online communities are still great. Interestingly enough, Niantic’s increased social media engagement, reddit presence, and even early promotion of online communities was a welcomed change.
The problem is that we do still need better tools. Raids act as a social beacon, but you may be waiting up to an hour and forty-five minutes to find out that no one’s coming to play. Communities largely exist online and coordinate via out-of-app methods. While many MMO guilds have their own voice chat and guild sites, you can still log in and textually ask people for help.
We’re still lacking that kind of support in Pokemon Go. Niantic pulling back on mentioning, say, The Silph Road as a way to find local groups was a mistake. This means finding local players is not much easier than it was last year aside from potentially finding new people during the monthly, three hour Community Day events.
See, not all groups are public. My own local groups are private to help ensure we’re family friendly and able to maintain a local scene with territory agreements. Open groups mean spoofers, which have ruined what we’ve worked for when people out of town tell the world of unique “nests,” clusters of specific Pokemon that remain in an area for weeks.
Some kind of local tool to more easily find other players is needed. Even in big cities like Los Angeles, finding other players can be a crapshoot, and that’s just assuming you run into friendly players. As the game is regional and reality-based, it’s a very mixed bag, but I find Pokemon fans are at least enthusiastic about the franchise and POGO. A simple communication system, like marking a gym to show you’re interested in raiding or intend to play in the area, would greatly help those without groups to find people to play with.
As far as free to play goes, the game just got a huge shot in the arm. There’s really nothing you’re “missing” by not paying a dime, though being competitive will be rather difficult because of the preestablished communities and veteran players, but having those some people on your side can make that easier.
The arcade-style raid pass system from last year works better now that Pokemon last weeks, up to a month. Niantic’s frequent sales help stretch your dollar further, and they’ve been more generous with everything in their store, including the pay for power incubators.
While it is annoying that certain achievements unlock the “right” to purchase some cosmetics, Niantic has added a few more outfits that make dressing up your avatar fun. Not just clothing that requires premium currency, but free clothing just for playing. More options would certainly be appreciated, but there’s enough that people show off their outfits and have some variety.
Overall, if you only played the game at launch or skipped it due to critical franchise elements not being in at launch, I feel I can safely recommend the game for Pokemon fans who also enjoyed pre-World of Warcraft MMOs but want to get outside more. Without looking for group options, chat, meaningful social media integration, or options to play the game when you’re unable to leave the house (sorting Pokemon doesn’t count), you may want to wait a little longer.