Exploring Pokemon Go’s real-life communities: MOP staffers revisit the game from opposite corners of the world

    
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It’s year two of Pokemon Go. While there’s always room for improvement, enough has changed that I feel comfortable recommending the game to at least pre-World of Warcraft MMO fans. Why them and not the greater MMO community? Glad you (hopefully) asked! Unlike most true MMOs, POGO is still in its early infancy in terms of in-game community. Much as in early online games, players may be able to have a friend’s list, but not only is basic chat lacking but so is guild/clan support. There’s no party system, which means no group finder, let alone instanced content that lets you join in with little to no effort.

Like old school MMOs, POGO players have to use a lot of out of game tools for their communities, but there’s enough going on that fellow Massively OP reporters Brendan Drain and Tina Lauro Pollock have renewed their interest in the game. While Brendan had previously attempted some casual raids, both he and Tina had quit entirely. As the game just had not one but two events this weekend as part of its second year anniversary, we decided to try moving out of our comfort zone and looking at the game’s community from new perspectives. Brendan and Tina tried jumping in for the events for the first time, while I tried playing outside my usual community, with mixed results.

Why communities matter in PoGo

I’ve covered a few augmented reality games for this site in the past, but beyond Ingress, the other two didn’t really need to be ARGs, and without naming names, I’m worried at least one upcoming ARG would be fine as a simple motion control game. The multiplayer in many of these games in very minor, and while they do the game aspects well, there is little to no need to physically go out and play them with other people. In fact, I even tried spoofing with one that probably tackles issues Niantic still can’t solve and felt that both remote and location-based play had advantages.

But oddly enough, from the start, POGO has been the more community-based game. Most people think that this mainly had to do with shouting out where Pokemon were, but as I mentioned in my piece describing the Japanese POGO culture at release, shouting Pokemon locations was not OK there. The sharing of information, on and offline, was still important, as families and even strangers would help each other in subtle ways.

I’m not entirely sure about the Japanese daily scene in terms of catching since I moved away (I’ve read and heard from my contacts that most locals play only with people they know, and raids are done quietly with little to no coordination among strangers), but the American scene has certainly changed. In fact, it may be a bit closer to the Japanese scene in my experience, but more on that later.

The key is that POGO players need communities. While you can certainly play alone, I’ve noticed far lower engagement even among my friends for people who don’t belong to a group. It’s not just that they play less; it’s that they are less able to complete raids, less able to complete quests, have a harder time getting rare quests, and may struggle to get their daily coin quota through the gym systems. Players without communities also tend to understand changes in the game less or when upcoming events occur.

MOP’s Brendan and Tina both have experienced this. Tina, having been away from POGO a bit longer, saw a nearby raid while at the zoo. Public places, including theme parks, are often hotspots. In fact, the Ueno Zoo area in Japan was one of the best areas to play, and I hit Downtown Disney for the Squirtle Community day after hearing rumors of it feeling like the game at release (which proved untrue). However, Tina not only had trouble figuring out the raid system, but also had no apparent backup. She even took the gym and held it for about 16 hours, which in my experience, probably means the zoo isn’t a local hotspot.

Brendan has been casually playing since returning to the game, but didn’t realize Community Day isn’t actually a whole day event. As it and the Articuno raid were at the same time – a mere 3 hours, mostly in the morning for Europe – it was incredibly difficult for him to make time to go to the city and participate. He’s done some raids in the past, but largely with unseen spoofers, as the local scene seems to have died.

That isn’t to say soloing is hopeless. My most active pre-POGO friend will read articles on the game to help her out, so she has some understanding of the meta when she’s able to find time to do some research. However, despite having a local public group (which she’s not active with), she’s actually been told not to raid when said groups are trying to arrange their own events. While it’s understandable that competitive players may want to do things their own way, they damage their whole community by not assisting sociable locals.

Much as in a traditional MMO, there are many kinds of groups. Niantic often recommends searching Google, Discord, or “social media” for local groups, but that’s a bit of a crapshoot. I know some of the local public groups in nearby cities, and I normally wouldn’t associate myself with them. The open groups are often zergs, with little leadership, little organization, and lots of hurt feelings.

POGO feels more like a casual raiding game to me, meaning when I do it, I don’t feel I have to explain nearly as much as I might have to in, say, World of Warcraft or even Monster Hunter. It’s still got team aspects, though. Raw numbers won’t always win, and smaller, organized groups can do quite well, making it possible for small communities to organize themselves for raids without needing to travel to large cities (assuming they have enough gyms to raid at various hours of the day). The new friend system supports this by adding damage bonuses and extra balls for catching when you raid with friends, further encouraging close communities over zergs.

While I do feel the territory control gym system does more harm than good to the game these days, it’s also an important aspect to note. As a solo player, I did fine for awhile at launch, but I also was underemployed, so I could waste a few hours on gym PvP in the middle of the day. As I’ve gotten busier, having a local group that can explain which team dominates which areas, warn each other where open gyms are, and even negotiated custody terms for certain gyms saves me a lot of energy and time. I’ve heard large parts of Malaysia play in a similar (but more hardcore) fashion.

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that most of this happens outside of the actual game. Much like voice chat and guild websites, a large bulk of the POGO community exists outside of the actual game. I highly recommend The Silph Road for those looking to learn about the game and keep up to date with it, with Pokemon Go Hub summarizing Silph’s posts reasonably enough, but finding actual local communities is a bit tougher if you want something more organized.

Lack of direct support

As I mentioned in the POGO two year report card, the in-game community is really POGO’s weakest point. While the friend system has really given the game a shot in the arm, it’s still missing in-game chat (including social-media tie-ins that might make this excusable). While it’s good that Niantic is using in-game announcements to direct people to out of game write-ups, Brendan noted that both tend to be walls of text. Finding the specific day of the event may be easy enough, but when Community Day is only three hours long, just finding out what time the event is can be a chore for new and returning players. That’s assuming the information is posted soon enough, as even Articuno Day, announced about a week before it went live, came too late for me to plan around it.

It’s not just for events though. Both Tina and Brendan have had trouble doing raids, as I understand they’re rural players in Northern Ireland. While the game may give players an hour-long warning that a raid will occur at a location, plus 45 minutes to actually do the raid (most raids can be completed in about five minutes, not including the time needed to catch the reward Pokemon), you never know who, if anyone, will show up.

That’s also assuming the gym is close enough for you to see the warning. Players formerly could use a site called “GymHuntr” to scan where raids were happening and plan accordingly, but Niantic shut them down, forcing people to actively search out gyms and report them. That’s strategic in some ways, but when you have limited time to play, live far from a cluster of gyms, or have mobility issues, it can kill the desire to raid.

If the game could allow people to publicly mark they’re interested in doing a raid, it could help pickup groups a lot and help people meet each other, but waiting around up to an hour and 45 minutes with the current system is too long to be disappointed by a lack of participation. It’s much like standing in front of a dungeon in the old days of MMOs, hoping a group might come along and take you in.

Without official forums, finding a local group is hard. The Silph Road’s league tool can help, but that’s only for open groups. You’ll notice most of Japan is without a group. This could be because, obviously, most of the content is in English, making it difficult to find non-English speaking groups. However, even my friend in Japan has noticed that locals don’t really talk outside their personal circles. The game culture is quite different there. It’s based on pre-existing relationships from our understanding, and while you may be able to get in, especially as a foreigner, this can be difficult. I imagine this is similar in other parts of the world.

My own local groups are similar. Our large group is quite strict. While it’s private, it’s nowhere near as organized as an MMO guild, so getting new people in depends on the whims of a few key people. As one of the main recruiters, the more open group I run still remains private, as people from out of town can disrupt the meta. We want to keep crime down and also keep the scene family friendly, but we’ve had hardcore players do unsociable things, even leading us to file a complaint about strangers threatening a local player late at night.

While Niantic did help us with that, had we not been in a close-knit group, the threatening players may have continued to be a problem, and local law enforcement may have needed to be called in. Violence in real life is a thing with this game, and while people may report to a group that someone is causing problems, communities don’t always pull together, or things escalate quickly.

That being said, the best way we’ve recruited is through Community Day. In fact, despite there being areas nearby with denser spawns, I find staying local helps us coordinate where quests and good Pokemon spawns are very easily, and gives strangers a chance to get in on it as well. If there was a good way to advertise where we play on that day (or for other events), it’d be a lot easier to connect with locals or even just give visitors an idea of where to play that day.

Making the most of community events

As I’m the main POGO specialist at MOP, I decided to get out of my comfort zone and explore a new area for the first Community Day. Brendan and Tina’s observations bring a fresh perspective to our coverage, and the only way for me to try to replicate that is by going outside my usual area and community to get a decent idea of what it might be like to jump into the game without my usual support network.

Not only was I trying to get fresh eyes about the game, but I was experiencing Community Day with both the new friend system and Niantic’s newest experiment: quests that guarantee shiny Pokemon. Similar to finding wild rare Pokemon, these quests are only available for a limited time. While most quests only last a day (which is another reason to join up with a local community), these quests last only a few hours, making communication key. Although out of game communities are useful, local ones are key to getting the most out of events, especially the short Community Day ones.

Without a doubt, I’d recommend people doing Community Day and raids within the local community. As in any MMO, each area can be different. San Francisco and other large cities where Pokemon is popular (such as the Tokyo area of Japan) is like being on a full server, in that you can potentially raid anywhere at any time. The downside to this, however, is that you may not actually bond with anyone. Other players may be spoofers or in sky scrapers. The local culture may also mean talking to others is frowned upon.

Not all cities are the same though. I’ve played in Los Angeles quite a few times. While I can get a raid done, it may be a crapshoot if you aren’t there right when it starts. In fact, I found some LA players during non-events to be much like Japanese players. This continued into Community Day at Downtown Disney. Many people I spoke with agreed that the old yelling system was kind of rude and ruined the environment for non-players.

That being said, very few people seemed to reach out to strangers. I always had to be the first one to speak up that I was playing or looking for others. At least for raids on Articuno Day, people in LA were friendly. People would offer advice or see if you wanted to join up.

However, Community Day in Downtown Disney was much more like the Japanese experience, perhaps worse. There was little direct engagement between strangers. Sharing of rare Pokemon locations was uncommon. One person from my local group actually suggested the location and said people shared this information, but I saw almost none of this. There were plenty of people, but clearly we couldn’t be as open as, say, a small local park that’s not often used.

While normally not a big deal, with the new quest system, communication was critical, especially since Downtown Disney required players to go through security to enter or leave the area. Only by chance did I hear a streamer trying to help others, though their information was incorrect. A local Silph Road League leader who I’d spoken to before corrected the streamer’s information quite publicly, but she hadn’t mentioned it to me when I’d seen her before. In fact, I’d noticed she’d been mostly walking around by herself, which reinforced my thought that open groups aren’t quite as tight-knit.

Part of the problem may be that I was in a known hotspot instead of a local hangout. As I wasn’t from the community, other people maybe didn’t bother to invest in me, as perhaps all of us were transients for that location. There were regulars for the event, but from various nearby areas. While the high density of spawns was good for random encounters of the featured Pokemon, that really only helps people looking for random shiny ‘mon. Good IVs (Pokemon with high stats) is much more valuable to me, and that requires communication. That part of the game – strangers shouting in public areas – seems mostly dead. It’s why having a community feels necessary.

If you’re looking for a group to play Pokemon Go with, sure, check social media or Silph Road to start off with. But I’d also recommend exploring your local community physically. Places you plan to play often. Look for lures, especially on Community Day. Wear something Pokemon related so it’s obvious you’re playing. Offer advice on quest locations or rare nearby Pokemon, but without shouting. If you want to do a raid, see if another player near you is interested. And, taking a tip from my Japanese experience, say it a bit louder than necessary, so other nearby players can hear. Even if there’s no local, organized group, you can at least start a PUG on the spot, and maybe even suggest forming a local group. That’s how my groups started!

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