Massively-on-the-Go: Niantic’s ‘Mega’ missteps in Pokemon Go

    
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Massively-on-the-Go: Niantic’s ‘Mega’ missteps in Pokemon Go

Previously in our Massively-on-the-Go column, we covered the deluge of events and updates Pokemon Go has seen this season, with a bit of commentary. While we normally don’t cover every little update that the game receives, many of these updates were confusing, but none so much as the upcoming Mega Evolution updates. We spelled out exactly the problems the system introduced and how the proposed solutions may or may not help.

As I’ve had more time to experience them for myself (and watch the community play around with it as well), I’m sorry to say that my initial reactions not only feel correct in general tone but maybe were even more optimistic than I’d thought.

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User experience

Now, before I get started, I want to say that the way Niantic’s handled Mega Gengar is a vast improvement on how other Megas have been released. At the least, we’ve gotten energy to evolve one Gengar and repeat that a few times without raiding. However, as Niantic has not given this treatment to two-thirds of the post release Mega forms, I think players have a right to be concerned.

To say Niantic’s implementation of Mega Evolutions is problematic would be a vast understatement. Normally this column largely addresses new online/local multiplayer games on mobile platforms, especially in terms of what that intersection leads to, but the Mega problem largely comes down to a clear communication issue. I tried to address this in an open letter to Niantic and the Pokemon Company, especially as they were looking to address the backlash they received from players. Players don’t like the system period as it violates certain beliefs they had about the core gameplay experience, while Niantic really wants this system to work with as few changes as possible. One thing I suggested that might help was to “make it rain” Mega Energy, not just by making it more common but by vastly reducing the cost to use it in the future.

That hasn’t exactly happened. Mega Energy is a bit more plentiful, with a higher cap and a slightly lower cost. The company’s big Mega Beedrill push to heavily incentivize trying out the Mega system (while also unnaturally supping up that Pokemon’s power beyond what’s normally available) did get me to jump in two times for research sake, but that’s it. Unfortunately, with and without uber-buffing the Bee, those changes haven’t changed my playstyle, nor do I see the upcoming changes helping much.

Let’s take Mega Charizard as an example. Charizard is not only one of the most popular Pokemon characters, but its Mega Y form is one of the easiest to complete thanks to a quad-rock weakness and no moves to seriously counter them. Niantic has also recently given the line a community day event that gave us even more Mega Energy, without having to raid. Either form could be quite useful against Giratina, a very recent legendary pokemon raid option that’s highly useful. Prior to that, it was the only Mega one could reasonably use against Articuno, a bulky legendary that’s sadly not useful but is awesome none the less (Mystic4Life).

Charizard’s hands down the easiest, most versatile, most useful, and most popular Mega currently available. Its energy has been one of the easiest to obtain, which isn’t that easy but says something considering the Mega Beedrill push Niantic also put forth, which is not a popular Pokemon but evolves for considerably less.

Despite all these advantages, I’ve yet to use either Mega form, and I have two Charizards with perfect stats (one lucky) and Elite TMs to make it the best it could be. So why haven’t I done this? For all the main reasons I mentioned in my open letter about Megas: I have to use a limited resource that is not that easy to get. The form has only a temporary use, but little value. Now that sounds like Pokeballs, but Pokeballs are also plentiful. If I want more Mega Energy, the easiest way to get it is through premium currency and forced grouping.

I’m not the only one who’s unhappy, though. Other players have made similar complaints. COVID makes it difficult to raid with my old partners, but they feel the same: too much effort for not enough in return. In fact, most simply want to use the pokemon’s new form. They don’t even need all of the bells and whistles Niantic has and plans to add to them.

Most people just want to evolve their pokemon. No one is asking for them to get additional benefits on top of simply being stronger.
That is the core of this issue: Most people just want to evolve their pokemon. No one is asking for them to get additional benefits on top of simply being stronger. While I do applaud Niantic’s effort to do something different and innovate a bit, it doesn’t align with user expectations or enjoyment. Outside of the Beedrill event, I think I have seen one Mega-Evolved Pokemon, and that was for a remote raid that didn’t have much time left on it.

Of the upcoming changes, walking pokemon whose evolutionary line you’ve already Mega-evolved is the only one that solves the supply issue, and marginally so. See, if I want Mega Houndoom energy from walking my perfect Houndour, I need to have already taken a Houndoom to its Mega form.

The problem is that I have zero Mega Houndoom energy. I rarely can find a Mega Houndoom raid and have never been able to get people to do it, mostly because it was released when there were more useful raid options at the legendary level. But it’s not just legendary pokemon raids that “distract” from this. Niantic also chooses to put other exclusive pokemon behind raid walls: new pokemon, limited edition costumed pokemon, pokemon re-released with a shiny version, and sometimes pokemon with a limited edition move.

This isn’t theoretical, either. The rotation announcement about Venusaur didn’t light a fire under anyone I know, and I have friends in Japan who almost always seem to accept or send remote raids, but from where I stand, they haven’t touched Megas since release. To once again emphasize my point, I have a perfect Venusaur that would clearly benefit from evolving. But since it’s been rotated out, as players predicted, I’m not only unable to gain more energy for Venusaur, I’m unable to evolve it the first time.

Adding a few extra quests won’t help that either, as there is already a glut of quests, not to choose from, but to randomly discover. Right now, there are several limited-time quests I want to do that may take me a few days to complete, even when I use premium items to speed up my progress. Normally, though, I try to have one spot open for quests that give Mega energy, but there’s only one as of this writing that might do it, and the reward is randomized: 10 energy for Beedrill, Blastoise, Charizard, or Venusaur. I usually might pass 20 Stops a day (this includes ones I drive by but almost always miss because my Pokeball’s auto-catch won’t work unless I’m at a light). I’ve gotten this quest only twice in the last week or so. I’m essentially SOL until the Venusaur event.

Again, this is a problem players predicted and Niantic has essentially enforced. And this is just the start. I mentioned my perfect Pokemon not to brag but to highlight that one might think I’d be more excited about these forms. In fact, I have a perfect specimen of roughly half of the potential Mega Evolution pokemon.

But as Niantic has largely pushed players to worry about pokemon being “suboptimal,” I keep most of my perfect pokemon in unevolved states until they have a special event. Some players may remember that Community Day moves could previously be learned via regular TMs. The day before this ended, I had found a perfect Charmander and fully evolved it, rendering it far from useful unless I use an Elite TM, which are in short supply and usually granted in packs for about $12.

So as a long time player with an impressive collection, I’ve felt the sting of Niantic’s whims. The company has essentially taught players not to evolve or level anything, even perfect pokemon, until they absolutely need to use it for something specific. That’s terrible design in general, but worse to build on, and Megas follow this path because they came out poorly designed and Niantic almost immediately admitted the need to rework them. It doesn’t inspire confidence, and it doesn’t inspire an urge to explore.

Pimpin’ out the Pokés

Between premium currency being needed if you want to do more than one raid a day (and even more if you want to do it from home), fear making a poor investment in your pokemon, and the effort needed to find people just to try to do the raid, you might see why people would elect to do a one-time raid to get what they want instead of building up currency for a dubious buff. Once again, Mega Raids don’t grant you the actual pokemon you want; they grant a currency to essentially rent it. And that single Mega Raid you do won’t give you enough energy to get that 8-hour rental fee the first time you Mega Evolve. You’ll need to do it at least three times, and probably once more every time you want to re-evolve after that. All this also assumes you don’t get a better pokemon to invest in.

Now, let’s look at what that actually gives you. For 8 hours, you have a pokemon that can buff other people’s damage by about 20% while it’s active (assuming they’re using the right pokemon), is about as strong as a legendary pokemon (for the most part), will give you additional candy from legendary pokemon, and will give you more candy from pokemon that share the same type.

Let’s give this an optimal setting now. Frankly speaking, for normal play, I can’t make good use of most of these benefits, as I might do one raid on a good day, and that was before COVID, and we don’t yet have a Mega Form I’d see as useful for taking gyms.

So let’s pretend it’s Gible Community Day, as that’s a rare and useful pokemon. You’ve done your three raids for the Mega Energy for Mega Salamence (currently unreleased and will most likely be more expensive than any current Mega form, but just work with me). Those are both dragon-type pokemon, which means you’ll get the catch bonus. You make Sal your buddy and Mega evolve it right at the start of the event, which last six hours you’ve set aside to play with awesome friends now that COVID’s over, and Niantic keeps the event long because it’s learned how much the COVID hours helped people with limited schedules (again, we’re making an optimal setting). We don’t have the numbers, but even one more Gible candy per catch really helps, since this Pokemon is quite rare in the wild and is often used to promote buying incubators or event tickets. If it doubles your candy from catching (which is the best I think we can reasonably expect), you may be set for life by the end of today.

Now, Community Days usually also offer that pokemon in raids, but Gible isn’t legendary, so we’re going to pretend Giratina raids are popping up too, and for some reason, it’s not using Dragon-type moves that would murder your poor Salamence. Even if they weren’t both dragon types, that’s fine because your Mega Form gives you bonus candy for all legendary pokemon, not just ones that share its type. If you only get one extra candy, nice. If you get, say, 10 extra (because I can’t imagine the bonus being more than that), awesome – it’s like you got to do about three more raids for the price of one – the cost of your initial Mega-Unlock.

All of this sounds quite useful. Huge discount. But in order to get that Mega Energy back even for the discounted Mega form, you need to walk Salamence. If it’s like the candy we earn, that means you’re walking 5km (a bit more than 3 miles) for 1 energy. I’d like to think Niantic will be generous and give us 5 energy. If Mega Sal costs 40 Energy to use again (and as a reminder, it will probably be more than that), you’d need to walk quite a bit to earn that. Keep in mind that, while it’s not in its Mega form, Sal isn’t giving you any additional bonuses aside from the normal buddy bonuses (bringing gifts, catch assist, and maybe the CP boost if you’re best buddies).

While you’re doing this though, you can’t be earning candy for, say, archen, a rare pokemon many people (including me) need to walk for candy because it is so rare it’s not really feasible to count on gaining catch-candy for it outside of an event (which has yet to happen). The “best buddy” award on these “walker” pokemon is generally a waste, as you’re only walking that pokemon for candy. If you are lucky enough to have some rare pokemon, you’d need to be even more lucky to have one with stats worth using.

There are many pokemon like archen, and prior to the buddy system, walking was primarily to get candy for those pokemon. This new mega-system creates yet another incentive that distracts from the feature’s original purpose without adding an alternative.

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But hey, maybe that’s OK. Clearly this system isn’t optimal for casual players for daily use. I would argue that raiders are probably in a slightly better position, but they don’t benefit from the walking. Unless you live near a very dense gym area, lots of POGO raiders drive from raid to raid. The game barely tracks that due to the speed-cap on registering your “walking.” What this change does is incentive spending money for decent to (optimistically) quite nice benefits.

The problem, again, is that non-main series Pokemon players have reacted very negatively to Megas as non-permanent collectibles, and vets know the form for being accessible and common. These changes don’t address player concerns; they address monetary concerns. Megas would be fun enough if they were just something to unlock and use once in a while for free, but that isn’t what Niantic seems interested in. I could be completely wrong and Niantic may shock us with hugely generous numbers like those I initially suggested in my open letter, but recent changes, announcements, and updates all indicate that Niantic has settled for its current Mega-plans.

Instead, the company seems to have decided to make Megas a kind of visual buff potion to monetize, and changes seem to be coming in the forms of tweaks and additions rather than an overhaul or reimagining. That’s pretty standard in this industry, but also why I think fans trust some companies less than others. Sometimes fun isn’t about getting a bunch of buffs or bonuses. Sometimes it’s just about adding a cool new thing to your collection or making a favorite digital pet more useful, without constantly paying for it.

Massively OP’s Andrew Ross is an admitted Pokemon geek and expert ARG-watcher. Nobody knows Niantic and Nintendo like he does! His Massively on the Go column covers Pokemon Go as well as other mobile MMOs and augmented reality titles!

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