Massively-on-the-Go: Gotta cash’em all in Pokemon Go

When MMOARG promotions go awry


In the last few editions of the Massively-on-the-Go column, I’ve been covering the deluge of events and updates Pokemon Go has received quite suddenly (not including recently announced Animation week from Nov 6-12), followed by Mega-Evolution updates looking at how Megas are being used, being perceived by fans, and how Niantic has (not) listened to initial concerns players expressed at the system’s release. But it’s been a busy time for POGO and Niantic, and there are still some big issues to discuss. Today we’re talking about partnerships, promotions, and innovation.

Gotta cash’em all

We recently talked about In-game Advertising in our weekly Massively Overthinking column, and among staff and readers, we mostly agreed that especially in F2P games, in-game ads can be acceptable, as long as it makes sense and doesn’t break immersion. I’m going to go with two reader quotes for this:

Now, these are premium games, but it still highlights a point I’m going to make: Something that connects with the game obviously works, but only within reason, both in terms of the game world but also financial soundness. It was one thing for Niantic to do special Pokestops to advertise Sprint, McDonalds, and other franchises around the world. The promotions actually gave content and led to physical locations, so they made sense.

Then, this summer, Baskin Robbins teamed up with Niantic for not just special Pokestops but random gifts from non-BR stops to push people to visit the ice cream chain. It made some sense since it was hot outside anyway, ice cream exists in the pokemon world, and the interaction was very simple.

Then came the recently announced Grubhub Partnership, which I think would have been easier to swallow at the start of COVID when Niantic was pushing stay-at-home services in the game. As the company is now largely operating in a way to get people outside again in spite of the current phase of the pandemic around the world, this feels awkward at best. The random gifts also force you to look at the ad for several seconds before allowing you to close them, which is when things get intrusive.

The cherry on top, though, is being asked to subscribe to the service in return for an event. Allowing anyone to buy a ticket would be one thing (as it is with an upcoming Softbank event in Japan), but asking for a subscription – even one that can be canceled – is something I tend to expect from D-tier F2P games trying to nickel-and-dime my experience. It makes the game and the developer feel cheap. Already people have reported being charged for the “free trial” even after immediately canceling the subscription.

Pokémon GO

And almost immediately after the Grubhub announcement came the Verizon Partnership. A Pokestop is one thing. The clothes, especially the mask, are quite nice, perhaps one of the best outfits not from a clothing store the game’s released. But locking it behind a paywall for phone service (even temporarily) is too far. One could argue that the partnership is more to reward Verizon subscribers, similar to one’s work office reserving a movie theater for an exclusive work event, but as this is publicly advertised, I wouldn’t swallow that.

Worse, though, is also tying an exclusive event to the phone service. If it were standalone clothes or an event ticket, I would have paid for all of this, but someone decided to take things even further. Much like our reader Bannex wondered, I wonder if anyone seriously thinks that game items and events that might sell for a few bucks will get people to change their phone service. It feels tone-deaf to the Pokemon IP and offensive to the intelligence of the consumers.

It feels tone-deaf to the Pokemon IP and offensive to the intelligence of the consumers.
If Niantic had gone the route of Mario Kart 8, where this was free DLC, I think I would have been 100% fine with this, more so than the Grubhub event because your phone service should work everywhere, while a delivery service feels more physical. But asking me to subscribe to a service as long-term and expensive as phone contracts is pika-poop.

For a paying consumer, this is pretty frustrating. I’m not unwilling to give the company money, especially for things I enjoy. Past missteps like being caught changing “gamble box” odds mid-event harm trust, and the above-mentioned Animation event won’t see any additional spending on me, both because of this past mistake and because the advertising of not only a past shiny but a common one break my in-game immersion by reminding me of past egg-related advertising miscalculations.

But in terms of cross-promotional events, I’m annoyed if I have to go through another company that feels unrelated to the game I’m playing for rewards. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for crossovers. Heck, I might have a higher acceptance tolerance than some people, as even the above-mentioned Mario Kart 8 example didn’t faze me, since the game does have a course with “real” cars and there was no financial investment to distract me.

But full-on subscriptions to unrelated products, even trials, are lasting investments of time and money that cannot easily be ignored, by consumers or journalists familiar with corporate marketing experimentation. The consumer side of me doesn’t want to sign up for something I don’t want, and the journalist side of me knows that companies benefit from your signing up and forgetting to cancel a service you weren’t interested in and executes this as part of cost assessments. And that’s gross.


Egging them on

The eggs-as-lootboxes issue hasn’t changed. While the previously mentioned issue with odds being manipulated mid-event (as Niantic doesn’t release all the known hatch options or odds), new mechanics and events make them feel more suspect for abuse. For example, the Strange Eggs, 12km eggs that might literally contain a trash pokemon, have made rocket battles more interesting, no doubt about that. It’s just that Niantic still seems to attack its own game design by damaging the game’s core loop in ways that are not just uninteresting but counter-intuitive, which has sadly been the company’s MO in many ways, going back as far as Ingress. I appreciate the egg shake-up that showed Niantic was listening to player feedback, but creating a new system for receiving or possibly getting rid of unwanted eggs so they don’t prevent players from receiving rewards would have been better.

However, it’s really been starting to feel more like egg events are being used to generate even more money from incubators. The Animation Event is pushing shiny Cubone, a wholly useless Pokemon whose shiny was released almost two years ago as of the event start date. While Riolu, a very useful pokemon can also be in the same eggs, not knowing the odds makes even me, someone who hatches for the guaranteed stardust to use for fun pokemon, leery of continued investments.

In fact, the upcoming November Community Days (Nov 15 and 21) are already feeling like a cash grab. Don’t get me wrong, I love the theme of Magmar and Electabuzz sharing the month, as they were Gen 1 version exclusives you had to trade your friends for. They’re also getting moves from the other type’s pool, which is hilarious. And hey, giving players another opportunity to get Elite TMs is appreciated, even by a pvp/raid casual like myself.

But both days are also giving a 1/4 egg incubation bonus. I usually enjoy that, but I also know that those events are to push people to eat through incubators faster so they buy more. Part of me wants to think it’s so people can eat through 2k eggs and get the baby versions of the featured pokemon more easily, but between recent events and the lack of transparency, it’s hard not to feel suspicious.

I love that we’re getting a lot of new content, and I don’t mind paying for it when it’s good, especially the relatively cheap Community Day ones. But pushing things that I know take advantage of human psychology to part them with their money, especially with all the money the game’s made recently, is gross. It feels like the higher-ups suddenly missed a payment on their yacht and called up all their buddies to see how they can get more money from their friends’ customers. Cooling it on egg and raid exclusives and maybe releasing more small, paid events might win back some player trust, but also tempt players who pay less to lay down a little money.

Taking a few new turns

This goes along with Niantic’s attempts to coerce players to do AR scanning for free and even increase the amount of these quests as of today’s publishing. As we’ve noted, John Hanke has been called out over privacy concerns before. Now the work is being outsourced to unpaid, untrained volunteers whose work is gamified. If that isn’t troubling, perhaps seeing Niantic’s recent presentation on using that tech might. While the idea that tech can be used to label unsafe areas digitally, what happens when the maps become outdated? And what happens when Niantic’s platform (which is what they’re showing) gets paired up with less consumer-friendly companies, such as Facebook?

As much as I respect the game for trying new things, and as much as I’m curious about how that data could make AR games better, I’m more afraid of how that data might be used. Hanke’s other project, Google Maps, already is used in planning criminal activities.

POGO is making money, but I feel like after the initial COVID changes (which honestly were based on pre-existing, long-standing feedback on the game’s accessibility), Niantic’s done some things that have been subtracting from that goodwill. The presentation only further reminded me that Niantic is less of a game developer than a platform developer, which may also be why it sometimes feels like the game parts of the game can be such a hit or miss even after the company hired some fairly competent new people.

If Niantic were really about getting out there and exploring, I seriously question why there haven’t been any citizen science attempts. I’m almost afraid to write this, but if Niantic had asked for pictures of a certain kind of bird based on our locations, I’d be willing to send it more data. Match it up by having players also go through data to make sure it’s the right bird, and bam! Bird researchers could have a better idea of the distribution. It might not make a lot of money, but if it were then tied to a legendary bird raids with event boxes that gave some money to the researchers, even someone like me who doesn’t often spend money on passes would shell out a bit. This kind of thing would certainly increase immersion (what with nature and us supposedly working for a professor), get people out and exploring like Niantic wants, and actually help the real world.

I think this is partially why the recently datamined Pokemon Home assets have me somewhat worried that maybe my Sword and Shield feelings of cross-generational, cross-platform joy are about to get nickel and dimed. Maybe Niantic will not allow my old pokemon into Sword and Shield. Maybe there are secret real-world fees, as was hinted at previously. I have to admit that I may be willing to pay a bit for certain pokemon to transfer over, but using the transfer as a kind of Poke-Valhalla such as with Let’s Go games was something I was really looking forward to, not just for PoGO, but the series as a whole.

This isn’t to say that everything’s bad. While past events were canceled, Niantic still seems to be trying to test out PvP matches with more restrictions, such as types, an idea clearly “borrowed” from the fan-run Silph League that’s been operating since PvP was introduced to the game. While the idea doesn’t originate from Niantic, supporting things players already naturally happening is a good sign, if Niantic understands how and why people enjoy these formats. As these official events haven’t taken place yet, it’s hard to figure out how successful they may be, but looking at the overarching idea, I would hope that other kinds of play gets reinforced. Maybe we could get bonuses for gyms organized by a theme?


Silver linings

As much as there have been some downright bad decisions, there’s usually something good. The content rush has had a few hiccups, and with help from the community, not only fixed them, but gave compensation. It’s a huge step-up from before when I had to constantly push community members to file complaints, sometimes multiple times in order to receive reimbursements Niantic may not want to give. Costumed pokemon are still a bit annoying, but at least letting fully evolved ones access their Mega form is a good decision, even if Niantic doesn’t want to include unique art for the evolutions as well. And hey, we finally get official theme cups SilphRoad unofficially led the charge on, and they’ve been a nice motivating factor for trying new things (and new pokemon).

The Mega Evolution situation and the current steps to rectify it is, to be frank, garbage I wouldn’t have expected from a AAA company in post-EA-Star Wars-drama game development, but here we are. Front-loading Mega Energy from non-raid activities feels like a decent band-aid, but not if they’ll be fixed to limited-time quests. While that may encourage current players to keep playing, it’s that very reason that my friends who are lapsed players seem wholly uninterested in returning. I can’t even imagine someone wanting to start playing when they hear about that issue.

Niantic clearly isn’t out of ideas, as attaching a mini-quest to Galarian Farfetch’d (throw 10 excellent bars with it as your buddy) is funThat kind of incremental innovation could have been applied to Megas and people would have been thrilled, even if there were a timer on reusing the form. It’s certainly possible that the upcoming Mega changes will reward huge amounts of Mega Energy from walking so people stop worrying about hoarding it, but the system damaged so many other things surrounding it that Niantic’s only created more work for itself, both mechanically and in repairing its reputation/relationship with players.

Part of this might just the company throwing out so much at once. Maybe there’s some experimenting going on, as I can’t imagine a California-based company really excluding the rest of the world from a “Latin American” holiday that’s clearly crossed borders (and that’s forgetting that, like other holidays, it’s similarity and practices are very close to other holidays taking places around the world). There’s already pushback from the community about that, so I’m not the only one bewildered by that bizarre event decision. We’ve also recently seen that another experiment, the new Coin-earning system players pushed back against, is being scrapped and reverted in all its test locations.

All I can say is that I hope Niantic is learning and that The Pokemon Company is watching. New content is nice, and the company from my view is working faster than ever. I hope players continue to vocalize their issues, give praise where needed, but also specify what is and is not fun right now. Vote with your wallet, yeah, that’s what I’m doing. But make some noise too. Star WarsHarry Potter, even the Sonic games have seen massive backlash that causes IP holders and game devs to rethink things. Devs need to innovate, no doubt, but remember that Pandora’s Box can’t be closed once it’s open. When you make a change that you know might alienate players, and you try to fix that without directly engaging with player concerns, you are certainly going down a path we might not follow. Even if there is candy.

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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