Almost a month ago I argued that Pokemon GO’s COVID changes should not be rolled back. I was under no illusions that Niantic would necessarily listen to me as an individual, but hoped that I could at least add another voice to the choir singing, “Don’t do it.”
In some ways, I think Niantic has heard many of us. Niantic has started to discuss how the rollbacks will happen, and so far, most of them seem fair. The Remote Raid changes are actually not among the first to hit, won’t be discussed until further along in “the coming months,” and will partially have to do with the reintroduction to EX Raids, an area of the game I had suggested could use some rework to balance between remote and real-life game goals for the game. However, one area that I thought would be safe for, as Niantic put it, “the foreseeable future,” was Pokestop and Gym range increases. Sadly, I was wrong about that.
Many of the changes may matter very little to most non-hardcore players, like the additional daily catch bonuses stacked on top of the previous bonuses, which will remain after the COVID rollback. The rollbacks will affect New Zealand and the United States after Go Fest and continue as it seems safe to gather outside in other countries, which feels pretty fair. Granted, large countries like the United States have COVID numbers that vary greatly across both states and counties, but the US as a whole also has some good vaccine numbers, so Niantic does seem to be making some effort at rolling things out in a way that seems safer than I think many critics would have expected.
As previously announced, PvP still won’t require you to walk to access matches, you can keep challenging players to PvP matches via QR codes at low friendship levels, you can open 30 gifts a day, hold 20 gifts at a time, and incense will still last an hour. However, that last point is being modified, in that the rapid spawning we’ve experienced in COVID will only be active while you’re moving – more on this later.
Gifts from buddies, which largely seemed to consist of berries the past few months aside from some events that gave pokeballs, will be reduced in frequency.
Niantic will also be trying to introduce new “Exploration Bonuses.” These include two free raid passes per day from spinning gyms and 10x the xp bonus for spinning new Pokestops, plus that note about the incense, though we’re not sure how the rate will play out. This is important because these changes will be active until September 1st, the end of the current season, at which point the bonuses may stay or be modified as Niantic sees fit. That being said, we can also get new bonuses.
The one surprise change, though, is the reversion of the Gym and Pokestop interaction distances.
Given that Niantic has come for spin distance before the longer distance Remote Raids, it feels as though Niantic may not understand how important the increased Pokestop and Gym interaction radius is. (We’ve pinged the company for comment.)
As I previously noted, many of the COVID changes were things players had already requested, and disabled people have long asked for changes to help include them in the GO adventures. As someone who had led a community group and local raids, I had people in our group who couldn’t reach certain stops or gyms and would sometimes ask a friend or partner to walk down a path they literally couldn’t to raid or spin for them. Many of those locations opened up due to the increased Gym and PokeStop radius. While I don’t physically see them anymore, I do see their pokemon and avatars in some of those locations, proving that changes have literally opened up more areas of the game for them.
But this isn’t just about people with mobility issues.
As someone who has played the game mostly by walking as opposed to driving, I know that being able to spin a stop without having to cross the street and backtrack made me feel safer as a pedestrian – but also as a minority who may have additional issues when playing the game. That increased distance hopefully has helped to cut down on people who drive and play, as we haven’t reported any major Pokemon Go deaths during COVID, but also it’s a small way that helps minorities (or other people who stand out) play the game safely and without drawing unwanted attention.
That additional distance also helps keep regular players and non-players safer. I’ve seen POGO groups block off entrances to libraries, restaurants, and even a hospital during raids. While COVID has clearly made clumping together less of an issue, within my personal circles, it’s been easier for my groups to stand in a safe location while raiding thanks to the increased distance, and it’s also helped make GPS drift less of an issue. People are less tempted to walk in the road to get a little closer or raid on the edge of the sidewalk on a busy street. I’m sure somewhere these may have increased, but as someone who has been playing in cities, suburbs, and nature trails since getting the vaccine, I at least have a reasonable breadth of experience in this department.
In short, while Niantic is wisely rolling out changes and finding some good ways to encourage people to go out and play again, reverting the Gym/PokeStop interaction distances seems like a huge step backward, and the playerbase has been vocal about this now and in the past. My hope is that, with about a month to go, Niantic will understand that this is not a change it should make and also closely assess its planned changes for Remote Raids, especially as it concerns player inclusion and safety.
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!