Massively on the Go: Niantic’s response to Pokemon Go’s community is painfully deficient


Well, the timing of my last Pokemon Go article on the release of the ill-timed spin/interaction nerf was interesting in that it coincided with what felt like a last-minute, 24-hour boycott of the game. Good on the streamers who organized this, but it won’t be enough. The game’s rating on Googleplay hasn’t dropped even 0.1 percent since the launch of the new feature, and I saw a lot of people still playing yesterday across multiple communities (and the raid invite notifications I kept receiving).

This isn’t just because the boycott came without seemingly any warning or because player interventions don’t help. They do help, and they have helped in the past, particularly for POGO. Niantic has previously caved and reverted an awful coin system, we saw improvements on the horribly designed Mega Evolution system, and we saw at least some improvement with egg-odds after the Deino-incident pushback.

But if Niantic’s response to the outrage is any indication, the company clearly isn’t listening. Oh, it wrote something, but it makes clear that both community leaders and players are being boldly ignored. I know Niantic will do the same to me, but frankly, this is a tough love moment that needs to happen, regardless of whether or not the company hears us.

‘Hear us, Niantic’

As previously mentioned, many personalities in the community got together and penned a letter on behalf of the playerbase. The three main points they made were that the increased radius helped with overall safety, accessibility, and community respect. These are all issues I remember jotting down prior to launch, just based on Ingress, and almost immediately started to write about when covering the game.

The community’s assertion that “the recent Exploration Bonus changes [Niantic] made in the U.S. and New Zealand are designed to restore some of the foundational elements players enjoyed prior to 2020, and reward players once again for moving and exploring” means that Niantic foundationally didn’t care about listening to the community about those features, which people argued for within weeks of release.

So Niantic, when you say, “Encouraging people to explore, exercise and safely play together in person remains Niantic’s mission,” I immediately feel lied to. This is a game that stopped updating smartwatches (which I do not own) that could better track people’s exercise while promoting stationary group play in a 40-meter radius as one of its first major features.

For readers, that’s about 130 feet, which seems like a lot, if you ignore the actual object’s size, doorways, walking paths, and the fact that a single raid can hold 20 people. So while that worked well enough with small, outdoor statues with good signals, it was awful at post offices, churches, libraries, hiking trails, popular restaurants… places that you, Niantic, encourage people to gather at. Even before raids, people grouping to get a pokemon was a problem. I even noted how Japan’s POGO culture partially originated by avoiding the issues people saw the game introduce overseas. That was a sign, folks!

Again, when damage control says, “The health and wellbeing of players is our top priority, which is why we have implemented the new Exploration Bonuses in select geographies where it is deemed safe to be outdoors,” I know it to be a lie because turning on almost any major news network or radio station says otherwise. Do you really have no one who reads BBC or listens to/reads NPR? The fact of the matter is that someone up top said “this is the release date” and forced the team to hold to that timeline, real-world happenings – like the return of a deadly pandemic – be damned.

I’ve said this elsewhere, but in any other game, pushing out content because of arbitrary dev dates is the bane of many would-be great games. However, it’s worse when those dates are for a game in meat space, especially when those target dates threaten the original design goals.

Niantic, if you’re concerned about player safety, why would you be reducing the spin radius? You said, “Research has shown that taking walks outside is safe and confers several health benefits,” but you’re not asking people to walk and raid: They stand still! Together! Sometimes indoors because your gyms are not limited to outdoor objects! We’re just not fooled by the company’s pretense of clinging to its “mission.”

And it’s not just that the QoL-reverting patch shouldn’t have been reverted but that it especially shouldn’t have gone live while we’re seeing a major spike in virus transmission. I hate to bring in politics, but when states run by COVID deniers and anti-vaxxers are suddenly coming around on safety precautions, you know things are really serious.

Even setting all that aside, I notice that not once in Niantic’s response does the studio attempt to address the changes the increased radius did for increasing accessibility or respecting the non-gaming community. There is not one word that shows Niantic listened to two-thirds of a three-point letter. That is reprehensible. The company heads who asked for and approved that letter should strongly consider bringing in new experts. A game doesn’t have to be for all the people all the time, but when the able-bodied gaming community embraces a feature that helps with inclusiveness and community respect, a company would have to be certifiably stupid not to retain it if it didn’t affect their bottom line. And to be clear, the game has been doing beyond well during the pandemic.

The one-day boycott may have caught someone’s attention, but Niantic idling until September shows it is not committed to its community. The change had an immediately negative impact on the community. Had Niantic been serious, I would expect it to have reverted the changes immediately and made use of gobs of data it surely has on-hand.

Again, this isn’t just COVID, which is a serious problem. And it isn’t just Niantic awarding XP to get people to travel during a time when there’s an infectious disease people can carry across the world unless there are strict but rare international efforts. It’s that there are people who suddenly could participate in the game left out in the cold by a company that will take their money but won’t listen to them. It’s a company that yells “Safety!” while ignoring its devs’ own best practices guidelines.

My personal misgivings about the game started well before the August 5th boycott. I do AR tasks, but the only image Niantic gets from me is a piece of paper saying, “Revert the radius.” I not only haven’t spent any money on the game but also have no plans to support the Community Day $1 event or purchase the roughly $15 event box, even though I am a fan of the featured pokemon and item contents.

I know many people, including people I play with, don’t care enough to do anything, but they do complain about the change, and their playing habits have slowed down. This is why companies can’t just “listen” to the “silent majority,” as those players will simply quit without a word. This is exactly why Niantic thinks it can get away with not only ignoring public outcries but delaying the reversion.

There may be some hope: One of the most notable POGO personalities, hardcore player and big spender Brandon Tan, announced he’s going free-to-play until September. Other big names, like ZoeTwoDots and Nicholas “Trainer Tips” Oyzon, made similar statements. This is the equivalent of Asmongold changing FFXIV servers or if Ninja switched to Fortnite’s PvE mode – it’s not something a studio can completely ignore, as it will have ripple effects on the greater community. My hope is that other big personalities will make big changes in their play habits and get their communities on board as well. Niantic didn’t hear us, but we certainly heard it, and the playerbase needs to react in kind.

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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