Massively on the Go: Pikmin Bloom began with Nintendo’s vibes, drifted to Niantic’s void

    
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It’s been about a month since Pikmin Bloom was released, and anecdotally, I’ve noticed social media and real-world communities dying off. But it feels less like a gaming issue than an exercise game issue, and as with Pokemon GO, history seems to be repeating itself, as even recent research reviews noted that people’s exercise habits dropped off after about 24 days.

However, to say that the Pikmin Bloom hype has died down would sadly imply that there was much hype to begin with. While some fans may notice what Niantic works on, many of my local Pokemon GO community members failed to notice the 2019 release of the now soon-to-be-offline MMOARG Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, much less the release of Bloom. Niantic has unfortunately failed to make the game known to the masses, much less release a game that could live up to the ARG that finally brought it mainstream fame, but in all honesty, there will never be another POGO and that’s OK.

As I mentioned in my initial impressions piece, Bloom is more low-key. It’s less of a game and more of a gamified pedometer. It barely even feels like a Niantic product at all, and that may be one of its strongest features. But after 30 days and 33 levels of planting flowers, attacking mushrooms, and finding all the different ways Pikmin turn non-hats into hats, I have to say that it’s difficult to have much faith in the game’s future. Again, it’s not a bad app, but there are limits both in the genre and the game that may not bode well for the title going forward.

Good Pikmin!

Let’s start out with some positives, the biggest being the Nintendo feel. The Mii avatars, easy-going nature of the game, near lack of combat, clear tutorial, simplified UI, and general vibe actually makes the title feel even more accessible for non-gamers. For example, at the end of the day, you have a “Lifelog” with custom text (like a journal), pictures of the day, and facial emote for day’s feels, which gives the game a Miitomo-esque feel. The game could be a single-player offline experience and still be enjoyable. Sending postcards to friends can be fun too, though they seem to come too often and have no in-game value, so many people already have stopped sending them in my experience.

Quests queue up in a Streetpass-esque manner. For those less familiar with the feature, just know it’s a sort of automated registration of tasks/bonuses activated even if the game is not actively being played, which in some ways can be a major bonus, especially in terms of safety and playing incognito. I’ve actually mentioned the feature twice before as a way Niantic could solve some of its exploration and safety issues, which I had noted about Ingress well before POGO’s release in personal notes about features POGO would really be need to be safe. As much as Pokemon GO‘s peripherals make the game less tedious, most players I know are passive for day-to-day gameplay, so the Streetpass-esque system of Pikmin Bloom is just a smart design choice in my opinion, especially for ARGs that don’t want players to jump fences or loiter in dangerous areas for virtual rewards.

Having played in suburbs and active cities, I think Niantic may have found a decent way to balance gameplay in different regions. Granted, I only use the main feature (planting flowers) when I go out to help prevent being followed, but I’m so good on basic gameplay supplies (flower petals and nectar) that I can carelessly waste them. (Except blue petals, those are rare, but hey, we can’t have everything, and they’re basically an aesthetic choice that gives no discernable advantage.)

The game’s monetization is also reasonably fair. If we ignore the coin generation and its rewards, the main incentive to spend money in the game is expanding one’s inventory, which can potentially make the collecting portion of the game more enjoyable and let someone run more missions. This can be done only with cash, not with coins, but companies do need to see money so games don’t get shut down, an issue that Niantic clearly is struggling with. Admittedly, I’ve spent $0 on the game myself, but I’ve had personal issues with Niantic I’ll try to keep down to relevant points specific to this game.

As I’ve said previously, the company’s supposed core values of exploration, exercise, and real-world social interaction often feel absent in Niantic’s games. To be frank, all previous Niantic games seem low on exploration once you’ve had some time with the game, unless you’re a rich person able to travel the world. It’s often better to find a good/popular spot and stick to it. However, the previously mentioned Streetpass-esque handling of Expeditions (sending our Pikmin to fetch items) is both a strong nod to Nintendo’s history and a way to build on the Pikmin series, but it also supports this idea of exploration in safe and accessible ways.

Exercise as an element of Niantic games is embarrassing, as it constantly puts out features that have you standing or sitting, rather than moving: taking portals in Ingress, raids in Harry Potter and Pokemon GO, PvP in POGO. In fact, the first Pokemon GO dev diary noted that the average player walks a paltry 4km (or about 2.5 miles) during the 6-hour Community Day event. While that may be more exercise than most MMOs offer (except that one WoW guy), it’s really not much. I’m upset if I don’t hit 10km with less athletic friends, and I am overweight and have to wear some things for my joint issues.

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Other players can see the white flower trail but not the avatar appearing in realtime. “Play with others” only enables the ability to see the avatar, making it quite easy for Bloom players to see who and where other players are playing.

Bloom, though, is mostly about the exercise, at least at first. Anecdotally, the one player I know other than myself who’s really stuck with it is walking more, though not nearly on the same levels POGO players were hitting in the summer of 2016. As mentioned, that increase has decreased as the research predicts, but at least it started something.

Finally, while real-world social interaction is perhaps Niantic’s strongest area, even that feels taken over by the likes of Discord and other social media groups, especially during COVID. As I’ve said from the start, once the initial hype died down, even Pokemon GO devolved into an alone-together game for the most part. That isn’t to say there aren’t groups because there are, but even before COVID, the best thing Niantic could do was introduce Community Days, a kind of artificial “prime time” that’s carried over into its newer titles. That means more people are out and you may meet them, but it’s more like questing in a popular zone. Bloom does have the potential to make meeting other players easier, but even people without a personal stalker play the game with the explicit multiplayer option off. Except in very busy cities, it can be quite easy to track down a Bloom player, and for now, we’ll consider that a plus.

But weirdly (especially for this site), Pikmin Bloom doesn’t seem as if it needs a ton of people so far. Playing alone can be oddly satisfying, as I can build fields of flowers on the map and feel pride that it was all me, especially in the early phases of the game’s release. When tons are of people are playing, though, and you’re in an area populated with the flower nodes as in the above picture, you get more things to interact with. Again, interaction points are few and far between, and you are limited to three battles per day with no raid passes or anything to get around that, making it easier to keep walking instead of staring at your phone. With the holidays, Pikmin Bloom may be a game some people want to (re)pick up to help burn some calories, but with the game’s limitations, is feels even less multiplayer than Pokemon GO was prior to raiding.

Bad Pikmin!

Of course, not everything in Pikmin Bloom is great. Immediately it becomes obvious that it’s a low-stakes game with minimal interaction that I don’t think will interest most core gamers. The fact that players have to wait until level 15 for “combat” (the only rewarding multiplayer if you include sending postcards, which do nothing) is confusing, especially as (like many Niantic features) it is almost wholly unexplained. Players attack various colored mushrooms of various sizes, with small being easy, normal being medium, and large hard, and “giant” being the hardest mushrooms. Apparently, matching pikmin colors with the mushroom’s color increases the likelihood of doing well, as does using pikmin you have a higher friendship/reputation with. Bonus points if your pikmin have a hat/decoration.

And that’s about it. I’ve tackled various mushrooms of various sizes with various people, though never a full group. The only players I’ve found (especially because COVID is a thing) are fellow POGO players, many of whom play in one of the very few popular areas. While POGO has clear and desirable rewards, Bloom lacks both of these. Mostly what I’ve seen and heard is that they reward fruits that give nectar. Fruit is a basic reward from basic gameplay, and while you may get some nicer petals faster, it feel similar to myriad of uninspired Pikachu hats in POGO.

Unlike in the latter’s raids, mushrooms simply don’t bring people together, especially as you simply choose your pikmin who’ll attack, send them off, and walk away. It’s nice that you can start a fight and people can jump in to help “mid combat,” but you’ll never know unless you sit and watch the whole fight. There is zero gameplay involved, similar to POGO gym defenders but lasting far shorter and being far less rewarding.

The POGO overlap also means the in-game currency system is under a microscope. Bloom also has discount packages in its shops, and the prices are the same as POGO ones. However, the contents are boring to say the least (petals, nectar, and essentially more Expeditions), but even if a player were to purchase a pack, the problem is that they are harder to earn than their POGO counterparts.

While POGO allows players to earn 50 coins a day, Bloom players are only able to make 30 coins a day, if that, by spreading flowers. That means it would take about 50 days to afford the 1480 coin box in Bloom, while POGO players can earn that 30 days and for better items (raid passes, XP multipliers, lockboxes for new pokemon/bonus candy/stardust). But despite “playing” for about 90 minutes a day, I tend to only make 8-12 a day. I may have only hit the cap once, but that was during a dull POGO Community Day when I was pushing myself to walk more to prepare for the Thanksgiving weight gain. I’m currently sitting on 168 coins (about 7 coins a day), not even enough for the cheapest 480 coin box.

While I’ve admittedly never randomly found a fellow player in meat space, the player dropoff has been fast and hard, with the only time I’ve been able to spot random players being during a local festival in early November. This was through watching flower trails, not physically seeing anyone play, and as there were mostly small children and teens, I didn’t try too hard to specifically track someone down.

Even during the first few hours of the first Community Day, I failed to meet even a single player in either of our local “hotspots.” Despite my fears, I did attempt to turn on “Play with others” in both locations and saw absolutely no other players, and only because I knew I’d be reporting on this. Community Day offered no new gameplay and uninspiring rewards, just an incentive to walk more for players who are already engaged, so it’s fairly obvious why the turnout was so low.

Obviously, any ARG’s going to play differently depending on the local community, but as pedometer play feels like the game’s strongest point, it feels like the game could cut out most of the multiplayer features and make for a safer game with room to grow. Even then, level up rewards get dull fast, most of the pikmin unlocks seem negligible after the purple ones, and “raids” are another click and wait mechanic that makes up the bulk of the game’s “action.” The game may be easier to stealthily play when around non-players, but it less engaging than most games while potentially gaming the player much more vulnerable to stalking.

Very, very bad Pikmin!

As even readers have noted, ARGs can easily be abused by stalkers. It’s why we published a safety guide just days after release, especially given Niantic’s ongoing failure to protect players. This was even before a near phone-breaking bug from beta started to affect many android players, delaying/preventing them from sending or receiving texts, emails, Discord pings, and other notifications until they shutdown the app’s processes or restart their phone. It once lasted days for me. As of this writing, the bug is still unquashed and is one of several major reasons I’ll be uninstalling the game on my personal phone. If you’re being followed, sending and receiving texts could show the stalker that they could be reported at any second.

Not only is it quite easy to stalk a fellow player in Bloom, but Niantic will do nothing about it. The option to delete flower trails seems like a bugged feature at best and an outright lie at worse, as neither my friend nor I saw any results when I used it. Requests to delete said flowers have fallen on deaf ears, even given my stalking situation in Pokemon GO (which, as I’ve noted, has a large cross-over population with the game).

To call Niantic’s customer service “bad” would be an understatement, especially for anyone who has realized American customer service often feels like preparing for a trial with a goldfish as a judge. The ineptitude of the employees combined with the uncaring corporate responses coming from both bots and the “help” feel so intentionally bad as to generally cause a normal player to simply stop trying.

While never perfect, POGO customer service during the launch of raiding “only” required two or three different help requests. At the time, it was better than I was getting from credit card companies and Amazon customer service, though it’s gotten far, far worse in recent years. Bloom, though, is particularly bad in that there isn’t even a notification if/when support gets back to you. I’ve had three different requests (account linking, and two separate calls for flower trail deletion for two different areas), and a grand total of zero problem resolutions. The company no longer seems to use email for support, and forget phone calls. PR has equally been unhelpful, even during launch. And I say this as someone still battling a stalker issue in POGO that started in early October, so one would think there might be some pressure on the company to ensure safety even as a regular player.

Lest you think my experience with Niantic unduly shades my impression of the game, remember that I previously penned an article on why it made sense for Niantic to get this IP, and I still stand by every word. I didn’t have high hopes, and yet for the most part the game exceeded them. Clearly someone (probably Nintendo) thought out some of these features. The whimsy from the Pikmin “hats” is far more inspiring than many of the new additions or poor implementations Niantic’s done with Pokemon and Harry Potter, and while we can debate the “gameness” of Bloom, it does better tackle Niantic’s explicit company goals in ways its other titles just don’t.

Safety, however, is a different issue. Local players who are aware of the game but hadn’t known about my stalking situation had said they quit Bloom once they realized the game in our community could easily be used for that purpose. That was within the first week or so of release. Some adults have been told by family/friends not to play alone or to be more cautious when playing, even by adult fans of the Pikmin series. And this is all within a community familiar with ARGs. Admittedly, my community is more concerned than many about privacy, and this won’t bug your average player, but it is a reason the community simply won’t expand without Niantic making some massive changes.

Putting aside my deep concerns about Niantic’s absolute failure to seriously consider the safety of ARG players, I feel as though Pikmin Bloom may not have long to live. All ARGs now live in the shadow of Pokemon GO. That means Niantic both relies on and potentially cannibalizes its own player bases with each new game. The genre has few popular titles, and Niantic itself, while an industry leader, has closed about half the projects it’s announced. While I love the game’s accessibility, its obvious shallowness may have already been too significant for it to recover, especially when combined with the safety issues with basic gameplay.

Nintendo may be the only reason Bloom survives right now. I do think the lack of locally restricted PvP is a good and safe decision, but considering Niantic’s history, I suspect it’s just another Nintendo decision, much like the Streetpass-esque mechanics. With luck, Niantic won’t ditch these lessons and can better apply these features to new games, hopefully with gameplay that isn’t too distracting but is as revealing as POGO’s curveball that reveals who around you may be playing the game. If you have a spare phone and want an excuse to walk more, Pikmin Bloom may be a good decision, but maybe you could also take it from the WoW guy and just game while on a stationary exercise bike.

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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