Massively on the Go: Pokemon Go’s April Community Day strategy hurts its own goals – and players

    
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Once again, Pokemon GO is marching forward to places its players don’t want to go. Niantic, the same company that pivoted commendably during the pandemic but is at GDC 2022 right now not giving any talks where virtual reporters can participate, revealed details for its upcoming April Community Day, and people are really just not having it.

In short, Niantic cutting the next CD event in half while featuring an unreleased, brand-new, 400-candy-to evolve pokemon (in a game where most CD pokemon cost 125 candy to evolve and have been in the wild for a year or more before being featured).

There is a lot to unpack in this announcement, ranging from player expectations to Niantic once again trying to drive social change at the start of a fresh pandemic spike/variant, which got it in trouble during 2021’s Delta wave. I’ve said this before, but a game company shouldn’t be trying to set or change health safety standards in this field of the public sector. Not only is Niantic continuing to gamble with players’ health, but it’s disrupting its own goals with this newest misstep.

Changing back in times

Let’s go over the changes first.

  • There’s a new pokemon rather than a previously released one.
  • The event has been cut down from six hours (as it’s been for years) to three hours.
  • There’s a 400-candy pokemon (this has only happened once before).
  • There are multiple bonuses (2x candy, 2x “chance” for XL candy, 3x catch xp, 50% trade cost reduction, two special trades).
  • If “enough” pokemon are caught near an active lure, pokemon near that lure will give 4x catch XP instead of 3x for 30 minutes.
  • The Community Day Box has been reduced to 850 coins and grants 15 Ultra Balls, 15 Pinap Berries, 1 Elite Fast TM, and 1 Remote Raid Pass.

Now, not all of these are bad. A new featured pokemon is nice in isolation, but it’s problematic because it means players have to scramble to not only get a “good” one for whatever they want to use it for (it’s immediately not looking great in PvE, and PvP is a strong “maybe”) but get enough candy to evolve it, not to mention level up and unlock a secondary move, and that will most likely require getting the full 100-trades-a-day, which few people who don’t multi-account or live with a fellow player can do.

The time reduction is especially hard-hitting for people with jobs or other responsibilities. Niantic’s tours are usually too long because they ask players to juggle countless tasks in a single, 12-hour session with hourly changing biomes/goals. Community Day is largely about focusing on a single pokemon for a few hours. Hardcores get plenty of time to farm, but even people who have to work through an event (such as I’ve had to do) can pop in more easily during that six-hour window to at least enjoy some of the event.

However, the reduction, combined with the fact that this is a new pokemon, means these players can’t simply evolve a good pokemon or two and call it a day. It’s basically about grabbing a few and waiting until the December round-up event grants redemption. Already one player I know has said she won’t be able to participate, and two more will have their time significantly reduced.

I’m sure the double candy part takes the sting out of the 400-candy cost, but that’s also exactly why such an expensive pokemon shouldn’t have been featured. If we pretend that means the pokemon costs only 200 candy now, that’s still a full 75 candy more than the average CD featured pokemon, and once again, this is with a brand-new pokemon, which further fuels the need to catch as many pokemon as one can in half the time players have been enjoying for the past 2 years to the month. As someone who welcomed (back) multiple players during COVID who’d never/rarely experienced the old three-hour limitation, I know this is very much an unwelcomed change for them.

Similarly, while the idea of “group” bonuses is nice, that’s not what Niantic’s done, at least in its own words. The bonus is for pokemon caught, not for the number of people. Worse yet, it goes against Niantic’s own goals, as lures explicitly kill two of three of the company’s goals stated in its own “roadmap.” Being stationary and granting incentive to stay that way clearly prevents exploration and exercise, and I noted very early on how lures don’t necessitate socializing, as all MMO players are highly aware of the “alone together” nature of things. But a brand-new pokemon will make this even worse, as people will be focusing more on catching than socializing.

While the cost of the CD Box is welcome, I just know too many people who don’t want to give Niantic money at all. Selling the Fast TM version for an event featuring a new pokemon with an event-only Charged move is insulting and further drives home Niantic’s obvious need for this event to perform well. The problem is that it’s set the stage to, from a data perspective, make the event seem like a hit when it’s simply manipulating players to act in a specific manner.

Reasons and response

So why in Arceus’ name would Niantic sabotage its own stated company goals, drive people to stand still, and cut that time down, all during a pandemic, when it helped its image initially by offering more options and safer gameplay?

In the April Community Day post, Niantic noted that since the April 2020 change, fewer than 5% of the players play for the full duration of the event. The studio also claims that “after January’s three-hour Community Day Classic […] players and community leaders noticed how much more of the community was out and about during the event,” hence the shortened time. But there’s a lot more to it than this.

As someone with some experience in translating user experience research feedback in a manner that cuts to the chase for busy developers, I can put this a format that devs who are digging their heels in already can easily understand:

  1. Issue: Players not as active during Community Day
    1. Cause: Boring Community Day pokemon
    2. Impact: Player motivation falls
  2. Issue: Players not finding each other as often during Community Day
    1. Cause: Um, COVID anyone?
    2. Impact: Game feels less popular

Let me also bring in some feedback from a moderator of some of the Discord groups I’m in (Riviera Village PoGo Group and the Pokemon GO LA County group):

Now, these are just one group’s data, but let’s talk about a few things. Look at Duskull first. That pokemon’s had its shiny out since October 2017, being one of the first. Combined with a completely irrelevant meta-move granted during its CD, it’s no wonder participation was low. On the other hand, Shinx was a hatch/raid only shiny before its CD and Luxray got a brand-new move that made it an interesting PvP pick, making it more popular but still a fairly niche pokemon in PvP and PvP only. While we could say the same for Spheal, the problem was that Spheal was shiny in the wild priory to this event, released in winter when it’s quite cold in many parts of the world, but it also took place during the biggest COVID spike we’ve seen to date.

Compare that with Bulbasaur, a Gen 1 Pokemon and already more popular. While it’s been out for ages, the release of the Go Beyond System meant the event was good for harvesting the very rare XL Candy needed to power it up. While you can argue that Community Days are good for this in general, few people power-up “useless” pokemon. As Venusaur’s CD move is both raid and PvP relevant (which none of the other COVID Community Day Pokemon have been, aside from June 2021’s Garchomp, which was also the only raid relevant one in during that time), this naturally motivated people to play.

Admittedly, Bulbasaur was also a January CD, but it was still popular despite COVID. On the one hand, you could argue that it shows people are willing to play despite detrimental health effects for the right pokemon. On the other hand, it shows that Niantic willingly motivated people play more in public despite the risk of detrimental health effects.

To put it another way:

Pokemon PvP Use Raid Use Previously released in the wild shiny? Useful Mega Form
Sandshrew(s) Meh No Yes N/A
Hoppip No No No N/A
Spheal Yes No Yes N/A
Shinx Meh No No N/A
Duskull LOL no LOL no LOL yes N/A
Bulbasaur Yes Yes LOL yes Yes
While Bulbasaur’s shiny, a big motivator for some players, was quite available multiple times in the past, it’s also the only pokemon to check all the other boxes that tend to motivate players and was the sole featured pokemon to have a Mega Form at all, much less a useful one. Frankly, this applies to nearly all of the 2020-2022 CD ‘mon, with few exceptions, the largest being Charmander’s family. In short, Niantic stacked the deck very much in favor of the three-hour window and did so during a massive pandemic spike.

But that’s not all. The moderator noted liking the six-hour format in spite of not playing all six hours because it “reduces the stress of having to play in the 3-hour window”; while three hours sounds like a long time, “it’s not really long enough when you factor in balancing [POGO] and real-life stuff (family, commitments, work, etc.)”

Also note that Niantic didn’t talk about general participation. Look again at the moderator’s survey numbers. The amount of people who participated in the survey for Sandshrew, Shinx, and even lowly Duskull are more than the total of the Bulbasaur participation. The numbers are admittedly low, but anecdotally, I know this is an issue because two people in my usual crew were unable to come out that day due to the shorter time limit. Again, for devs who think their players needed a Community Day dev diary five years after release instead of a focus on repairing recent damage to community faith:

  1. Issue: Players not as active during Community Day
    1. Cause: Shorter event hours
    2. Impact: Players no longer able to make time to participate

Having six hours to play instead of three means people can be more flexible. For example, some of my friends work weekends, so they tend to play earlier in the day and leave well before Community Day ends. One girl works nights, so she only played noon to 3 p.m.; this change means she could only play for one hour.

For hardcores, six-hour Community Days gives them more time to stock up on candy, especially now that Niantic will make a pokemon wholly uncatchable in the wild instead of just rare. Looking at you, regionals, Furfrou, Flabebe, the friggin’ regional legendaries.

This was fine.

And then for people like me, who use the game as an exercise excuse, it cuts that excuse down to 50%. And that’s before factoring in that Niantic’s pushing specific lure-centered mechanics now, which are stationary. By introducing a brand-new (and expensive) ‘mon, players are being pushed to catch pokemon by hand rather than device, which is not something I want to do while walking for fear of bumping into people, further cutting down both my exercise and ability to pay attention to people I’d normally be talking to. Breaking tradition from past Community Days, my friends and I will probably sit around in one spot, staring at our phones and catching.

Again, let me break this down into a format the devs who talked about rolling back incense to make people move more but came up with a bonus for stationary lures can better understand:

  1. Issue: Players not socializing while playing Pokemon GO in April 2022
    1. Cause: High catching engagement encourages screen time, discourages face time
    2. Cause: Low movement motivation due to stationary bonus implemented via lures
    3. Cause: Limited time by reducing hours from 6 to 3
    4. Cause: Inability to prepare pokemon/candy prior to the event due to newly released target
      1. Impact: Company goal of pushing exploration fails
      2. Impact: Company goal of pushing exercise fails
      3. Impact: Company goal of pushing socialization fails
      4. Impact: Less players active during event
        1. Impact: Less data to sell
        2. Impact: Alienation of customers who work/have other commitments
      5. Impact: Collection of player walking data minimal
        1. Impact: Less data to sell
        2. Impact: Alienation of customers motivated by exercise

Whoever made these decisions – introducing a new and expensive-to-evolve-pokemon and reducing the event time – isn’t a player but someone simply looking at data. The bonuses, like double candy and special trades plus retaining the post-event two hours to evolve window, seem like something some dev who does actually plays the game had to beg for so players don’t completely mutiny or abandon ship.

I genuinely dislike being so critical of companies, especially when I largely enjoy their games. However, at this point, I enjoy Pokemon Go in spite of Niantic, not because of it. Certain decisions, like giving Ukrainian players free refunds but allowing them to participate in the Johto Tour while their country was sieged, are great, but the way Niantic manipulates players to force them to play in an arbitrary manner counter-intuitive to both player mental and physical health and expressed company goals, is reprehensible. I understand that Niantic wants the game to work in a certain way, but these moves run contrary not only to what the players want but to what Niantic has claimed it wants as well. While I’ll play the event, my wallet will remain shut.

3/24 Update: A certain developer referenced here publicly addressed the issue. As noted, the data cited and that they are attempting to gather is skewed, and the developer makes no mention of how highly engaged, stationary play fits in with the company or Community Days’ stated goals.

3/26 Update: JRE, one of our biggest sources for understanding PvP trends, wrote up their interview with Michael Steranka. In short, while Steranka is passionate about the game, we’re still seeing a massive miss-match between problems and solutions. Worse it that we’ve essentially been told that this 3-hour format will be for May as well.

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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