I was recently looking at an article claiming that Pikmin Bloom remains great six months after release and found I couldn’t agree less. While I’m admittedly not a hardcore player, I have popped in to check things out a few times since launch, and I haven’t been impressed.
The smaller playerbase means the flower feature – which is the main component of gameplay and required for leveling and creates real-world trails of where the user goes – has only made stalking more a risk as the playerbase has dropped, making individual trails stand out clearer. Community Day hours are essentially full days and come tagged with clunky real-world coupon offers. And in terms of features, we’ve seen nothing new, just more Pikmin with hats. If anything, Niantic’s proven that Niantic is still struggling to figure out how to make ARGs promote exercise, exploration, and socialization.
Now, before anyone thinks I just want the game to fail, keep in mind that I spilled a ton of ink already specifically in favor of Niantic succeeding with the Pikmin IP. Niantic clearly focuses on collection-based games and continues to release them. It seemed like a good fit, especially given the more peaceful IP.
However, as I mentioned in my initial thoughts on the upcoming release of Niantic’s original IP monster collector Peridot, Pikmin Bloom’s income has seemingly struggled. It’s making only twice as much revenue as the canceled Harry Potter: Wizard Unite and hundreds of thousands less than what it looks like it’d need to be in line with non-canceled, non-buy-to-own Nintendo mobile titles.
Some of those sales are most likely tied to the Pikmin IP, which is somewhere around Nintendo’s top 20 IPs. But it may also be some good design choices. As I mentioned one month after release, it was less of a game than a gamified pedometer, but the Streetpass-esque design ensured that the pedometer aspect is good walking motivation, and the ability for “quests” to go into a kind of virtual “queue” for players to tackle later when they’re not walking is exactly what I thought Pokemon GO should have had even before launch.
These mechanics fulfill two out of three of Niantic’s stated reasons for making ARGs: socialization, exploration, and exercise. However, a safe game isn’t necessarily a social game, and this is where Pikmin Bloom got messy. Immediately upon release, it became obvious that the aforementioned flower trails could be abused by would-be stalkers. It was the main reason behind my creating the safety guide for the game, but so was my (continued to this day) experience with Pokemon GO stalking, made worse by Niantic’s cross-game friend system.
So while I may not actively play Pikmin Bloom, we still receive news about it. I had a friend who still played until a few months ago, so I’d send her reminders of when Community Days were, which overlapped with Pokemon GO CDs. During those events, I noticed a few things.
The first is that, well, Community Days didn’t really do anything different from normal days. You just play the game as usual and get bonus rewards. While playing in a high-traffic area essentially increases those rewards, it’s neither necessary nor active playing. This is where the other issue comes into play.
Since the start, PB‘s Community Days didn’t seem to draw players out to engage with them. I never met anyone out playing during the events. When I knew both games’ events were occurring at the same time, I’d either check in-game myself, look around physically for other PB players, or ask my friend if she saw evidence of other active players, which she did not. I had seen evidence that the game had been played at some time, but I didn’t immediately see other people playing in the moment either.
Now, this is where things get tricky. I also felt awkward looking for other players. Revealing myself on the map felt problematic, especially since I’ve been regularly stalked in Pokemon GO. While I don’t know if my anonymous stalker plays Pikmin Bloom, the fact that the POGO stalking in real-time has drastically been cut down since I covered it means that person may read the site and/or follow me on social media, so he could identify my character.
Also, unlike POGO, PB gives no strong indication in the real world of someone playing the game; POGO has the curveball throw, which gives a player away, and wearables like the Go+ or Pokeball+. There are also raids, though they are entirely passive, so you won’t really find people that way, as you might in POGO, and even that could be better. You may not see a player in-game, but there are subtle real-world behaviors that can let you show people you’re playing and invite them to chat with you. PB has neither. Talking to someone who incidentally has a tell is one thing, but knowing you were followed is another. It’s either reveal yourself fully in-game and allow oneself to be followed or have no direct player interaction at all.
I also know what it feels like to be watched, so I’m conscious of how I could make someone else feel inadvertently. If I had noticed flower trails being created and followed the trail to that person to say hey in real life, it could feel jarring for them. It’s bad enough in POGO when someone has to parse out data on my gym activity to figure it out, but the trails in PB are so obvious. During the start of the game, I could walk over other trails to hide myself, but my local areas have no trails to speak of, so it would be very easy for another player to follow me, which is a huge factor in my decision not to play the game.
My community actually recently had an issue with a man trying to abduct Asian women from a park, but one of his targets just happened to be an older woman who plays Niantic games. That woman also had been specifically warned by the community about PB‘s potential for stalking, and she seemed quite shaken by the encounter. We try to stay positive about it, but it was a reminder to all of the local POGO groups that people need to be mindful, as despite reports to the police and someone giving them a photo of the man, local law enforcement didn’t so much as mention the incident in its weekly crime reports. Players sadly have to watch out for other players, and that’s difficult in situations where a company has given them the tools and/or incentive to act that way.
Niantic can’t control its players, and it fails to meaningfully interact with local police, but it continues to make games that direct its players into the real world, sometimes incentivizing anti-social behavior (like loitering on government or private property) and dangerous habits (like creating real-time public trails of their location). As the community has shrunk in Pikmin Bloom, these weaknesses become more obvious, especially because the core gameplay loop runs on a highly abusable system.
While it’s nice that the technology is there, Niantic just isn’t using it wisely. The Streetpass-esque gameplay is good for a single-player game that gets people out and exploring, but there need to be other features to get people to socialize. Raids don’t attract people, there’s no way to invite friends from long distances, and there are no social groups in-game (which would also potentially give people community support if stalking occurs); there’s just leaving trails for strangers to follow or outright revealing your avatar to everyone around you.
The company’s attempts to appease the masses by extending Community Day to most of the day – as opposed to the POGO Community losing time – in addition to tacky coupon pushes do not bode well for the game’s health and future. Niantic must either better adhere to its pillars or get better game designers capable of both the quality design the IPs deserve and the ethical design that actually matches what the company claims it wants to do. It has the technology, but so do competitors. It’s only a matter of time before some other company shows it can handle ARG tech while also boasting solid game designs that full capitalize on and engage the ARG genre – especially in terms of multiplayer.
5/13/2022 Update: It was brought to my attention by one of my social media followers that the game added Privacy Zones in a mid-February update. To note, the article header image was taken in April the day this piece was submitted. On that day and the ones leading to it when I logged in to explore the game, there were no pop-ups mentioning the new feature until I checked in-game on May 13th.
Our PR mailers made no mention of the feature, Niantic’s own blog also failed to promote it, and another site’s re-review failed to notice it as well. It feels as though Niantic added the feature to address safety concerns, but probably does not want it pushed because it can further make the game seem dead.
Going over the review, most of the arguments still hold water, especially in light of this. While masking the trails strongly helps players maintain their privacy and is a move I applaud, the feature signals that the flower trails are a bad feature to build a game around, especially as it subracts from the primary potential for meeting other players and building of a community in the real world.
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!