Massively on the Go: Pokemon Go’s Niantic is listening to the wrong voices in its own company

    
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As I noted in my May event round-upPokemon Go’s one-coin weekly Remote Raid passes will be dead starting May 23rd. Despite a recent interview in which new Global Community Manager Kelsey “Magpie” Danger said Niantic is being “hyper-conscious” of not giving advance notice, Niantic also increased the price of Remote Raid pass 3-packs with zero notice almost at the same time of the announcement. I pointed out that the company or its PR could have told players about this at the start of the month when we questioned the lack of information on the passes, but the change was suppressed until the last minute. And as usual, players are not having it.

And this isn’t new. Niantic recently threw YouTubers under the bus to cover for its poorly thought-out and executed April Community Day. The newest Mega Evolution system, which I’m still playing with before giving full thoughts, isn’t even being used by the majority of the playerbase. The company’s promotion of the recently held Spain event is low on COVID protections in spite (contested*) reports of an influencer picking up the virus from events and COVID in Niantic’s own hometown surging. And while trying to push people to play outside more, the company is deleting legit gyms and stops to “rebalance” the game, not just in major cities but in suburbs. And that’s just Pokemon GO.

Smart employees, bad decision-makers

The company is trying its hand at its own kind of social media tool, but Niantic’s history of creating stalking apps and going as far as nerfing its own support to avoid helping players does not bode well. While I haven’t touched the app myself, I wouldn’t trust Niantic with social messengers given its current track record, especially if it wants to link all its games together to further enable stalkers to track players across the company’s (mostly IP-based) library of games. Niantic is sponsoring a forum and beta testers at The Silph Road, but as much as I trust TSR, I am incredibly worried about what Niantic may force it to do to keep the lights on in terms of getting help in pushing people out into pandemic-risky social spaces.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. While I went back to check up on Pikmin Bloom after being out for six months, I missed a new privacy feature released a few months before but largely hidden away. As noted, PR, social media, the company’s website, and even the game itself (as the header image was taken a day before publication) failed to highlight the new privacy mode. The deep flaws of the flower trails could have been celebrated in an attempt to win back players, especially in light of the recently added group challenges, but someone at Niantic elected not to do this.

The feature may have been forced onto it by Nintendo, an upcoming lawsuit, or just enough internal vocalizations, but the solution also clearly only helps add to the feeling that Pikmin Bloom looks deader when players hide their flowers. Despite OK-ing the feature, someone at the top also chose not to promote the change. Had the company done so, I might have been able to get friends to try it again, but those same people are now either not playing any Niantic games or are trying to enjoy Pokemon Go as best they can before Niantic’s pandemic obliviousness pushes them away from both the community and the company.

And that’s one of the biggest problems with Niantic right now: monetizing data rather than games. As we’ve mentioned before, Niantic sells player data (not individualized but in bulk), and while that may help it chase that sweet, sweet marketing money, relying on manipulating players to take risks in the real world during a global pandemic has been a deeply bad look. To frequently build apps that have led to stalking is another, making for a dangerous combination that could put the company in hot water in the future.

Again, it doesn’t have to be this way. We know people at Niantic know better, but despite sending developers to GDC to talk the talk, the company itself chooses not to walk the walk. Much of what the developers said during their talk actually addressed both prior and current criticisms of the company, especially concerning the way AR games are played in spaces shared with non-players. Even other developers have noticed this and sought to do things differently. Niantic executives’ fingers are in far too many pies, and as we’ve said many times, it’s fairly apparent those people aren’t game developers or public relations experts themselves.

And as for their actual PR folks, well, I’ve seen PR reps go from being excellent representatives for a AAA MMO to acting like clueless interns when representing Niantic – and that’s on Niantic, not on the reps. In fact, my own coverage was improved not because of Niantic’s PR but because another unrelated Niantic employee pulled strings behind the scenes. While press is often expected to be extended marketing by certain companies, good companies know that being upfront and accessible to press can help everyone avoid reaching negative conclusions. And when The Pokemon Company proper will answer questions while Niantic dodges them? It says volumes.

Getting present

Again, it doesn’t have to be this way. As I noted prior to Pikmin Bloom’s reveal, the Pikmin IP seemed perfect for Niantic: It’s simple collection game, largely PvE, with built-in product placement. Niantic doesn’t want to monetize in a traditional way, and I often argue that while I dislike a lot of its gimmicks (especially the gambleboxes), the company is fairer than other mobile game companies, being better but far from perfect at doing in-game ads.

As I previously suggested, with Nintendo money, Niantic could blow other MMOARGs out of the water with under-utilized IP Earthbound/Mother. The series already involves traveling with friends/family and takes place in modern times (so much so that the series struggled with adapting copyright for everything from Coke to The Beatles), which is right up Niantic’s alley. Having in-game billboards, musical crossovers, and product placement would be natural to the point of actually increasing immersion. Heck, Niantic could even just do its own original thing, especially as games inspired by the series are picking up steam.

Instead, Niantic is pushing out its own spin on PokemonPeridot, which immediately sent up red flags. While it’s unlikely that Pokemon Go will be shuttered within the next year or so, making a game that people can call a “clone” of your arguably only successful title is sad and triggers massive amounts of second-hand embarrassment to capable devs, reporters, and players. Niantic may want to create something itself after a string of IP failures, but whoever made this decision needs to go. No matter how good the game may be, unless it’s objectively better than Pokemon Go, the optics alone will drag down both Niantic’s name and Pokemon Go’s, if not Pokemon proper. Niantic’s current decision-makers need to step back and maybe let actual game developers start guiding the whaling ship before it too is abandoned.

*5/24 Update: Clarified the unknown origin of the virus pickup.

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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