Massively on the Go: Pokemon Go’s improved Megas and the kitchen sink problem

    
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It’s been a while now since Pokemon GO got its third Mega Evolution system, which was one of the big reasons we took a hard look at which pokemon you should invest in. However, what we didn’t want to do is immediately discuss the new system, as Niantic included a new Mega Leveling system. Moreover, the old system had issues that still cut some people out of the new system, which we’ll get into later.

As someone who came on board during the second iteration and thought it was as good as it’d get, I need to be clear that the new changes are better than the old ones. Yes, they could be even better. Yes, there are design flaws; systems are overburdened, and early mistakes have carried over into the new system. But do not mistake criticism for dissatisfaction. I am happy with the changes, but I am also a minority player who had invested in the old system and came into the new one with low expectations. Niantic can and should do better for the majority of the users, not just me.

Mega Basics

First, I have to admit that even though I understand the system, I’ve seen firsthand how it’s more confusing than before. The new explanation video, along with in-game diagrams, makes it potentially easier to understand, but it still complicates what’s far easier to understand in the main games. Maybe this is my bias, but I expect mobile games to be less cognitively heavy than PC/console games in terms of mechanics.

My gamer friends who still do POGO may not be in the core Reddit communities, but they still Google for articles (I don’t like to self-promote to people I know IRL, but they’ve at least seen some of our guides’ images, sometimes as a test group). Mega Evolution was something they struggled to “get” but had little to no motivation to engage with. The announcement of Mega Kangaskhan excited them only because it made a foreign regional available to us. Not one of my friends has seemed excited for the change, and as someone who’s always shown them the advantages of it, I feel sad to see that Niantic still hasn’t made it work.

Yes, the new Mega system is giving us some really nice bonuses in theory. With high-spawning pokemon and the most common types, I do notice a bit of a boost from the extra XL Candy generation, but I’m also specifically looking for it. People seemed to ignore this for the first month or so, but I matched the spotlight hour pokemon with a Mega of the same type that had the first XL Candy bonus and ended up with about 85 XL Candy after transfers, with no hand-catching involved (I’m very well off on Numel XL candy). I then tried this with the Pikipek’s spotlight hour and the final Mega Level XL candy bonus and that number shot up to 185 with similar conditions. This was without fast catching, which often nets me around 250 XL candy.

To put that in perspective: Most pokemon need 296 XL candy to max out. A year and a half prior to the new system’s launch, I had 414 Bidoof XL candy total. Bidoof is typically a common pokemon and has even gotten its own five-day event before, before the new Mega Levels came out. Getting about a third or two-thirds of the way to maxing out a pokemon from a single one-hour event with casual play is quite good for those who are paying attention and investing in the Mega Levels mechanic. However, it also means those who aren’t will be left in the dust, especially as Niantic recently dumped Classic Master League this PvP season.

At bonus two out of three for a pokemon’s Mega Levels, the straight 50xp addition for sharing of types isn’t a ton, but it’s still half the XP from catching a base form with my Go+. The problem is that these are numbers few people look at. They’re not bad, but visually, people see that they lack candy, they have to walk a pokemon they may not care about, and they have to pay a tax to activate six out of seven days of the week until they get the pokemon to the next level. One friend who actively played two accounts hasn’t bothered logging in, and the newer players often seem disappointed that they can’t get Energy for pokemon they’re interested in.

And that’s only for the first bonus. The final bonus ups the XP bonus to 100, effectively doubling the average catch XP. Pokemon drop two additional normal candies, not stacking with pinaps, meaning you can get eight candy per non-evolved pokemon outside of events. And XL Candy… well, I have gotten up to three XLs from a single unevolved pokemon.

Having some access to energy-free Megas is nice. The leveling system does give some incentive to mix things up. It also gives new ways to earn XL Candy (even if they may be counter-intuitive when concerning raid benefits), which has been a major issue since the bigger candy came out (as I feel the pain whenever Master League is in the PvP rotation), plus the bonus xp’s at least something. Again, for newer players, it doesn’t seem that different from the old system except for getting a free use Mega every seven to three days (depending on rank). Across multiple communities, I am the only person I know who regularly walked for Mega Energy before, and I largely still am, aside from two friends, one of whom is walking a Mega only because of my advice (she hates changing pokemon but loves benefits).

There’s also the problem with the Energy hike on pre-existing pokemon. You’ll notice most of that list is composed of Megas I suggested investing in, either as a top pick or runner up. That only reinforces one thing that’s been disappointing about Megas since release: the energy tax. It’s something that simply doesn’t exist in the main series. In the main games, it’s a one-time fee for an item you can activate once per battle. No, you can’t have Mega Aerodactyl follow you around in the games that allow Megas and walking with pokemon, but it’s less burdensome than POGO’s model as well.

Admittedly, Niantic did initially offer a lot of quests to help players get energy for a wide variety of pokemon via quests. The problem was that they all required the player to power up pokemon, which uses stardust. Veteran players like myself have little issue with this, but casual and new players struggle with affording to power up pokemon for their raid teams. Powering up pokemon just for the sake of a quest is quite expensive for them. In fact, one person I know went bankrupt on her stardust trying to pursue these quests, and even then, she still can’t afford to Mega most pokemon beyond the “freebies” (Beedril and the pokemon she chose from the Mega Levels introductory quests). Like many people, she wholly ignored Mega Raids, as no one wanted to do them, and a legendary pokemon forever would help her more than a temporary Mega pokemon with a use tax.

On the one hand, this new system does help further reduce the overall hatred of Megas and Mega raids, as the latter grants far more energy than before (about 200, depending on raid completion speed, which is enough for the initial evolution cost on most ‘mon). But on the other, inflating the cost a year or so after many of these pokemon were released is severely disappointing, and I say this as someone who walked Megas until they were at their Energy caps in case Niantic did something precisely like this.

Yes, we do have some potential Mega diversity now thanks to the freebies. More people are using the system because the Energy system is less painful and the benefits are higher. But Mega raids for the most part are still duds. Yes, it’s nice we only need to do them once, but then what’s the point of making them group content and having them clog up the raid pool?

No, people don’t want to walk pokemon for Mega Energy, but they’d still rather do legendary raids. Look no further than the Community Day raids that “extend” the event by a gym for 30 minutes if people do a mid-evolution raid. Aside from whales and casuals desperate to use passes they often waste (largely because of not having people to play with), the only thing people want to use passes on are legendary raids, and no number of Mega bonuses is going to change that, especially with the Energy tax.

And that’s the other part of all this: The Energy cost will never truly vanish. It just becomes less painful. While admittedly Mega levels take some pressure off of the already overburdened Buddy System, the fact that walking the Mega pokemon is needed for daily use of said pokemon is a major pain that hasn’t been alleviated. As someone who has almost only walked Mega pokemon since walking for Energy has become a thing, I have to say I’m sick of it. Sick of feeling chained to my Megas, sick of having to walk for Energy, and sick of my “buddy” being associated with a truly unrewarding, grind-encouraging medal that feels like it goes against both the English language (how do you have 100+ “best” friends?) and the spirit of the pokemon themselves.

The kitchen sink issue

What it really comes down to is that Niantic does hear us; it just doesn’t listen. The company would rather stick to its own goals rather than create a game players can enjoy as they please. Again looking at the Buddy system or the new Community Day experiments, I have seen that whenever there’s a problem, Niantic loads the feature up with as many bonuses as possible, even if those bonuses are at odds with themselves.

Let’s look at the issue of Megas again for a moment, particularly choosing a Mega for Battle vs Candy. Megas provide some help in raid battles via damage buffs (and rarely can be used in PvP), but doing so means they don’t give an XL Candy boost at the end of the raid for not sharing the same type as the target. And because Niantic often matches bosses with event themes – outside of Ghost and Dragon events (because they’re vulnerable to themselves) – that means using a Water Pokemon to defeat Fire Pokemon in a Fire event means no extra Fire pokemon (XL) candy or experience. It also means having to use multiple Megas in a single day/play session in order to get it all. In theory, it sounds like it gives players a choice, but let’s break down a player’s options:

Choose Mega for battling Choose Mega for candy
Easier raids (average 1-2) Yes No
More candy for 8 hours Rarely Yes
More XL candy for 8 hours Rarely Yes
More xp for 8 hours Rarely Yes

 

As you can see, there’s not much of a real choice here. Unless you’re doing a lot of raiding (which costs real money), choosing a Mega Pokemon for its battle potential severely limits the benefits gained outside of Dragon or Ghost events with Dragon or Ghost legendary bosses. Niantic gives you a bunch of bonuses, but they’re not all useful, and there’s not much of a balance between the options.

This is similar to the buddy pokemon issues I’ve previously mentioned. Walking a buddy gives me its XL candy, regular candy, Mega Energy where applicable, and a stat boost. Mega Pidgeot is a highly useful Mega for candy, but I have zero use for any of its candy or using it in any kind of combat, be it raids, PvP, or taking gyms. And yet, I must walk it for regular use unless I put a lot of effort and/or money into getting its energy other ways.

And even the new Mega system only exacerbates that. Before I was getting normal candy bonuses. That was often enough, especially for new pokemon. If there weren’t any new pokemon I needed candy for, or during those rare times I was capped on all available Mega Energies, I could walk something fun and/or rare, like Noibat.

Cutting the Energy costs in the new system should make that more possible, but the introduction of the Legendary Megas, which require 20 km to generate (10 km if using a poffin), often puts a nail in that. Add in that Megas also grant XL candy now, which are quite hard to get without the bonuses, and using a Mega feels like a base requirement for players wanting to actually make good use of their pokemon. Yeah, I could walk one pokemon to gain one candy every X kilometers, or I could get candy and XP for tons of pokemon for hours each time I catch something. The buddy system’s benefits are grosslyovershadowed by the Mega System.

Let me be blunt: While the Mega Evolution revamp made good improvements, they’re built in a system of pain. That’s a terrible foundation, but worse, a terrible habit, as it’s creating knowingly painful systems and then taking the pain down bit by bit until it’s bearable. It’s what’s given recent “free-to-play” games such a terrible reputation.

Continually building on this system of pain only reinforces the feeling that Niantic isn’t a game company; it’s a tech company. Most often, it feels like a marketing company, hell-bent on psychologically manipulating players with dark patterns to generate money. That may sound mean-spirited, but it’s becoming harder and harder to deny, not only because of Megas but because of the Community Day issues, lack of a refund/makeup for admittedly bugged Go Fest 2022, and the constant (and disappointing) weakening of the 1 coin boxes.

Mega Legendary raids and user uptake

One of the biggest tells about the system so far is that while more people are engaging with it, it feels like 40% use it now at best, and that was for the Mega Lati-twin raids, which proved to be more difficult than past raids. Not only are they Legendary Pokemon, but in their Mega Form (which makes them essentially tier 6), the highest tier the game’s seen that. The number of people using Megas dropped off significantly the Mega Latis left. As in, close to 0% in most raids I participate in if I don’t include myself.

This isn’t just in my local groups, though. Since the feature went live, I’ve done remote raids with Japanese, German, Australian, and Canadian players, in addition to people across the United States. I’ve done huge raid trains (20 people per lobby, with multiple plobbies), and groups of four people, from daily raids to special raid events. I’ve seen a good mix of environments, and when I talk to people, the idea of using Megas is either laughed at or met with disappointment that a player lacks the Mega Energy to use something to gain the relevant candy/XP bonuses.

What’s been different, especially with the Lati-twin raids, is more people using their Megas in the actual raids. Mostly because of myself and my friends (and because we needed fewer people), my previous raids had between 20%-60% of participants using Megas, but mostly for candy generation. Again, as the Lati-twins are part Dragon, they allowed people to make better use of the whole system, including the figurative kitchen sink.

And even that sadly wasn’t enough to get more than half of the 20+ raiders in my local raid train to use the feature. It was nice seeing the boosted damage in raids while getting other benefits, but that boost doesn’t often last very long if it came from someone other than myself. Most people don’t dodge or consider using their Mega for damage support boosting, so the boost comes and goes in a blink of an eye, assuming people even bring a Mega that’s useful. Outside of the Mega Lati-twins, I’d say that maybe 20% of my raid partners will bring a Mega, and rarely is it useful, unless it’s from meatspace friends.

Worse yet, the “tweaks” to make the new tier 6 Mega Raids more “rewarding” felt false outside of the Mega Energy rewards. Both in-person and Remote Mega Raid ball counts are lower, by about 3-5 balls compared to regular raids with similar completion times, which isn’t a big deal for common Pokemon with high catch rates, but it’s a painful loss for legendaries. For those wondering why this is, it seems that despite being a tier 6 raid, being a “Mega” means it’s using the same nerfed pool regular tier 4 Megas use, except with extra Energy and a small chance to earn XL Rare Candy if you raid in person (I got a grand total of 3 XL candy after doing over 20 in-person raids during that event).

We’re not done yet, though. People raiding from their cars or spoofing to raid has been an issue since release, but it’s been worse since COVID struck, so even when there’s a hot new raid, I’m standing alone outside unable to speak with whoever might be nearby. Even with Remote Raiding to boost fair play numbers, I don’t have time to send invites, answer questions people text me, and help RL friends who might be tagging along. Regular raids are less of a problem, but Mega Legendaries really show the lack of in-game communication (that won’t reveal your RL location) is what caps the game’s difficulty level.

Those of us who are lucky enough to have large raid groups to rely on are at a massive advantage that I doubt Niantic truly understands. After all, the recent Daily Incense came into being only when a Niantic lead’s mother complainednot the millions of rurals who have noted their issues for 5+ years. While it’s nice that more people are using the system, going from nearly no one to maybe 20% for the third iteration of a system only looks good on paper, not in practice.

Potential for growth

I am happy with the improvements to the Mega system, no doubt about it. It personally helps someone like me who invested a lot in the earlier system, but I’m a minority. That being said, I do think a few tweaks could really help things out.

  1. Make the Max Level evolution perk zero days, High Level 3 days, and Base Level 5 days. People wanted the Megas to be free. A free one once in a while is nice, but it’s still cumbersome. Remember, I’m saying this as someone who has all the advantages: I’m fine with a “nerf” here. We need it.
  2. Allow spare energy of the same tier to be converted to “Rare Energy,” similar to Rare Candy in that you can use it for anything but within the same category. That means Beedrill Energy could be turned into Pidgeot Energy, but not Blastoise, Gyarados, or Latios Energy.
  3. Aside from Mega Legendaries, cycle out Mega Raids and offer straight purchasing of one-time Mega evolutions for coins/cash, maybe at 100 coins to match the raid cost. It better matches the games, gets rid of FOMO, can still bring in money, and gives players better raiding options.
  4. Use Mega Legendaries as the new endgame by buffing the rewards. More energy, more balls, maybe even higher chances of shinies.
  5. Open the Buddy system to a team of six, similar to the series.

What all these changes would do is make Megas more accessible overall. It would give some value to “extra” Energy players have hoarded, make having missed out on a Mega rotation less painful, but it would also motivate a broader audience to tackle Mega Legendaries. Again, the issue right now is that most vets don’t want to repeat the content.

You don’t even have to do all of these. For example, when Mega Blastoise returns, I won’t do any because I already have a perfect Blastoise, at max level, and tons of Energy stocked up. Add to it the awful rewards, and it’s simply a waste of a raid pass for me. But if Niantic kept the raids (which I still believe is a mistake), I could help friends with it and feel like I could turn that Energy into Mega Swampert Energy, giving me a reason to help beyond getting my friends to stop pestering me. Believe me, I may have lots of Energy saved up, but I’d rather switch my Megas out to something fun, like many other players already do.

And that’s where item 5 comes in. Both the Mega system and Buddy system are overburdened. However, adding too many systems, especially to a mobile game that’s supposed to be about getting out to socialize and exercise, makes the game too cognitively heavy, and I doubt Niantic will ever get over its “throw in everything but the kitchen sink” mentality. So having a team of six “buddies” means Niantic doesn’t have to revamp multiple systems, and better yet, future systems can be more flexible.

For example, if Niantic adds Dynamax and Gigantamax Pokemon, then Terastallizing, in similar ways to Megas, the Buddy system will completely break down from its original use. However, if players have six slots to play with, you could have one Buddy for Dyna/Gigantmaxing, one for Terastallizing, one for Mega energy generation, and still have three slots to play with, whether it’s regular candy generation, XL candy generation, buffing for that level bonus, or actually gaining Buddy Reputation.

In fact, item 5 may be the most useful suggestion Niantic could take away. If you’re going to throw all the bonuses at people anyway, you might as well give them more ways to actually make use of them, in order to help cancel out the negative impact of designers who fail to design giving players meaningful choices. The choice then becomes not which bonus actually becomes useful but which pokemon it’s the most useful. With hundreds of pokemon and many with multiple different uses, that becomes much more interesting a choice, especially as new generations continue to come out.

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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