Massively on the Go: How Pokemon Go’s Niantic sabotaged player trust with the Ultra Beast raid event

    
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Not only did Pokemon Go players once again vote with their feet against Niantic for Sunday’s Ultra Beast raid event (and possibly the Saturday event, based on the thin crowd during the cringeworthy LA Livestream), but the company once again gave players a reason not to trust it.

In a series of tweets, datamining group Pokeminers noted some strange behavior surrounding the player referral program meter Niantic was displaying. While the event itself did a few things right, so much surrounding the event was wrong or morally dubious that it once again reminded us that Niantic is listening to the wrong voices and does not have player interests in mind.

While the miners didn’t say it themselves, the insinuation was that something funny was going on. Niantic is known for bugs, but it has been caught fudging the numbers in the past, both explicitly where we could see it (as early as 2017’s disastrous Go Fest) and also more recently in relation to intentionally changing events and stacking bonuses to skew data so as to “prove” the desired outcome is popular (rather than comparing one or two minor testable changes, which would be the scientific way to do it).

But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend Niantic should be trusted. In fact, we’ll say that the event challenge was entirely on the up-and-up and the deletions were bot sign-ups (meaning the bonus is only applied from legit player sign-ups).

About 16 hours later, that number rose by about 8%. Now, if you’ve ever worked a fundraiser, you know you get your biggest push at the start of the promotion and following major announcements. But at no point did Niantic sweeten the pot from a measly 1 free Lure valued at roughly $1 and Beast Balls, which make catching Ultra Beasts much easier, nor did it officially tweet or reply with goal number increases or major milestones. All tweets were largely about spreading the word of the event, getting referrals out, or essentially ads for the event. But still the count was steadily increasing. At that point, players suspected the numbers were fake and that the final goal wouldn’t be met.

Twenty hours later, the meter jumped up roughly 20%. Again, that was without Niantic doing any major pushes. No increased rewards, no promoting current progress, nothing. Eyebrows should be raised now, especially as many engaged players noted on the official announcement both that the single lure was insulting and that they could not in good conscience recommend the game in its current state.

This was a theme repeated in my local groups as well, in addition to complaints that Ultra Beasts in general are boring. In fact, while people had previously come out on Christmas Day for Mewtwo, Nihilego Raid Hour the night before Thanksgiving was a measly six players in a community that usually has multiple lobbies filled with 20 people. While Nihelgo isn’t Mewtwo, it is the best Poison-type for PvE, being a top-choice against Zacian in raids, one of the most feared Pokemon in the Master League scene. It’s also useful against a slew of other top-end Master Leaguers, countering Dragonite, Gyarados, and Lugia, and more.

In short, the playerbase, both online and in person, didn’t seem motivated enough to be making this kind of progress, especially with Niantic doing so little to push the referral program, which is actually so complicated and so buggy that despite having been leadership for two POGO chat channels in my area and having multiple friends come and go, I had zero players with the time or patience to actually complete the sign up. It’s far easier to just start playing the game, bonuses be damned.

Ten hours later, 10% more sign-ups. Without fail. That seems far too steady and sustainable, especially in the current context of the game. And that was when the miners noticed something:

Though it’s not explicit, the meaning here is obvious: The game is rigged. It seems as though Niantic set up the meter to make it seem as though players would reach the goal just in time for the event, even if the actual numbers weren’t reflected. The tool may have bugged out at first and Niantic had to fix it, which does seem very Niantic.

And as predicted, that’s exactly how it went down:

As for the actual event? As usual, post-raid spawns were broken at worst, inconsistently working at best. Of the 10 raids I did, I lost track of the number of broken raid spawns almost immediately. They were thin and dull, and they even despawned a few times when clicked, if there was a spawn at all.

I also stayed close to home for this event, as the pokemon I was seeking spawned in high-gym-density areas. There was no one at the local parks, in or outside of cars. All the targets had quad weaknesses, and I have people on my friend’s list with deep pockets, so I was able to get everything done with little trouble. I did see that the local chat had people requesting help and getting it remotely, but that only highlighted the fact that between the non-communication of the event functions combined with people being over Ultra Beasts (even if I personally enjoy them), Niantic once again misjudged its audience, though at least it wasn’t another cringeworthy Tweet about child safety used as a bad joke.

Ignoring Niantic’s poor judgment in tweets, I can say there were a few good things about the event. While many people are over Ultra Beasts, having so many targets with a quad weakness makes it easier for small groups of players to tackle. There’s a very short list of these pokemon (and should be slightly longer to include seven of the new Paradox Pokemon plus two of the Treasures of Ruin legendaries), but notice how most of them are Ultra Beasts. That’s an important thing to consider since Ultra Beasts can be caught via Beast Balls when Niantic allows it, making them easier to catch and lowering player frustration. It’s actually these factors that had made the Go Fest Finale an above average success, despite the bugs.

Another thing that many people are complimenting is the marketing. No, not those cringy events we mentioned, but the Ultra Beast reveal videos. They’re not bad at all. However, proper pokemon games don’t need those to sell. Despite bugs, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet are the fastest-selling games in Nintendo history.

So why can Game Freak get away with this when Niantic can’t?

Long-term consumer confidence.

While you do see some vocal vets constantly bashing new games, they still sell. Most vets forget that, at the end of the day, pokemon games actually appeal to casuals, and as the series becomes more inviting, titles sell better (outside of the original games).

Now obviously platform matters as well (the Gameboy had been around for nearly a decade when English speakers first had access to Red and Blue), but Sword and Shield gave us the first co-op experience, and Gold/Silver gave us Breeding and shinies, appealing both to hardcore IV hunters who didn’t have to catch as much and to casuals who wanted color variants.

Niantic, right now, is the company that rushed to adapt to COVID life, and then prematurely reversed course, twice, resulting in the streamer-supported Pokemon NO movement, which eventually led to concessions and promises of increased communication that failed to materialize. Add in a string of failures for other titles, and you have a consumer audience with low levels of brand faith.

All this being said, I do understand why Niantic acts this way. As sales continue despite outrage, financially speaking, Niantic probably feels safe enough, especially as Niantic games increasingly feel like data collection masked as games. Yes, in-game bundles cost more and give less, people are buying Remote Raid Passes despite the price hikes, and whales will keep the game afloat, but people are still playing, so Niantic has been able to project that it’s doing well.

And that’s exactly why lower turnout and player activity should concern Niantic. Obviously a referral challenge doesn’t inspire confidence given the current state of things, but sabotaging one to make the game appear more popular while also staging in-person advertising stunts reeks of desperation, especially for those of us who remember that Peridot is still a POGO-lite-minus-the-brand coming soon™. With a proper online main game out and Niantic’s current state, even played less today, and I like Ultra Beasts. Niantic is going to need to make a hard u-turn if it wants to win players back, again.

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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