I won’t lie: Many, many problems with Niantic often cause me to re-evaluate why I continue to play Pokemon GO, especially in recent weeks. Maybe it’s the sunk cost fallacy at work, but I think there’s more to it than that. In fact, at this point, I think it should be obvious that The Pokemon Company could take Niantic out of the equation. Most of Pokemon GO’s strengths just don’t really require the abandoned-whaling-vessel company involved to capitalize on them.
Rules to live by
Before I discuss my attraction to the game, I want to briefly emphasize conflicting statements Niantic developers have made about ARG design because they are key to to explaining why I personally enjoy certain aspects of the game and genre as well as why the game’s been struggling.
Niantic claims to be big on reducing screen time; the idea is that an ARG should have the player looking around the world more than at a phone. In 2020, the studio said it aimed to “keep AR activities between 30 seconds to two minutes with plenty of long breaks because most digital games don’t require exercise and AR games aren’t the norm, so it’s best to keep that action bite-sized for now as players get used to the genre.” Niantic’s reps also created the above image about situational awareness while stressing the importance of respecting non-players and avoiding making non-players suspicious or uncomfortable wherever you’re playing near them.
But here we are in 2023, when Niantic is openly promoting in-game AR scanning, using the above video (of a player bizarrely scanning a statue of Gandhi from every angle for almost two minutes) as the example players should follow. The vast mismatch between the behavior Niantic says it promotes and what it actually promotes with its games and marketing is difficult to ignore, and that disconnect impacts what I feel while playing the game and undermines all its best qualities.
Pokemon is everywhere and creates instant friends
Old school Massively readers probably remember me from those days as the Asheron’s Call guy. I’d cover less popular MMOs and online titles, like the original Darkfall (RIP) or Solstice Arena (RIP) or survival games with dinosaurs that weren’t ARK: Survival Evolved (RIP to them all), and of course I always covered E3 (RIP) and eventually found things to like in Overwatch. I spent years living in Japan, and I found that between my moves to and from a foreign country and my niche gaming interests, I’ve had a hard time meeting and connecting with people, and working from home now doesn’t help that.
We talk about socializing through gaming a bit on this site, but particularly when we covered The Video Game Debate, the articles on communities and social outcomes generated a lot of comments, particularly on the difficulties and desires to make connections with other gamers. It’s not exactly easy, and not everyone is necessarily wanting to make strong connections – or able, since modern gaming in the US is largely restricted to private homes. Finding gamer friends in the wild can be difficult.
And that’s not a tangent: It’s a key reason I stick with POGO over other MMOARGs. I’ve sadly never met any Orna players in the real world, but I bump into Pokemon fans everywhere. The IP transcends generations, largely because every three or four years there’s a new game entry, meaning anyone born after the first games in a first-world country probably knows something of the franchise. I know that talking to my students in Japan about not only pokemon but other popular IPs like Animal Crossing or Monster Hunter often helped open a door despite our age difference, so it bridges all kinds of player divides.
But Pokemon GO isn’t globally popular because it’s a good game in and of itself. In fact, Niantic’s now-dead Harry Potter: Wizards Unite was a better game than POGO at release, but it had two problems: It didn’t respect the IP, and it didn’t take advantage of the genre’s unique features. Pokemon, on the other hand, is an IP laser-focused on exploring and collecting, Niantic’s main goals. It translated better for non-gamers and was far less divisive, but reach alone wasn’t enough. What POGO still does is balance both the mobile genre between ARG and exercise game while finessing a major IP.
POGO fosters real play in the real world
One of the best parts about POGO that no other ARG has is a device that promotes passive play. With the Go Plus and similar devices, players can passively play with just tracking steps or even using a buzzer with active catching/raiding/PvP. Adventure Sync, which tracks your location and movement even while the game is off to give you certain awards, also assists with this.
Even when players could use incense to play from home, it just made more sense to go out into the world and play when you were able to. There are more pokemon as you move around, your tracking bar shows some local pokemon/raids you may like, other players in out-of-game chats may mention rare finds, and so on. And along the way, you meet other real people doing the same thing.
Now, I will argue that The Pokemon Company could theoretically rip POGO away from Niantic, strip out the GPS features, and simply run the game as a massively multiplayer online/local game where the game adds more content as people in meatspace gather near you. The 3DS StreetPass games did this to some extent using both a pedometer and Street/SpotPass, which used both wireless internet and other players’ devices to deliver update/info to players’ devices.
I don’t think players outside of Japan really got to experience the features at full power in their daily lives (though I certainly saw it at conventions), but in Japan, I knew certain areas where people would have their 3DS. A certain donut shop in Akihabara would let me get tons of hits off of other 3DS owners so I could play for what seemed like forever. Heck, I had my 3DS with me going to work, so some students would send me special greetings and I could give them very simple English phrases to learn. This didn’t work outside of Japan because the 3DS didn’t have the same popularity abroad, but smartphones do.
That being said, no one else is tinkering in the MMOARG space to develop something similar to StreetPass, just GPS-reliant location-based games. In fact, when I ask people what games they’re moving to if they’re quitting POGO right now, it’s mostly other mobile or mobile/PC games like Genshin Impact, Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, Orna, and Jurassic World Alive. But Orna often feels better as a non-walking game with both online and local co-op features, while JWA has grown to include raids and even “guilds,” it doesn’t have a fraction of the player presence POGO has. I give Niantic a lot of grief, but the core parts of POGO are very difficult to come by in the gaming world.
POGO is serious about motivating exercise
For the first three years of POGO life, I published a “report card” for the game’s anniversary as an annual review. My third report card of the game argued it was improving in many ways, particularly exercise motivation.
I know working from home is not my ideal situation, especially as someone struggling with weight and health. I’d always enjoyed MMOs, but social circles vanished and my metabolism slowed. I needed something that took care of both. I’ve tried other exercise-based games, but most players don’t succeed at the typical 30-day challenges on things like the Wii Fit. Pokemon Go has been no different there, though it’s easier to find other players to build a support group to help maintain those habits.
It’s the passive exercise that POGO excels at. Even before making new friends upon my return to the US, I realized that seeing a rare pokemon on my “Nearby” list or having someone take a gym I was walking distance from would encourage me to extend my daily walks. Community Days (outside of Niantic’s experiments that actually promoted stationary play) have also been good walking motivation for me since their release. The Tuesday Spotlight Hours still often get me walking a lot more too. Between the bonuses and focus on a single pokemon, I not only want to play during that time, but before, just to be certain I get non-event ‘mon too. (The new Daily Incense is part of this, though it breaks Niantic’s design goals: people have to focus intently on the screen for 15 minutes due to the possibility of ultra-rare legendary spawns. To make matters worse, there are people who use this in the car, driving around parking lots and playing.)
At various times, both the Mystery Box and Coin Bag also worked as motivation, but again, these have you staring at your phone instead of really watching where you’re going. The Wednesday Raid hours work as some exercise motivation for me personally, but I also have a nearby location that hosts a multi-city group for the occasion, though I have to drive to get there, and once I’m out of passes or friends to invite, that motivation is gone.
As I’m largely a non-paying player outside of major events and the current remote raid nerfs have most of my friends avoiding (or are unable to afford) remote raids, my exercise motivation is dying – but not necessarily gone. If Niantic truly cares more about design and data collection, it’d allow for more free raids during Raid Hour and raid-centric events, but I digress. The point is that Niantic has always had some good motivation to get people walking, though its efforts have been muddied.
POGO runs constant events
My MMO adventures began with Asheron’s Call, Asheron’s Call 2, and Horizons/Istaria, which were all games that had monthly updates in their early years, so I feel quite spoiled compared to most MMO players who seem to think new content should come out every few months or years. POGO still pulls it off. In fact, POGO has new events almost weekly. There are two guaranteed events each week, which aren’t always a hit, but Spotlight Hour shakes things up and Raid Hour can get me to meet up with people at least 50% of the time on average.
Now, admittedly, POGO’s updates these days frequently involve simply giving us a new combination of bonuses, spawns, and raid pokemon, occasionally with a new move, boosted shiny odds, or an old move returning for a limited time. About half the time, we get a new pokemon or a new shiny. Sometimes, we get walking bonuses too, like hatching eggs faster or generating more buddy candy. It’s simple, but it makes me re-engage with the game, sometimes in new ways (like when events give additional candy bonuses to Excellent throws).
While the constant events may drive player FOMO, as a long-time player I don’t really feel like I need to go hard; I just get a small motivational boost and some extra excitement. Combined with the exercise motivation, it just mostly gives me added reason to get up and out of the house.
POGO is king of a unique MMO subgenre
I was recently talking to a fellow writer about what made Asheron’s Call’s Shard of the Herald event so special, and one thing that writer mentioned was this idea that back then, MMOs were seen as a service. Companies had this idea that if they made a good product with happy customers, that alone would bring in the cash. But then World of Warcraft distilled MMOs down into a milkable automated treadmill (with a few cool exceptions), and later still micro-transactional gambling rather than content became the norm for ongoing revenue.
MMOARGs have always had the potential to bring that “service” feel back. We already have our own local metas (i.e., in downtown Los Angeles, I have to use my best gym defenders, but around my town, I often use pokemon locals will want to feed for candy). PvP players who love politics can appreciate brokering gym-sharing schedules, even if spoofers often threat those tenuous alliances. Remote raids create new gameplay dynamics in that I often raid with people from other countries so my friends and I can do more legendary trades that will result in extra (XL) candy. But these are pretty small compared to major events like Shard of the Herald.
For all its problems, Niantic has been inching closer to that kind of magic. Several years ago, MOP’s Tina Lauro Pollock and Brendan Drain and I all approached raids and Squirtle Community Day with fresh eyes. For me, it was interesting to see communities coordinating to help each other find guaranteed Shiny Sunglasses Squirtles, a pokemon we’ve now seen only twice in the game’s almost seven-year lifespan.
It was also the first time I really saw how much tying events to Pokestops is problematic. While I was in a rather Pokestop dense area, security made it difficult to get to the one pokestop near us that had the Shiny. My usual community wasn’t able to walk and play as they usually did, but they were driving all around town, posting the names of Stops for people to hit. It certainly broke the exercise portion of the game, but it did sort of get people “exploring” by car, and supported community teamwork.
However, both the Community Day and raids fell rather flat for both Tina and Brendan since they were in rural areas in Northern Ireland. Even at the zoo, Tina couldn’t even do a raid while they were a new feature. To this day, Niantic still hasn’t figured out how to really “spark joy.” For example, the new Golden Lures certainly can attract a crowd, but that hasn’t directly led to player interactions since release. Before that, I had high expectations for what sounded like new gameplay during the Vegas Hoenn Tour, but Niantic didn’t just drop the ball; it replaced it with a rock.
I know I seem to complain a lot, but I consider myself an optimist and constantly think that Niantic will figure things out, despite evidence of the opposite plaguing every recent event. Niantic has gotten close to making magic in this subgenre that it dominates, but it’s not there, nor do I believe at my core it will reach it.
Where POGO fails
In that trio of report cards, I argued that Niantic had been improving in terms of its business model and service. The first years, the game was very much pay-to-win, both for raiders and PvPers. By year three, the game had turned it around with weather-boosted pokemon, Community Day giving non-legendary pokemon powerful enough moves to be relevant, PvP making use of bulky ‘mon instead of the high-damage legendaries, and a good variety of goods (both functional and cosmetic). Had we done a report card for 2019 and 2020, the game would have gotten an A+ for all the accessibility changes as well as for its human customer service (and I’m picky about that).
Things have changed, though, as it’s well understood in the community that you’ll have to pester customer server repeatedly for items with premium items and events. As of this writing, I am still fighting support on some Vegas Hoenn Tour issues from February, and I had to go to my credit card company to get at least a partial refund. This isn’t so much a cash situation but a service situation: When Niantic is very much at fault for both bugs and poor communication and has the digital goods to give out and fix problems, it’s completely unacceptable to withhold compensation for months, and then deliver it only for squeaky wheels.
And that’s without getting into the company’s long-running issues with safety and stalking.
In a perfect world, I’d simply quit Pokemon GO and move onto something else. The problem is that POGO has gameplay elements that cater to my specific needs. It has large mainstream appeal; it gives me game-incentivized goals to go outside to meet people and exercise; it gives me new content and events almost weekly; and it’s a relatively new genre that is capable of doing some wildly exciting things. The problem is that the company really doesn’t seem to understand what it has (or maybe it just doesn’t care).
Like most companies that develop on Nintendo platforms, Niantic has something special it appears clueless about properly utilizing. The tech is neat, but it just doesn’t understand gamers or the market well enough to be creative with it. I could go on all day about all the exercise trackers it could use to spice things up, mechanics that could be simplified to better match it stated design goals, positive social engagement ideas that could lead to major movements in gaming outside the, what, two-week explosion of the game in 2016. But I’m tired of doing what is effectively unpaid work for this company, both in public and behind the scenes.
For now, I’ll continue to play Pokemon GO for the ways it matches my goals, but because Niantic is doing damage not only to Pokemon GO but to the genre’s progress, I’m going to put a moratorium on Niantic games in my Massively on the Go column for the month of May. That’s not just Pokemon GO but the upcoming Peridot game releasing the same month. We know from dataminers that there is some cool stuff coming up in POGO, but Niantic is unworthy of your attention right now, so to support various community movements, we’re pausing our detailed coverage with the hope that it gives Niantic time to see how much it’s damaged its own community and make an effort rebuild player trust. I do have some other articles to release this month, and I plan to revisit an old one in June, but for May, Niantic will have one fewer outlet giving it coverage.
If readers have other ARGs they recommend that I’ve overlooked, feel free to drop them in the comments section, as I have a few to check out anyway.