Video games are often berated, usually by people that have never played them, for keeping weans indoors when they should be outside playing. If there is one game that can’t be accused of this, it is Pokémon Go. Bursting onto phones during the summer of 2016, it became a phenomenon, and while that has settled down, there is still a lot of loyal players. Niantic has improved the experience over the last three-and-a-bit years by adding new features and giving players more and more to do. Now the developer has a new challenge, going against everything their game is about and making it a stay-at-home experience. Now, get up and…umm…stay inside?
I’ve played Pokémon Go since it launched. As a 90’s kid, a love of Pokémon is ingrained in me – we traded the cards on the playground and linked our Game Boys together to try and complete Kanto’s PokéDex in Red or Blue. Being able to catch those loveable little monsters in the real world was always going to appeal to me, and the augmented-reality mobile game has become a part of my daily routine. Social distancing, and staying at home to fulfil a civic duty we should all have, is not something that vibes with this, but Niantic has done a great job at enabling me to keep playing.
Walking through and exploring the world around you is the chief mechanic, and visiting PokéStops and Gyms is what makes the game playable. These are basically local landmarks at which the player checks-in to receive items, like PokéBalls or in-game currency, and with these, the player can catch Pokémon, or buy things that make this easier – like incense, which draws Pokémon to your location. Being stuck inside with no way (at least without spending real money) to build the currency that allows the purchase of incense, the item that would enable you to play the game in this situation, is a problem.
Incense was the first item that Niantic included in their new, so far weekly, rotating-one-PokéCoin bundle. Usually, one incense costs 40 coins but purchasing this bundle nabbed you 30. The fanbase very much appreciated this gesture, but the San-Francisco based developer didn’t stop there, they also boosted the time incense are useful from 30 minutes to one hour. Each week since there has been a new bundle, first 100 Pokéballs, then 50 Great Balls, and then this weeks bundle – 20 Ultra Balls and 15 Pinap Berries. Speaking for myself, a player living in an area where PokéStops are not dense, I couldn’t have kept playing the game without these bundles. Yes, its win-win, rural players like me can continue to play, which is of course what the developer wants too. If a large group of people can’t play the game anymore, that’s a lot of potential in-game-purchases lost out on. Its a smart business decision, keeping active players able to play, but it’s a move also appreciated by the community.
A relatively new addition to the game is the Go Battle League, which allows each “trainer” to pit their Pokémon against other players all over the world, through online matchmaking. After your first five battles, you had to walk 3km to unlock an extra five fights, and after that premium passes were the only way to keep battling. Niantic has now removed all these restrictions allowing each player to battle as much as they want, with no additional requirements having to be fulfilled. This change means that any time you open the game, you can jump in and play. If there are no Pokémon to catch, you can still battle, giving players something to do every time we log on.
Of course, there are misses too. Increasing the amount of gifts players can send to their friends is pointless, when you can only receive gifts from PokéStops. Doubling the distance from which players can interact with gyms will benefit some, but is entirely useless for others – myself included. It is the effort that counts though, and anyone who can’t see that Niantic is working incredibly hard on trying to keep their game playable for fans is just not paying close enough attention.
The most recent event has halved the walking distance required to fully incubate eggs, which is great for people like me who have a treadmill but will also keep players hatching eggs from their day-to-day activities around the home. There are even more small tweaks that have been made to optimise the game for what is basically stationary play, which you can read about on the Pokémon Go Blog, but Niantic isn’t even stopping there. Currently, they are developing a way in which players can participate in raids, an event usually only manageable by a group, from their own homes.
Never in a million years would Niantic have seen a situation where people could not go outside to play their games coming. How quickly they have pivoted to this has been incredibly impressive. As a long time player, I would like to thank you for your hard work, allowing me to keep a little bit of normality in these crazy times, without which I would have lost another of the things that have been constant in my life for years. That is some good work there.