The Battle for Pokémon Go’s Identity
By their mission statement, Pokémon Go developer Niantic’s games have always been about encouraging real-world exploration, movement, and community engagement. This philosophy has always been at the heart of Pokémon Go’s design and was paramount to the game’s appeal, as it created a game that more closely realised many people’s childhood visions of setting out to catch ‘em all more successfully than any mainline Pokémon game before it.
The global upheaval that was the COVID-19 pandemic forced a fundamental change in how Niantic games were able to be enjoyed. Players were no longer able to join local groups for raids, meet in large gatherings at parks for Community Day events, or in some cases even leave their houses if a rare Pokémon spawned a block away. People were confined to their homes, and the augmented world of Pokémon Go beyond their walls became out of reach for most people.
Niantic was forced to adapt. Throughout 2020 and 2021, a swath of new features and gameplay tweaks were introduced to adjust for the fact that people simply could no longer go outside to play. The distance required to hatch eggs was reduced. Incense items lasted longer and spawned Pokémon at your location more frequently. Buddy Pokémon would bring you gifts to help restock your item supply. The biggest changes made were doubling the interaction radius for your in-game avatar, and the introduction of Remote Raid Passes allowing you to join a raid boss battle from anywhere in the world with an invitation. But through all of these, the game slowly turned into something that the developers never intended it to be.
Most of these changes were intended to be temporary, and it’s unlikely many people back in early 2020 could have predicted how long the challenges faced by this pandemic would linger. As it stands, though, we are now two years into a six-year-old game with a raft of features that now feel as good as permanent fixtures. We are beginning to see that Niantic is steadily attempting to return the game to the status quo set before 2020. They have conveyed a desire to see communities reform, more large-scale gatherings amassing and a return to face-to-face interactions. It’s a sentiment echoed in their recent decision to change the running time of their monthly Community Day events back to three hours instead of the six hours we have become accustomed to over the last two years. They desire to have more of the community out and about gathering at the same time at prominent locations.
Whether you view this as an attempt to realign the game experience with their mission statement or a more cynical, financial driven view, Niantic seems determined to push ahead with unwinding the pandemic-induced changes to change how people play the game. Early signs indicate they should expect substantial pushback from players. We saw it first with the interaction radius, where the announcement to revert it to its original distance was met with a collective retaliatory response from the entire Pokémon Go community. So strong was this united response that it eventually caused Niantic to back down and leave things as they were.
We’re seeing it again with the change back to three-hour Community Day events, the reversal of incense effectiveness, where spawns now only appear once every five minutes if you’re not moving as opposed to every minute. A quick look at any social media announcements from the official Pokémon Go accounts will show plenty of comments with similar disdain from players about this change. Still, Niantic seems to be holding its ground.
The most difficult balancing act remains in front of them as they try to reckon with the precarious situation that has been created from the introduction of Remote Raid Passes. As Niantic continue to hark on about the importance of community and re-establishing player interaction as a reason for the rollback of a host of other changes, they’ve been trying to use every other approach first. But try as they might, six-hour community days are not the reason for lower community engagement and the wilting of Pokémon Go player groups. An 80-metre interaction radius instead of a 40-metre interaction radius wasn’t the reason, and more Pokémon spawning from incense while sitting on your couch wasn’t it either. It has always been Remote Raid Passes.
If you’ve been involved in a local Pokémon Go group yourself, I have no doubt you’ve experienced this firsthand. Before Remote Raids were a thing, it was not uncommon to head towards a raid boss and encounter another group of players already there. You may have then joined a Facebook or WhatsApp group and then regularly coordinated raid times and locations with people in the group.
This happened to me. I joined my local raid group and met dozens of wonderful people from all walks of life over several years. We became a tight-knit community through a shared love of the game. We formed friendships, shared significant life events, had regular community gatherings, and would enjoy catching up when we happened to visit a raid together. Heck, we even had in-group bickering, fighting and drama, but that just made it feel like even more of an unorthodox family. It was a point in time when playing Pokémon Go transcended the screen and became more than just a game. I’m sure countless people had enjoyed similar experiences since raids were introduced to the game before COVID-19 brought it to a halt.
Despite how formative the above experiences were for me, I will be the first to admit that once Remote Raids were introduced, I largely fell away from that group, as did many others. Sure, raids were still organised through our Facebook Messenger group, but it was more common for people to send remote invites to one another, and that was with us living in one of the parts of the world least impacted by COVID-19 throughout 2020 and 2021. That sense of community and camaraderie all but vanished. There’s an adage in game development that players will optimise the fun out of a game, which feels apt here. My local community meant so much to me. Still, given a choice to jump into raids remotely from my couch, my office desk, or even by one of the various apps that facilitated group raids, I took the convenience every time, sense of community be damned.
Niantic wants to change player behaviour to get more people talking, gathering, and enjoying the game together as a group. Maybe it’s because that’s the experience they want to have. Perhaps it’s because that creates more engaged players who will spend money. Whichever way you slice it, it is their goal, and it’s clear that remote raids impede that. So, the question becomes – can Niantic possibly navigate the minefield that is restoring this community-driven gameplay with Remote Raids remaining the essential part of the Pokémon Go experience that they are today?
They’re certainly going to try. In the last week, we’ve seen the removal of a remote raid pass from the weekly 1-Pokécoin box, as well as the 3-remote raid pass bundle going from 250 coins to 300 coins, essentially removing any discount from the bundle. The first announcement of the remote raid pass back in April 2020 did say the 100 Pokécoin cost was a discount, so maybe this change is in preparation for that. Regardless of how you want to spin it, the backlash from the player base has unsurprisingly been equal parts swift and fierce. Any changes were always going to be met with resistance, and Niantic are undoubtedly making changes slowly to test the waters as they go.
From the beginning, Niantic indicated that remote raids would be a permanent addition, with the warning of an eventual change to remote players doing reduced damage to raid bosses. With that said, throughout the pandemic, and to this day, that reduced damage handicap has never been implemented. Maybe this is where they feel they can strike the right balance. Players can invite five other players to join them remotely, and with a team of six trainers armed with half-decent attackers, they could take down any raid boss except the new Mega Legendary raids. We may see damage output reduced to the point that this isn’t possible anymore, forcing at least some people to get down to a raid location physically.
One lesson that Niantic needs to take away from this is that carrots work better than sticks when attempting to change behaviour. To their credit, they have been trying things along this path. Recently we’ve had a weekend event introducing shiny Cottonee to the game with an increased number of spawns in parks in an attempt to coax trainers out to their local parks to play and officially endorsed community meetups at certain locations with extra bonuses. Even though the increase in numbers wasn’t nearly enough to warrant the pageantry, it at least showed a willingness to offer something to compel people to play outside, rather than taking things away as punishment for staying in. They’ve already introduced the ability to earn Mega Energy and Rare Candy XL for completing raids in person (even if they have bizarrely reduced the amount of standard rare candy), but they could sweeten the deal further by adding a rewards multiplier that increases for every trainer locally, or even bring back the forgotten EX-Raids.
Niantic needs to approach this issue with care. After the backlash from the attempted interaction radius reversal, the nerfing of incense effectiveness, a lack of new features and a tepid reception to their last major event, the goodwill they have accumulated over the years is precariously poised. A desire to reignite player engagement and a sense of community is a worthwhile goal, and recent announcements of a dedicated app to facilitate in-game communications is an important step. Still, they need to ensure they do it in a way that improves the player experience, rather than punishing players for not abiding by the developer’s preferred playbook. Niantic undoubtedly has people working on these issues smarter than me, but it is proving to be the thinnest of tightropes to navigate.