Pokemon Go: A Retrospective

One year and two days ago, Pokemon Go reinvented the mobile gaming landscape and reignited a craze that has gone on for over two decades. But in the wake of early crashes and frenzied, frustrated players, how far has the game come, and how much further must it go not only to satisfy its fans but also to survive?

In this retrospective, we will confront the major problems still blighting players and lay forth some suggestions for how Nintendo and Niantic can overcame these ails. In particular, we will focus on three themes: player engagement through playing together, the updated Gym system and the game’s multiple currencies, and the inequality perpetuated by the game mechanics themselves.

So join me on this adventure and get ready to Go.

Playing Together

It was one year ago today when I sat around a lunch table during my summer training with Teach for America in Houston, Texas, envious of all my friends who had already begun playing Pokemon Go–a game I had desperately awaited but mistakenly believed I could not play because I didn’t have the latest iPhone. My eagerness got the best of me and I decided I’d try to download it anyways–and it’s good that I did, or else I might have never realized my own mistake.

So there I was, catching my first Pokemon (naturally, a Squirtle) on the lunch table.

These were still the days when the servers would crash almost hourly and I had a page bookmarked on my phone that would tell me if the servers were online, unsteady, or offline entirely. This helped temper the frustration a little, at least.

Between the technical difficulties that plagued the game’s launch, I can fondly recall chatting with friends about the latest Pokemon we had caught, comparing our Pokedexes, pointing out the best places to catch certain Pokemon or heading out together when rumors began of this Charizard or that Eevee appearing someplace. I remember multiple times, walking around the Rice University campus in the evening after teaching in the morning and professional development in the afternoon, stopping around random groups of people, all with their phones out, playing together. And maybe I didn’t make any new friends from those encounters, but there was still communal bonding to be had.

In fact, for a while, I said on dating apps that people should message me “if they wanted to go hunting for Pokemon together.” Case in point: the first date I had with my last boyfriend was a walk through Milwaukee’s Lake Park, catching Pokemon together.

Today, however, most of those friends no longer play Pokemon Go. They had gotten caught up in the fad of it, but frustrating gameplay and fewer play options made them lose interest and give up on it. Sure, longtime players and diehard Pokemon fans are unlikely to give it up any time soon, but if there were a way to bring new gamers into the fold, perhaps even reach those gamers who have left, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Take for a moment Magikarp Jump, the inane, fail-proof game that features all of the positive reinforcement and none of the challenge of a genuine gaming experience. Literally, all you do is tap the screen, and the game does the rest. And yet, for those too many people who play it, they can’t put it down–and they’ll let you know about it.

Magikarp Jump’s list of achievements include social media shares, and at nearly every turn in the game, you have the option to share your accomplishments via Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media platform you’d like. And you get rewarded for it.

I’m usually not much one to share things incessantly, but man, I want those prizes. I want that little star that says I accomplished something. So if you’ve been following me on Twitter lately, you’ve probably seen just how much I’ve shared playing Magikarp Jump.

But except for occasional posts on Facebook about playing Pokemon Go or those times I take screenshots and share them on Instagram, I never share my gameplay at all.

And hasn’t Pokemon always been about playing together, not just playing alone?

If by now you gotten an idea for the richness communal playing has already added to the game, coupled with the troves of players who stopped playing and made this game an individual activity for many gamers, you know exactly why social media engagement is necessary. The new Gym system just barely scratches this itch, but it’s not enough.

Nintendo and Niantic need to take a page from Magikarp Jump’s book and give Pokemon Go full social media integration. You just caught a new Pokemon? Share it. You just defeated a Gym? Share it. Your Pokemon defended a Gym for sixteen hours? Share it. You’ve visited your hundredth PokeStop and earned a medal? Share it.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

This would also be a free way to inform non-players, or better, inactive players, about updates, special events, and when new Pokemon are added to the roster. These little morsels, especially en masse, could help bring back those players.

But why stop there? You remember those times when you started a new email account or joined some social app and it asked you if you wanted to search MySpace or Facebook for friends who already use it? Pokemon Go should do the same thing–I should be able to log into Facebook, connect the app, and instantly know which of my friends are playing, what their strongest Pokemon is, how many medals they have (because maybe I have more than them), and perhaps more importantly, which Teams they’re playing on.

This would require Niantic to introduce an entirely new dimension to the game that has so far gone unseen: friend groups. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to connect with my friends directly through Pokemon Go. Think of the utility of being able to see which of my friends are online and then message them about joining up for a Gym Raid?

Just the other day, this almost happened: There was a Tyranitar attacking a nearby church, and as I was walking to get groceries, my friends saw me as they drove by. They called me up, asked if I’d seen the Tyranitar, and then invited me to help take it down. We failed miserably, but the experience was exciting and just the social component that has been lacking in the game for far too long already.

Of course, to get people sharing, it wouldn’t hurt to incentive it (as they do in Magikarp Jump), so one must ask, what sort of prize should players receive for plastering their playing all across the internet? To answer that question, we’ll need to delve into our next topic of discussion. So sit back, relax, and hit the Gym.

Pokemon Gyms and In-Game Currency

Up until Pokemon Sun and Moon were released, Pokemon Gyms were a staple of every main-series Pokemon game: You’d travel the land, collecting and training Pokemon on your mission to become the very best, the best there ever was, and to do so you’d have to beat the Elite Four. But in order to gain entry to battle them, you had to prove your worth by collecting eight Gym badges held by Gym leaders scattered across the land.

In Pokemon Go, the gyms worked a bit differently when the game was launched. You could place a Pokemon in a Gym and claim it for your Team. Then you could train at the Gym to increase its prestige, earning experience as you went along and increasing the Gym’s level, so more and more Pokemon could defend it (up to a total of ten). And if the Gym already belong to another Team, you could battle it, decreasing its prestige–and when that prestige hit zero, the Team was booted out and the Gym became yours.

Except they didn’t quite function like this. Instead very strong players would fill up the Gyms, locking out other players from both taking them down and training because the Pokemon inside were simply too overpowered. The Gyms became fun for the elites, and most other users simply stopped engaging with them. Sure, there were occasions when Gyms would shift hands and the average player could sneak a ‘mon in for a few minutes, but these moment were few and far between–even after Niantic tried to remedy some of these problems by playing around with prestige levels and the strength of Pokemon.

But why, exactly, would you care to keep Pokemon in the Gym at all?

For the cash, of course.

There are approximately three currencies in Pokemon Go: PokeCoins, which can be purchased through the app store and used to buy items that enhance or ease the experience; Stardust, which is used to power up Pokemon; and candy, which is also used to power up Pokemon, but more importantly, to evolve them.

When you held a Pokemon in a Gym, you could earn 10 PokeCoins and 500 Stardust a day. And those elite players who held the Gyms for weeks at a time were rolling in it.

Clearly, the system was broken, and Niantic reinvented the system to fix it.

Less than a month ago, Gyms were revamped entirely. Gone were the days of prestige, ten Pokemon towers, unending Team monarchies, and collecting daily prizes.

Now Gyms are restricted to only six Pokemon and each must be a unique species (fixing the flaw from before in which a single Gym would house ten Dragonite, for example). Pokemon also have a motivation meter that shows their will to fight: should their motivation be reduced to zero, the Pokemon leaves the Gym, but friendly Team members can also feed the Pokemon berries to restore their motivation. Taken together, these mechanics empower Pokemon Trainers of a much broader ability range to take on even the strongest Gyms–because even if you only defeat one Pokemon, that Pokemon’s motivation will decrease and it’ll be easier for you to beat the next time it’s battled.

In my opinion, this change alone has brought new life to Pokemon Go, fixing the broken system and opening it up for more players and more frequent playing. Now you have to work to defend Gyms, rather than passively leaving your strongest ‘mon there for weeks.

Niantic, however, took it one step further and introduced Raid Battles. These are special events in which a stronger-than-usual Pokemon overtakes a Gym and Trainers must come together to take it down (and earn prizes, like rare items only obtainable from Raids, lots of experience points, and a chance to catch the rare Pokemon). There are five Raid levels, and while certain Level 1 and Level 2 Pokemon can be taken down by a single Trainer, that Tyranitar I mentioned earlier still easily defeated four of us.

Needless to say, Raid Battles add another dimension to gameplay that also forces players to play cooperatively (even if they’re on opposing Teams). Both features were needed.

Unfortunately, despite these changes, in-game currencies are still challenging to obtain, unless you decide to invest real money into the experience. Granted, that is a key way the game makes money and continues to exist, but as I’ll get to that later, it’s problematic.

In particular, recall those daily Gym prizes. Now you earn one PokeCoin for every ten minutes of time defending a Gym. Except I recently had a Pokemon defending a Gym for around ten hours, but instead of the 60 PokeCoins I should have received, I got 50, the maximum you can receive in a single day. Moments later, a Pokemon that had been defending a Gym for over two days was knocked out–and I got nothing. In principle, Blastoise had earned over 300 PokeCoins, but because I had already met my maximum for the day, Blastoise walked away without any recognition. Rather than this prize cap encouraging players to actively work to maintain their Gym placements, it incentivizes taking down Gyms after a few hours, then putting your Pokemon back in again to get more coins the next day. I understand the need to limit the access of PokeCoins in-game to encourage purchasing them from the app store, but a cap like this will work against the system. Fine, cap PokeCoin rewards at 50 a day, but then start awarding Trainers Stardust for the additional time their Pokemon spend defending each Gym.

After all, Stardust is the scarcest resource in Pokemon Go, and a lack of Stardust effectively locks you out of competitive play in any of the Pokemon Gyms.

Further, fighting a Gym no longer gives players experience points–well, they do, but rather than these points going toward their Trainer level, it goes toward their Gym badge level, and leveling up Gym badges gives you more rewards when you check in a Gym, since they now also function as PokeStops (where you get items like PokeBalls, Potions, and berries, as well as a small amount of experience). This, by itself, is not a bad thing–in fact, it’s a great thing that encourages you to really work to level up those Gym badges. They have four ranks (colorless, bronze, silver, and gold), and I’ve yet to meet a single person who’s gotten a gold Gym badge yet–and that’s actually exciting.

But when you defeat all the Pokemon in a Gym now, without actually knocking them out by eliminating their motivation, you get no special recognition. That’s a shame. It takes time and effort to beat the Pokemon in a Gym, and players should be rewarded for doing this. Maybe Gyms can give Trainer experience when you beat all the Pokemon, or maybe they can give you an amount of Stardust, such as 100 Stardust for every Pokemon you took down. This would incentive playing with Gyms even more, and make battling Gyms feel worthwhile even if you aren’t a particularly strong player. I’ve been playing for a year and I still can’t take down some of the stronger Pokemon; I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to play Pokemon Go as a new player all the way at Level 1.

The Training feature was also removed from the Gym system, since now friendly Team members can feed the Pokemon berries. However, this is unfortunate, because now all players will have a greyed-out medal that they can never achieve: Training at Gyms.

I feel Niantic should bring back this feature, not only so people can continue training at Gyms to earn the medal for training in Gyms, but also because it would be a way to help players obtain that valuable Stardust that can’t be purchased like PokeCoins. Why just gain 100 Stardust for each Pokemon you defeat from opposing Teams? With training, you could also earn 100 Stardust for each Pokemon you take down and the use it to power up your Pokemon–because last time I checked, that’s exactly what “training” is.

If Niantic feels there’s some reason why players shouldn’t be able to train to earn any amount of Stardust, they could easily cap this amount just like they’ve capped the number of Raid Battles someone can participate in without spending real cash. They’ve done this by requiring a Raid Pass to enter Raid Battles; players get one Raid Pass a day and can only hold one at a time. If they use up their Raid Pass allotment for the day, they have to purchase Premium Raid Passes to enter additional Raid Battles. Training Passes could work the same way, not only preventing players from farming infinite amounts of Stardust (whose scarcity makes deciding which Pokemon to invest in a strategic decision) but also giving players yet another reason to invest real cash into their experience.

And back on the topic of real cash, there’s one last thing we need to address.

The Perpetuation of Inequity

When I was younger, Pokemon didn’t care if I had money or not. I mean, sure, I had to at least be able to buy the game to play it, but once I had it, I was on an equal playing field with all my friends–no matter whose affluence outshone anyone else’s. Sure, some friends were able to afford both versions, and the third version, of the games that came out and so had an easier time completing their Pokedexes and getting all the legendary Pokemon, but with even just the one version I had, I could still catch awesome Pokemon, train an amazing team, and have fun with all my other Pokemon-loving friends.

Pokemon Go changes that.

Before I dig deeper into this injustice, I want to clarify the fact that you don’t need to pay any money to play Pokemon Go–and that’s amazing. Niantic and Nintendo could have very easily put a cover charge on the game, requiring cash just to download it in the first place, but they created an experience that is (on the surface) open to anyone, no matter how much money they can or can’t invest in the game.

But even if Niantic hadn’t built a free-to-play game, injustice would still exist.

The biggest problem I have with Pokemon Go is that it treats players differently solely based on where they live–based on data that correlates too closely along the socioeconomic lines of the Pokemon fans themselves.

Let me give you a personal example.

Where my family lives in North Carolina is a mid-sized town, not nearly rural but hardly urban either. There are a few PokeStops (which are essential for playing, unless you toss in real cash) scattered about at sponsored locations, and then a small handful in our very small downtown. You could quite easily visit all of them in under fifteen minutes walking. The best places to catch Pokemon are at gas stations and Walmart–I haven’t figured out why this is the case, but trust me, it’s true. The little monsters appear there in droves, and it’s one of the few places you can find Pokemon other than the only-important-for-experience-points Pokemon like Pidgey, Ratata, and Sentret.

Now compare Asheboro to where I live on the south side of Milwaukee. I literally have a PokeStop across the street from my house that I can access in my apartment. I can spin it all day long, stocking up on any of the items I need and occasionally catching Pokemon while I’m at it. I live in walking distance of no fewer than five Gyms, and probably more if I were up to walking further. There are also at least a dozen PokeStops near me, and I’m close to a number of parks that have even more. While I see my abundant share of Pidgey, Ratata, and Sentret, I also frequently encounter Pokemon like Marrill, Murkrow, and Magnemite (alliteration unintended), as well as Natu, Drowzee, and Jigglypuff.

Now, lastly, let me compare this to downtown Milwaukee and the East Side–the most affluent areas of the city. Not only do PokeStops abound, sometimes four on a single corner, due to a mixture of prevalent landmarks and paid-for locations at well-known restaurants, there are also many more Gyms closely packed together. What’s worse is what’s next: The Pokemon that appear in these areas are significantly rarer than those appearing elsewhere, and it’s not uncommon to encounter any number of Jinx, Dratini, Machop, Geodude, Vulpix, Growlithe, Abra, and on and on. Remember that date I went on at Lake Park? Sure, the park’s beautiful with a great view of Lake Michigan, but we hadn’t gone for the view; we’d gone for the PokeStops and rare Pokemon.

Players living in each of these locations have equal opportunity to invest cash into their games for items like Egg Incubators to hatch Pokemon or Premium Raid Passes to participate in additional Raid Battles–but these players do not have equal access to the utility of these items. There are some rural players who don’t live close enough to PokeStops or Gyms to ever receive Pokemon Eggs or be able to take on a Raid Battle.

I am certain that Niantic hasn’t intentionally created this inequality, especially regarding the placement of Pokemon Gyms and PokeStops, which I believe are generated algorithmically based upon Google Maps data, supporting the fact that more affluent areas with more landmarks would be more heavily populated than less affluent area.

However, that alone shouldn’t perpetuate a system in which different players have different access to Pokemon. If we were discussing main-series games on the Game Boy, players in any location, of any socioeconomic class, would have access to all the same creatures in all the same places–but in Pokemon Go, this simply is not the case.

One might argue that this is how Pokemon would be distributed if we actually lived in the Pokemon world, but that argument wouldn’t sway anyone because if that were the case, that Pokemon appear here like they would in the Pokemon world, there’s no way that I’d be able to catch a Horsea–a fully aquatic animal–in the middle of the street.

Unfortunately, despite all the ideas I have for how Niantic can remedy the other problems facing Pokemon Go, I’m out of ideas on this one. It just doesn’t seem fair that the game itself can be either exciting or not even playable just because of where you live, and to me, that breaks down the equal playing field Pokemon always created among me and my friends. Our net worth never mattered then, and it shouldn’t matter now.

I enjoy playing Pokemon Go, and I look forward to another year of growth for the app–but that growth must exist, or this app will fade away, even for Pokemon fans like me.

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