Pokémon GO First Anniversary: How the Record Breaking Game Now Aims to Bring You Back
Psst kid, do you remember Pokémon GO? Of course you do. Pokémon GO was the much anticipated game from once-Google’s Niantic Labs (which then went on to become an independent entity called Niantic Inc.). The game merged the concept of its spiritual predecessor Ingress with the strong branding of the Pokémon franchise to give us a gaming phenomenon the world had never witnessed before.
Pokémon GO’s official launch on 6th July 2016 began with the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Soon after, fans of the Pokémon franchise thronged the streets in large numbers, flicking their fingers across their phone screens to catch virtual pocket monsters. It was a sweet sight to behold for the most part, as one could see people walking and exploring new parts of their neighborhood in hopes of catching them all. The new game captured the minds of kids and adults alike, filling the former with awe and the latter with nostalgia.
At its peak, entire parks and neighbourhoods were filled with players who ran around looking down on their phones. The kind of crowds that Ingress attracted during its major events in big cities, are ones Pokémon GO one-upped on simple sightings of Pikachus and Dratinis. In about 7 months of its release, Pokémon GO reportedly surpassed a whooping $1 Billion in revenue!
But for Niantic, GO’s launch also brought with it issues that the company could not anticipate. The sheer popularity of the game meant that early days of the game were frequently wrought with server issues. The regional availability of the game and the slow pace of rollout meant that those who could not experience the game firsthand grew restless with every passing day. It wasn’t even until mid December that India, an important Ingress location, was officially included in the playable areas, and Niantic had even gone ahead to regionally lock parts of the country so that the map simply would not load.
The Pokémon GO hype was real, but interest in the game was dwindling quick. Niantic’s slow pace of development on the game (possibly because of their own apathy), their lack of communication, the limited nature of GO’s gameplay and the long list of bugs and server issues meant that players were getting more and more frustrated by the day. With the increase in attention, some players also began cheating tactics such as spoofing and botting, which ironically also defeated the whole point of the game. The crowds gradually thinned out once they realised the unfinished nature of the biggest game of 2016. The loyalists who stayed back only managed to hang around until the botters and spoofers made the game virtually unplayable by stacking gyms with a long line of maxed out Dragonites.
In an attempt to fight back the spoofers, botters and other cheaters, Niantic (slowly) adopted measures to make it more difficult for such persons to enter into the game. Except they didn’t, as the update that utilized SafetyNet checks only pushed back the loyalists carried over from the Ingress era. Cheating was made difficult, but not impossible; while genuine (rooted) players who wanted to continue playing had to jump through many more hoops to enter into the game. Many, like me, simply gave up because the game was quite literally unplayable, no reference-to-gaming-culture intended.
Present State of Pokémon GO
On 6th July 2017, Pokémon GO celebrated its first anniversary. A blog post from Niantic claims that to this day, players have caught over 125 Billion of these virtual creatures. It was only fair to revisit the state of this blockbuster game, if only to see if things have improved.
And to my surprise, they did.
In February 2017, Pokémon GO added new Pokémon into the game. While this did not fix many of the issues the game had, it did add 90+ of these virtual critters into the game. With the expansion of spawn points and increases in spawn rates to supplement these additions, the game and its grind to the maximum level 40 became much more bearable. Completionists may have cursed the update initially, but everyone generally liked the added graphical variety to the game even if its core mechanics remained unchanged. The update marginally brought back player interest as many hoped to get a taste of these new mons.
But the state of cheating, and the intended gameplay mechanics in place meant that this positive update would soon be drowned out by high level players hogging gyms with complete lineup of maxed out Blisseys and Tyranitars. The base stats of these Pokémon (with Blissey being a super-tank, one that was difficult to kill in the allotted time) meant that casuals who returned to the game had no hope of contesting gym locations, crossing out the (arguably) “competitive” half of the limited game.
Niantic’s (late) answer to this came in the form of a gym revamp announced last month which temporarily disabled gym functionality in its entirety. Rightfully dubbed the biggest update to PoGo, the subsequent update brought a much needed change to how Gym locations worked. Gyms now also doubled up as PokéStops, making it easier and quicker for users to collect in-game items that were vital to gameplay. The older ‘prestige’ system of Gym levelling which allowed for tap-tap-tap training and lining up of upto 10 maxed out tanks was done away with entirely. The new Gym system now utilizes six permanent slots that can be filled by any passing player of the controlling faction without needing to waste time and ‘prestige’ up the gym. Further, the Pokémon that could be added must be unique, meaning that one gym could only have one Blissey assigned to it. This drastically altered the difficulty levels for a casual player intending to compete for a gym as they now have a much better chance at capturing gyms.
The update also added a ‘motivation’ system, which mimics Ingress’s decay mechanics. In Ingress, portals controlled by a faction gradually lose health over a week, until they become neutral and open to even a beginner unless the controlling faction remembers to keep the portal recharged. In current Pokémon GO, Pokémon assigned to a Gym lose motivation when they lose battles as well as over time, causing a decrease in their CP (Combat Power) and making them easier to defeat. There is a recharge mechanic in place, but unlike Ingress, one always needs to visit the Gym location to recharge it.
Both of these changes combined now make it many factors easier to combat and control a Gym. Gym control was the only way of collecting in-game currency for ‘free’, and botters and spoofers would otherwise boss over and stagnate a gym and maintain a steady income to exploit for further dominance. So far as I can experience now, casual players have a decent likelihood of attacking and capturing a gym and getting some of that currency, all by their own. Gyms control is now a more temporary aspect of the game, one that can be enjoyed by a team of 6 veterans or a single casual player alike.
Since the Gym update eased the process of obtaining in-game currency and decreased the cooperative aspect of Gym control, Raid battles were incorporated to balance these out, while also providing an opportunity to catch rare and strong Pokémon.
Gym locations now randomly invoke a Raid Boss, an extremely powerful and often prized Pokémon. Players are given one free Raid Pass to use per day, and this Raid Pass is needed to battle against the Boss. Players can hold only one raid pass, so Niantic had the opportunity to create a premium in-game item that players could purchase if they needed more. Since Raid Bosses can often have very high CP, up to 20 players can join in to battle the Boss together within the three-minute time limit of the battle. If successfully defeated, you get the opportunity to catch an extra powerful Pokémon of your own.
Raid mechanics have drawn their own mixed opinions from the PoGo players that I physically met while working on this article. Many commented that there are not enough players around at a time, while others mentioned that being restricted to one raid pass per day was a tough limit especially since you could not always defeat the boss. While fair points on their own, the very fact that I could see some players around, still playing the game pointed towards Niantic finally managing to fix a long broken aspect of Pokémon GO.
Ingress Operation Portal Recon
This particular change does not directly affect Pokémon GO, but it does lay the groundwork of the portal network in Ingress — the same portals that Niantic used to populate Pokémon GO’s Gyms and PokéStops.
When Pokémon GO launched, it was not possible to submit new locations to be accepted as Gyms or PokéStops, as Ingress itself closed down the ability to submit new locations as portals. This was because of a huge backlog of player submissions that Niantic found itself unable to deal with, and it would have only grown exponentially had the same been allowed in Pokémon GO at launch. This meant that rural Ingress and Pokémon GO players had to live with fewer play areas mainly because no prior player had been able to submit locations before they were closed down.
Niantic’s solution to deal with the backlog in Ingress was to create a community-reliant solution called “Operation Portal Recon” that rated potential portals on a 5-star scale on various factors. Scores from individuals were then pooled in to determine if the portal was a good candidate or not. This harnessed the power of the community in Ingress to create quality portals on their own, without needing manual intervention or inspection from Niantic. Such a model could scale as far as the community could provide volunteers, and that was something that Ingress had no scarcity of.
Initially, access to Portal Recon was only granted to level 16 Ingressors, the highest level achievable in the game. But over the course of months, this has been expanded to players as low as level 12. More than one-third of the total Portal backlog has been cleared by OPR, which means a lot of new playable locations have been activated in both Ingress and Pokémon GO. There is hope that portal submissions would reopen soon, a potential good news for players for both the games.
Cheating and Android Security Updates
The Gym rework to Pokémon GO also highlighted improvements in another sore point of the game — cheaters. After observing Gyms for a week, I could notice a drop in the high level Pokémon assigned to a Gym by variations of the same player. The frequency with which Gyms changed hands also allowed low level players to assign their Pokémon, something that could not have happened if scripted bots were as heavily prevalent as they were back when I “quit”.
It was difficult to put a finger on what changed exactly, mainly due to Niantic’s tendency to remain opaque in their dealings. But a few popular cheating apps pointed to a change rolled out in the March 2017 security patch that fixed the ‘Mock Locations’ loophole that spoofing apps frequently exploited on Android.
This adds on another step for cheaters if they wish to continue cheating. Most cheating apps have stopped working, and those that do require their app to be moved to /system, which in turn requires root. But since Pokémon GO uses SafetyNet checks to start up, a cheater would also need to unroot after moving the app to system. Success stories in comments sections indicate that this method gives rise to ‘rubber banding’ issues where the player keeps alternating between actual device location and spoofed location, thereby limiting how effectively one could spoof.
Ironically, Pokémon GO’s insistence on SafetyNet also dissuaded me for a bit, mainly due to the fact I like to keep my phone rooted for multiple reasons, none of them involving GO. I had to jump through hoops and install Magisk on my device to have the best of both worlds, despite having no intentions of cheating in the game. SafetyNet implementation ends up feeling like a necessary evil, for a while it did make it difficult to cheat, it also places an entry barrier for genuine but rooted users.
Pokémon GO Fests, Pokémon GO Safari Zone Events and Legendary Pokémon
Recently Niantic also announced their upcoming Pokémon GO events. The Pokémon GO Fest Chicago event sounds similar to Ingress’s Anomaly events at primary locations, whereby players converge to achieve objectives, but the Fest has a few twists of its own. Those attending the Chicago event achieve a different set of objectives and unlock rewards for players across the world, while players across the world will participate by catching as many Pokémon within the Challenge window to extend the duration of the bonus.
Niantic has shared very few details, but mentions it even goes beyond that. If players around the world catch enough Pokémon, a mystery challenge would be unlocked for the Chicago Fest attendees. If the attendees manage to complete this challenge, an “extra-special” bonus will be unlocked across the globe.
The blog post does not outright mention the unveiling of legendary Pokémon, but there is good reason to believe this will be when Pokémon GO receives its first Legendary Pokémon. As spotted on /r/TheSilphRoad, a banner in the Indian iOS App Store mentions GO’s first legendary Pokémon coming in an update.
Legendary Pokémon have been long awaited in Pokémon GO, with many scammy and dishonest YouTubers making quick buck with clickbait headlines on the subject. But the timing and Niantic’s wording on the announcement seem just right for Legendary Pokémon to make an appearance. The cooperative play involved currently in Raid Boss battles is eerily similar to the Mewtwo fight sequence in the original Pokémon GO teaser trailer., which leads us to believe that the Chicago event might just be it.
Niantic and The Pokémon Company are holding more events across Europe and Japan during August and September, but these appear to be on a smaller scale. Nonetheless, the community aspect of Pokémon GO is what makes it an excellent game, so having community-focused events is the right way to go about in promoting it.
At the end of the day, it is difficult to deny that Pokémon GO was not a massive success. Because it certainly was, and perhaps even beyond the expectations of Niantic and Google. A rudimentary association with the Pokémon franchise clubbed with a glorified Paper Toss game mechanic gave us one of the most popular and socially impactful mobile games of 2016. Despite all of its shortcomings at the time of launch, the game did see attract large crowds.
Which brings us to the current state of the game. Pokémon GO is in a much better position today than it was even two months ago. Several of the changes that Niantic put into place are converging together to give Pokémon GO a chance at a sustained audience. Issues like the broken Pokémon tracker have long been fixed and rolled out, and other major sore points also find some improvements. Raid Battles and upcoming events are trying to bring back the community into the game, and the announcement of Legendary Pokémon might just provide the requisite catalyst.
The game is still not perfect — far from it. The AR aspect of the game continues to remain under-utilized and there’s no indication if this will be expanded on further. Minor issues still exist, like the game forcing the device media volume to be lowered when it starts up, which is frustrating considering this has been an issue since day one. The game has seen a few QoL fixes (and some minor text fixes), but there’s still a long way to go.
There is no doubt that Pokémon GO reached its peak popularity a long time ago. We’d like to think that the Beta nature of the game at release greatly hindered its acceptance rate. Had Niantic delivered a much more polished product, it would have been difficult to get the scores of people unhooked from this cultural phenomenon. Who knows how the public would have reacted with less cheaters, more content, fair gameplay opportunities, a working tracker and lesser server outages? But that time is past, and all we can do is remain hopeful for the future.
What are your thoughts on the current state of Pokémon GO? How do you think the game should have evolved? Let us know in the comments below!