Pokémon GO, Ingress and Niantic: A Tale of Developer Apathy Ruining Massive Potential
In early July 2016, the world witnessed a phenomenon that left a lot of people flabbergasted. While the world’s populace was ordinarily engrossed in their smartphones with their heads bent down, a significant part of the human race inched towards a territory they had forgotten existed — The Outdoor World.
What started off as a curious side-addition to childhood lore quickly changed routines of Internet denizens as more and more people tried to venture out into the open to catch mythical creatures that reminded them of the joys of being a kid all over again.
Yes, we are talking about Pokémon GO. Even if you were living under a rock this past month, you likely bumped into someone, adult or child alike, wandering around playing this viral game and looking for Pokémon. We don’t need to tell you how the game works — chances are, YOU have already told someone how it does yourself. The game opened up to massive demand and success when it became publicly available in the USA. So much was the demand that people outside of the released regions went on to sideload the game on Android and iOS alike, causing frequent server outages and login and loading issues, so many that the game became filled with frustration for a little while.
But even with all of these issues that pushed people away from playing the game at the most basic level, they still did. Entire communities spawned off Pokémon GO in a matter of days. Pokéwalks were being organized locally (even though the servers barely worked), businesses started to take advantage of the playerbase that was now roaming around outdoors and congregating at Pokéstops and Gyms. T-Mobile even went out to offer free data for the Pokémon GO app — a move that would have otherwise pulled people up in arms with this blatant violation of Net Neutrality. But no one batted an eye, because at the end of the day, you gotta catch ’em all and free data made that part easier.
The 3 Step Bug
As the game started expanding to more and more regions, the developers of the game, Niantic Labs, worked towards fixing the supply gap created by the overwhelming demand. Little by little, hour after hour, the game servers grew more stable and were able to hold all online players and not crash as soon as the USA woke up. Within this server strengthening process, Niantic had to compromise with one of the core aspects of the game to ensure that people could at least log on (and stay on). This functionality was popularly called the “3 pawprint” or the “3 footsteps” Pokémon locator, as the in-game UI gave you hints on what Pokémon were near you, and how far approximately they were from your reported location.
Niantic Labs hadn’t released any official details or numbers on the exact workings of this feature, but the playerbase had figured out the mechanics by trial and error. The three footsteps displayed under the Pokémon went down in number as you physically approached the spawn location for the Pokémon – when the footprints went down to zero, the Pokémon would appear on your phone screen. Given enough time, players could triangulate location of their favorite critters and have a chance to capture them. This particular feature was/is crucial to the core aspect of the game, that of exploring your surroundings while “hunting” Pokémon. So when Niantic had to disable the functionality from the server end and essentially cause the client game to bug out and always display a constant 3-steps to every Pokémon, players all over groaned and moaned but accepted the decision nonetheless. After all, it meant that they could at least log on to the game and experience first hand what the fuss was all about.
Then the servers stabilized. Outages became rarer than Dratini in my city, and people just began having a merry good time. The game itself lacked depth, but the love of Pokémon and the social aspect of the game kept their pull on the people. Most harbored hopes that in the near future, the game would fix what is broken and all would continue on the path of progress and development. Alas, the vast majority of the playerbase did not know (or care) that the developer of this game was Niantic Labs, whose only other game development continues to be furiously anti-developer and borderline anti-player.
Why do I say this? Let’s back up a few years to see what happened with Ingress, and then we’ll tie it in with the current situation of Pokémon. For any Ingress Beta players, the current Pokémon situation would be a massive feeling of Déjà-vu and I predict you’ll come to agree with us.
Ingress and Third-Party Development
Back in late 2012 when Ingress was released, the scenario in Ingress resembled that of Pokémon GO very closely, albeit different in scope. Ingress was in its infancy — the app crashed often, there were more bugs than players and server outages also occurred fairly frequently. One needed an invite to join the game, and the invites were primarily being distributed through Google+ (as Niantic started off as a part of Google before becoming an Alphabet subsidiary). The Beta nature of the game, and the average “early adopter” audience of Google+ itself meant that the game was played by technologically adept users, or in other words, software and hardware developers.
Since Ingress Beta was very buggy, laggy, resource intensive and lacked all of the depth and ease that Ingress currently has, a few developers took it onto themselves to fix what Niantic was taking way too long to fix (assuming they wanted to fix it at all– we’ll revisit this aspect again). These third-party developers, in most cases, fixed a lot of wrong in the game without any monetary incentive, and often going open-source with their modifications so that users and Niantic itself can see what was changed.
One such developer was XDA Recognized Developer Brut.all, the person that created apktool back in 2010 for reverse engineering apk files (yeah, THAT guy). Brut.all created an open-source modification of the official (and closed source) Ingress application that “optimized” Ingress better than Niantic could optimize their own game. The modification, called Broot Mod, made the game playable at ldpi and mdpi resolutions by scaling down graphics, had options to disable the various fancy graphic animations that the game insisted on having, and had a handy inventory management chart. All of these features were Quality-of-Life changes that made life easier if you Ingressed. Being open-source, the modifications could have been incorporated back into the game and actually made everyone’s life easier.
But Niantic did the only thing that a game catering to early adopters from the tech community shouldn’t: They issued a Cease and Desist notice to an independent third-party developer. Respecting Niantic’s wishes, the development of Broot Mod was discontinued by the main developer, but other independent developers picked up the baton since this was an open source project. Niantic, not being content with one act of development suppression, went the whole yard by eventually banning all users who perused any unofficial apk. Citing their Terms of Service which expressly forbade any and all third party software and modifications, the player base had to learn to live with the sub-par and snail-pace official development of Ingress by Niantic, lest they wished to get their account banned. Well, fair enough.
Ingress has had another very popular modification. This did not rely on the apk, but worked as a layer above another of Ingres’s tool. Ingress has a map where the “portals” and the in-game links and fields mechanics were displayed. Just like the official apk, the official map website was (is) slow, sluggish; had (has) poor UX and was (is) a horrible experience in its early (current) days. To fix this, third party developers once again created an unofficial, open source script to the base website, called Ingress Intel Total Conversion (or IITC in short). Needless to say, IITC was (is) not loved by Niantic. Although, after massive social campaigning by the users of IITC, Niantic now turns a blind eye towards this script, but still does not recognize the existence of a vastly superior tool that builds up on its own work. Just a matter of incorporating things that the user community actively wants back into the official resources…
Pokémon GO and Third-Party Development
So now we’re back with Pokémon GO and its broken 3-step Pokémon tracker. To fill in the void that Niantic left for players in hunting Pokémon on the GO, the playerbase turned again to… surprise surprise, third party modifications. Since Pokémon GO has no “map” like Ingress had (even though Pokémon GO lifted the Ingress Portal database to populate its own Pokéstops and Gyms), third party developers created tools that mapped live sightings of Pokémon in real-time. These tools made use of the same way that the Pokémon GO communicated with the server, as it mimicked the scanning of Pokémon within a limited geographical radius from the game and then used a series of these scans to populate an almost-live map. The end-result was that players could now find out their nearest Pokémon, despite the broken in-game tracker! Yay!
Niantic recently killed most of these trackers. Yup. Right after Niantic CEO John Hanke said that he does not like what these tracker sites are doing, the tracker sites are no longer doing it.
F: How do you feel about Poké Radar and things that tap into the code and show where Pokémon are spawning?
JH: Yeah, I don’t really like that. Not a fan.
We have priorities right now but they might find in the future that those things may not work. People are only hurting themselves because it takes some fun out of the game. People are hacking around trying to take data out of our system and that’s against our terms of service.
The most popular of these tracking maps was PokéVision. The reason of its popularity was the ease of use, as it needed zero setup from the end user. Seeing how Pokémon GO is accessed by virtually everyone, this was a boon for every user on the move during the times of the broken tracker. But as it turns out, PokéVision was shut down by the very recent update of Pokémon GO game.
Hey guys. We wish we had some news for you
At this moment, we are respecting Niantic and Nintendo's wishes.
Will keep you guys posted
— Pokevision (@PokeVisionGo) July 31, 2016
Okay, so the sites shut down. But you say an update of the game came out, right? It fixed the tracker, right?
No. In fact, the broken 3-step tracker went from being a bug to becoming a feature. Niantic chose to entirely remove the 3-step tracker, so players do not see the 3 pawprints at all, just a vague indication of Pokémon somewhere. Combined with the killing of the popular methods to scan for Pokémon also no longer existing, the player base is very frustrated and salty because Niantic practically removed the Pokémon hunting aspect from Pokémon GO.
Developer Apathy: Zero Communication Edition
But the story does not end there. A lot of complaints over at Reddit’s Pokémon GO subreddit indicate that players could still live through all of this for the sake of Pokémon, if the company actually acknowledged the issue and assured that they are working on it.
Problem is, if there is one thing that Niantic does worse than supporting third party developers, that would be communicating with its player base. It’s been a problem with Ingress and the current symptoms do not paint it rosy for Pokémon GO either. Features that the player base long wanted in Ingress took literal years to implement (Item Multi-drop, anyone?), but most suggestions are not so fortunate as they have not yet seen the light of the day even if they hold potential to massively improve the gameplay. Worse, Niantic does not even acknowledge that the Ingress app or its game mechanics have issues, or that they are listening to player feedback (much less incorporating it). So much was the apathy and indifference towards communication that players that submitted portals 2-3 years ago (back when portal submissions were allowed) are still waiting to hear back from Niantic on whether the portals are approved or rejected. Seeing how the existence of portals is a big driving factor in Ingress gameplay (and now Pokémon GO), one would expect slightly better.
Granted, Ingress was not as big of a success as Pokémon GO is, so their response time back then feels……passable. But seeing how they have had massive success with Pokémon GO, and that the game uses IP from a well established franchise and that the company has shareholders other than Google, one expects Niantic to step up their game. They are in the process of stepping up their game, as they are still in the hiring process of a community manager. But until that happens (and it’s been in that stage for a while now so I wouldn’t hold my breath), there has not been a single word of communication that flowed from Niantic towards these issues. Server downtimes, app crashes, missing or freezing Pokéballs, lack of strategy depth or the damned 3 step tracker; Niantic continues to remain a horrible example of interaction with the very player base that is directly responsible for their viral success. In fact, when we asked our readers in one of our Discussion articles on what makes an app worth paying for, a good part agreed that a communicative developer is necessary if people are expected to pay for it. And Niantic expects you to purchase in-game items and a funny-looking wearables and even plans to add sponsored locations — go figure!
It was only a matter of time until players remain angry but quiet. Once most have had enough, they will start affecting the reputation of the game with their reviews. There were so many complaints and rage threads in the Pokémon GO (unofficial) subreddit that the moderators had to create a Megathread for all the ranting. Several threads and discussions now exist to direct players to make their opinions more audible, including but not limited to: rating the app to 1 star on the Stores, requesting for refunds for their in-game purchases, cancelling their orders for the Pokémon GO Plus wearable, contacting Niantic and every other partner in hopes of getting their voices heard. Heck, you know it’s a problem when even Google Play has an apology in place already, redirecting you to Niantic.
The crowd was obsessed Pokémon GO and then Niantic Labs taketh away. Now the crowd is angry, but Niantic is being Niantic. One of the lessons I learned from Ingress is that communication goes a long way in keeping someone’s trust even when things go south.
Niantic never faced such a response in its one-game prior history, and its track record does not show it is capable of handling this fire by itself. This is also the first instance where its hatred towards third party developers and their work got them a fallout of unforeseen proportions. Where once Niantic Labs had promised an API for Ingress, it now faces angry mobs of customers directly affecting its million-dollar revenue and its reputation and that of the Pokémon Intellectual Property.
If Niantic Labs, the developer, continues on with its apathy towards its users, Pokémon GO will go from becoming a social phenomenon to a a history lesson on failed customer service. Fixes to the current issues would be very much appreciated, but until those come, least you could do is acknowledge that an issue exists.
We hope Niantic Labs fixes their communication issues and improves their stance towards third-party developers. And while they are at it, they also take a look at all the cheaters in the game.
Now please excuse me while I rage over this lost Dratini that I’ll never be able to locate.
Feature Image Credits: Reddit User ptrain377
What are your thoughts on Pokémon GO, Ingress and Niantic Labs? Sound off in the comments below!
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