Pokémon GO updates, Make PoGo Fun Again.

I appreciate the design choices Niantic is making

I’m more than a little biased about Pokémon GO (as evidenced by my blog being almost entirely about it so far, I swear I have other interests). I can earnestly say that the new update announced just yesterday 6/20/17 has me excited again. Not quite that wide-eyed wonder that the game had me in on release, but certainly feels like a step in the right direction which honestly feels like a first for Niantic.

Niantic is in a difficult position, they need to provide updates to their game to keep it interesting and profitable. However they had quite nearly painted themselves into a corner with Pokémon GO as it currently exists. Any new changes or improvements they want to make have to adhere to the game as it currently is, in that they cannot make changes that strip the player of earned digital property.

It feels BAD as a player to have your hard work invalidated, such as having your resources (items, Pokémon) taken away, or having their value decreased (i.e. nerfed). Niantic wants to avoid making players feel worse, so any updates they have in mind have to work off of the existing infrastructure of Pokémon GO. That’s quite a challenge, I know I have more than my share of complaints about the current state of the game.

I appreciate the design choices Niantic is making, working to strengthen the current game without invalidating existing content, especially the introduction of Raid bosses. I would say that this game’s greatest strength, most defining quality, and proudest mark on the developer’s report card is the way that back in July/August of 2016 they brought thousands of people outside in a social gathering around Pokéstops and Gyms, on tracks and trails calling out to others playing the game “an Ivysaur spawned down the road!”. This is an incredible feat, and Niantic is zeroing in on that feeling with Raid Bosses. Having a countdown timer to let people all around know when an event is happening, needing a large number of people to be able to battle together, and having powerful yet balanced items as rewards to incentivize this play are all excellent decisions that have this 18-year Pokémon vet very excited.

Beyond the Raids, many of these other updates feel like icing on the cake in contrast to so many of Niantic’s updates in the past which have felt questionable at best and regressive at worst. Receiving notifications when your Pokémon are defeated and removed from a Gym instead of just finding them KO’d on your list is a nice quality change. The search feature is an obvious and welcome feature. And adding a bit of clarity to Pokéstops and whether you’ve visited them or not is a nice addition.

I’ve said for a long time that I’ve wanted Pokémon GO to be a good game. I’m hoping that Niantic has hit their stride and is on the way to making this a game I can be excited to play instead of just… weirdly clingy to. (please validate me Niantic, I don’t know why I’ve been playing so long).

The most climactic confrontation in gaming.

By all accounts, this should have felt like a completely inconsequential (yet difficult) battle

One of the most climactic videogame battles from my youth seems strange and out of place. The fate of the world wasn’t at stake; I wasn’t on a journey for revenge, there was no princess to be saved, no sinister machinations to be halted. In fact not even my (character’s) life was at stake, but still this fight held great significance for me. The battle with Red atop Mt. Silver in Pokemon Gold/Silver.

What really made this battle matter? By all accounts, this should have felt like a completely inconsequential (yet difficult) battle, but I find myself fondly remembering that battle above nearly all others in my long Pokemon battling career.

What holds this above all others in my mind and my heart? When looking at the amount of time I spent playing this series of games, in a way it’s like a battle with myself. I AM Gold (or whatever name you’ve chosen), but I AM also Red. This is a battle with ourselves. I know that I spent upwards of 100 hours playing Pokemon Blue version. Mind you this is from a time when the internet was young and finding all of the secrets was a journey of personal exploration, or by word-of-mouth from fellow trainers at the time. So much time and effort I poured into that game, I had Pokemon at level 100 before I even learned about the item duplication glitch giving me nigh infinite Rare Candies.

I was incredibly excited when I got my hands on Pokemon Silver version. I played it to completion, excited to earn the 8 badges of the new Johto region and just as excited to retrace my steps from my recent adventure through the 8 Gyms of Kanto and feeling like the world was alive and evolving. Koga had passed the torch of Gym leadership to his daughter, Blaine faced the disaster on Cinnabar island, and my old Rival Blue had taken up residence as leader of the Viridian City Gym thanks to MY actions in dismantling Team Rocket.

The final challenge lay ahead of me, with 16 badges under my lapel I entered Mt. Silver, the dividing mountain range between this new exciting land Johto and my old familiar region Kanto. Walking this line that bridged yet separated the two different worlds and different experiences I’ve had. The toughest challenge yet ahead.

And there after all of the twists and puzzles, the hard fights, and use of every trick and resource I had learned up to this point stood Red. A Pokemon battle much like any other takes place. This is the true final boss of this game, and I still remember how this fight went down years later. I barely held on, Red is much higher leveled than even the Elite Four. This is still the only time in my life I’ve resorted to a desperate tactic such as…

Go Electrode, use Explosion!
*revives*
Go Electrode, use Explosion!
*revives*
Go Electrode, use Explosion!
*revives*
Go Electrode, use Explosion!
*revives*
Go Electrode, use Explosion!

After concluding the battle I felt the greatest sense of achievement and accomplishment I’ve felt in a Pokemon game that I think even to date I have not exceeded.

But why? Looking at it analytically, as I said there was really nothing riding on this battle. No lives hang in the balance, no great world-ending catastrophe threatens to sunder space/time itself were I to fail. Yet it was still such a satisfying battle.

It was perhaps a passing of the torch. My sense of self was tied to both Red and to Gold, maybe it is akin to overcoming your own self and improving. This battle was fought with ourselves and we are all of the things at stake. We are the ones at the top, while we are also striving to become stronger than all others before us. Maybe it’s just me, but I still get shivers when I listen to the battle theme for the fight with Red even today (which inspired me to ramble here).

I love the games that have been able to resonate so strongly with their players like that. I would love to see more games that can make themselves so personal to give them meaning. Don’t get me wrong, saving the galaxy from killer AI, thwarting ancient world-ending dragons, and freeing humanity from its enslavement are great plot motivations. It’s a real treasure though when a game can give you a sense of accomplishment of self.

Pokémon GO implements the Nearby Pokémon “Feature”. I’m not feelin’ it.

If you haven’t had a chance to look at the newest implementation of a tracking system in Pokémon GO, in short, you can see nearby Pokémon but only if they are near a Pokéstop.

This is marginally useful. Being able to see that a Pokémon is near a certain Pokéstop can be helpful. One can travel to that stop and search its proximity for the Pokémon you want.

However, as many have pointed out this excludes every area that is not dense with Pokéstops. It feels like the “Nearby” list only includes Pokémon within about 20m of a Pokéstop, so it’s as though the tracking system has been completely removed in regards to all of the Pokémon that are not near a stop.

When this is the case it feels as though the game has turned away from “searching for Pokémon” to simply having the “random encounters” of traditional RPG games. While random encounters work for the handheld Nintendo games, in Pokémon GO it is VASTLY less compelling.

I am far less incentivized to even open up the game. The tracking system requires that I be in an area with larger numbers of Pokéstops. Players typically need to specifically travel to these areas if they want a meaningful experience with Pokémon GO now, so I won’t even bother if I’m simply taking a walk to the store, on a lunch break, or for exercise because unless I’m already in those areas the Nearby system doesn’t help me at all.

If players open the game less often in most areas, they will also be less likely to feel it’s worthwhile to travel to a Pokéstop dense area for the game. I’ve been a rabid Pokémon fan for 20 years, I made multiple purchases in Pokémon GO on release. I want Pokémon GO to be a fun game that I can enjoy for years to come. But as the game currently stands, it’s not worth my time and especially not my money.

Niantic does want feedback though! Click here to go to their Google+ page where you can leave a (friendly, helpful) comment to what you think about the new tracking system. I encourage everyone to take a moment and write out a quick sentence. I would love for Pokémon GO to be a fun thing I can do when I get out of the house and feedback is a good start!

Is Pokémon GO even worth playing now?

TL;DR = No it’s not

I hate clickbaity titles so I’ll go ahead and give you the TL;DR = No it’s not.

To put some additional perspective on my opinion, I have been playing Pokémon since shortly after the release of Pokémon Red & Blue in the US sometime in ’98. I have played every generation, have some merchandise here and there in my home, still have my cards from the TCG, and played to level 21 in Pokémon GO. I absolutely love and enjoy the Pokémon franchise and I am repulsed by Pokémon GO right now.

Niantic Labs, creators of Pokémon GO, are undoubtedly trying their hardest. They aren’t a large tech firm and I’m sure it is not easy to handle the MOST POPULAR APP IN THE WORLD. Who could have guessed what an overnight sensation it would become?

One of the largest issues that I and many others have had since the release of this app is the Tracking system or lack thereof. Pokémon GO had a tracking system during the Beta and on release that quickly stopped working. Since Niantic Labs remained silent about fixing this system, the community banded together and formed many alternatives to track Pokémon down in the world. Some of these utilizing a little knowledge of common spawning locations, others tapping into the very information networks that the game is based on.

Niantic Labs shut down any and all 3rd party tracking with their most recent update. And the icing on the cake? Not only didn’t they fix their own tracking system, they removed it entirely. Now the best the players can do is enter the tall grass and hope for random encounters.

In the past, when a rare or coveted Pokémon appeared on the tracking system’s “Nearby” list my eyes would widen in excitement. My focus would change to this new goal and I would set off on a mission in the direction of my quarry. This hunt was fun! And that fun is gone now. In stark contrast now when a Pokémon’s silhouette appears on the Nearby list I shrug my shoulders because there isn’t any way for me to hunt down that Pokémon with any certainty. It’s distressing, frustrating, and makes the entire game not worthwhile as long as this issue persists.

The silence kills me. Niantic Labs is making updates, and I see the occasional communication from them but only through alternative sources. Players are in the dark, and that should not be the case. Niantic needs to take the reigns and be the primary source of information about their own game. Rumors and myths are spreading in the community with disappointment and frustrations growing without stop.

Riot Games, creators of the immensely popular League of Legends, has terrific business practice regarding updates, game fixes, and communicating to their player base. They release extensively written out patch notes about changes that are made and include statements of their purpose and goals with those changes. Perhaps its unfair to compare Riot who is so well established and has had years to get into this business practice, but perhaps it should be expected. While Niantic Labs are practically pioneering the Augmented Reality Game, they are absolutely not pioneering the operation of a popular modern game. I hope they take a note from the many other publishers with excellent public relations like Riot Games, Blizzard Entertainment, and not least of all Nintendo.

I want Pokémon GO to be fun. This is a game that has lots of potential and it wouldn’t even be difficult to continue to release content for Pokémon GO for years to come. They’ve currently released as much content as was available in 1998, they have 18 years worth of games to pull content from. You’re sitting on top of a goldmine Niantic, other firms would kill to be in your position. You’d better make it count.

I want to be excited for Pokémon GO

Why has there been no official statement from Niantic?

I really do want to be excited for the release of Pokémon GO, a new MMOARG (Massively Multiplayer Online Augmented Reality Game) themed around the world of Pokémon.  I’ve been following the production of this app for months now. Not that this is the dedication of a cultist fanatic, we have the simplicity and convenience of clicking a “Subscribe” button on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or your other poison of choice on the internet. Word got out quickly that Pokémon GO was released and boy was I EXCITED. I was.

I tweeted about it. I shared it with my friends. I started browsing for more workout clothing and summer apparel with the intent in the back of my mind to have the look of a Pokémon trainer without being too obvious about it. Austin, TX has numerous hike and bike trails through forested areas, rivers, hills, and plains. Being a 30-something who grew up on Pokémon I have felt the stigma of having a place in my heart reserved for a piece of pop culture directed at children. I can suit up like a Pokémon trainer and no one would look at me twice with all the other exercise and outdoor enthusiasts wearing the same brightly colored underarmor, camelbacks, and athletic gear. But I digress.

Niantic is making it difficult to stay excited. The app has apparently been released (as of 5/5/2016) in Australia and New Zealand but is region locked nearly everywhere else. I stayed up late searching for any information I could. Confirming that my LG Android is compatible, confirming that others in the U.S. are experiencing the same thing, confirming that many of those who DO access it are using… less than official methods.

Users have found workarounds of course to jump into the Pokémon world as soon as humanly possible. iPhone users have created Australian iTunes accounts, and Android users have created an APK (Android Application Package File), a user-created file to install software. While I don’t recommend it, it is an option for those willing to risk potential consequences such as viruses, malware, or even the wrath of Niantic if the company should decide that it violates their TOS.

I actually downloaded an APK for the app, ran a virus scan on it, and sat with my finger in the trigger to install it onto my device. So many users in the Americas and Europe were reporting that they are logged in and having fun but a few things I read stopped me.

Niantic runs a similar application named Ingress which also has users traversing the real world for the digital game. They are serious about stopping people from ‘cheating’ by falsifying their location, as evidenced by their statement about cracking down on those who falsify location. To download the Pokémon GO APK I had to set my region to New Zealand, which doesn’t strike me as morally wrong, but may trigger Niantic’s automated anti-cheat systems. It doesn’t seem to be worth the risk.

Why has there been no official statement from Niantic? They are sitting on a hotbed of users so utterly excited about their application that they’re willing to troubleshoot, workaround, hack, and slash their way just to actually play. Many users I’ve seen are finally getting their hands on the game at midnight and STILL willing to run out into the streets and forests to search for Pokémon. Your userbase is RAVENOUS Niantic, it makes no sense to me that they haven’t so much as tweeted “We are working to resolve the issues.”

This is all less than 24 hours after what appears to be the NZ/AUS release of Pokémon GO. The radio silence from Niantic is concerning. Was this all an accident? Is the game supposed to release? When should we expect release in Europe and the Americas? It’s strange when we have to search for news about Niantic and Pokémon go through other fans, blog sites, and hell even Forbes made a post. I would really prefer to hear a first-hand statement from the source but they remain silent. Strike while the iron is hot Niantic. Even a day late you can shake the very foundation of trust and faith that so many fans have in your company.