Guessing, Defending, and Critiquing Niantic's Pokemon Go Strategy

Guessing, Defending, and Critiquing Niantic’s Pokemon Go Strategy

Pokemon Go’s gone through some interesting changes lately. Both the game’s general usage and its paying population have declined significantly, as well as rapidly, though looking at the charts, it’s clear why some people are saying the game is doing well with or without the naysayers. Niantic’s not dumb, and while a No Man’s Sky like silence on certain features is frightening, it’s clear Niantic’s current strategies show they are trying to retain their player numbers. Arguably, not every player will agree with this, but let’s try to look at things from their perspective before we critique Niantic’s Pokemon Go strategy.

Playing Devil’s Advocate

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I know as a gamer and game journalist, it’s easy to sometimes think we know more about games than the people who make them. Truthfully, this is somewhat true in specific areas, like how we may actually use a game versus the expected outcomes, which is why there are game testers and public alpha/beta tests. However, we simply have different types of knowledge. Lately, I’ve been becoming more familiar with not only the design process of games but also User Experience Research (UXR) and its practical applications with games. I’m starting to better understand not only the weaknesses of the games I play but also where someone might say there’s a usability issue and how to grade its severity. Stepping back, I can see why some changes that, as a player, I’m not enjoying, but why a change was suggested.

Gym Changes

Pokemon GO
There’s a real reason I made my Gym Guide: for over a week, I’d seen my local scene transform, but mostly for the worst. Long time players or various skill levels and devotion lost interest in the game. The changes weren’t explained well, and as that aspect of the game was explained in the poorest way, it seemed logical that it would be something that was difficult to get into.

Without a doubt, Niantic knew this. Niantic started with a rather simple UI and has slowly been improving it, hoping their systems are intuitive enough for people to understand. While gamers (especially ones devoted to smartphone titles) seem to have made the jump pretty well, non-gamers who were lured in by friends and family didn’t. As they came in for social purposes, I’m guessing Niantic put the burden of a tutorial on fellow players. This helps to keep their UI minimal and development costs low, as well as prioritizing action on new features. If you outsource instructions to players, you can focus on hard mechanics that may prevent the game from being enjoyable. As hardcore players quickly outpace casuals, it became obvious that those who fell too far behind the curve could no longer participate in the gym system.

Enter the scaling levels update for gyms. Scaling helps get low-level players more involved with the game, so taking gyms from enemy sides becomes easier. This also makes low-level players less of a burden on a gym and their teammates. Previously, low-level players might need an entire team to defeat even a single high-level defender, and low-level Pokemon were easy to deal with, making them a liability to their gym. Obviously, making customers feel like the game is accessible and that they can be valued no matter their level helps with both engagement and social stickiness, but Niantic’s change to the way prestige is earned has another effect.

Making Pokemon More Valuable

Pokémon GO Launch
By calculating prestige earned based on the highest level Pokemon on a team, Niantic made it so powerful, low-level Pokemon had increased value. No, not exactly those stage 1 weaklings (unless you just use them to pad your team or finish off a nearly dead ‘mon), but rare or high tier Pokemon that just have a low CP.

Under the old system, using a good low CP ‘mon had its uses, but was less significant, as using a single strong Pokemon to take out two or three weak defenders saved time and consumables at the expense of prestige. The system is mostly the same, except there is a stronger penalty for using strong Pokemon. I think Niantic’s aim was to boost the value of lower level Pokemon. For example, my first Snorlax was quite weak, in the double digits for CP. While it had good IVs, I dumped it as soon as I had a higher level one, despite the higher level one having about 10% lower IVs.

Under the newer system, that low-level Snorlax may be more valuable. I currently have multiple Pokemon over 2500 CP (not including Dragonites or Snorlaxes), but often use ones between 1400-2100 instead, often as “speed bumps” to prevent attackers from using their best Pokemon. As some of the gyms with my low levels have lasted several days when they used to last a few hours, I think it shows the strategy is working.

This also gives certain Pokemon new value. Chansey, for example, is rarely worth putting in a gym, especially at the high levels. However, one of the local gyms in my area that was being fought over multiple times a day got locked down by a CP 400 Chansey and some other low CP, high HP Pokemon. As weak, throwaway Pokemon were unable to easily defeat them, but using high CP Pokemon made prestige gained from winning next to nothing, we were able to build up the high levels of the gym after several days. Once the Chansey did fall, rival factions still had to deal with several speed bumps and staggered levels to slow down prestige gains in general. All thanks to a low CP Chansey.

Obviously, not all players will do this. Your local scene may have a lot of smart players, or have access to the right types of Pokemon to make this kind of strategy easy enough to defeat. However, the prestige change has certainly made more Pokemon, and Pokemon Types, more viable, and the current Halloween event is only adding to that. And that helps Niantic tackle their bottom line better.

Increased Need for Space

Pokémon Go Review
Now that players need a broader CP range and types of Pokemon, they need more storage. If you hit up multiple gyms and have an active gym scene now thanks to the changes, you need more item space as well. That means you need to either use more coins from gym battles on storage or (Niantic hopes) you’ll be motivated to spend more money to buy those coins. As much as we may love free to play games for their free status, developers still need to make a profit, and that’s even more difficult on games that are online, multiplayer, require servers to be hosted, and receive updates. That additional money keeps the game on, pays for new content, and may be able to help the developers keep the game moving in the direction they like. Remember, Niantic is the developer and publisher, but if their games don’t make money, they may need help, and publishers aren’t always known for agreeing with developers, or even consumers.

Players don’t have to upgrade anything, but by making gyms more active, players will be moving through consumables faster as well. That slows down their gym striking ability unless they are near many lures and gyms. For everyone else, the change is easier to feel, and increasing storage space may help you feel better prepared to tackle gyms. Collectors may not care, but long-term paying players who, as I mentioned in my gym guide, have a noticeable advantage over non-paying players, will certainly care. While players may be questioning some of Niantic’s thought processes, their update cycles certainly show some good forethought.

Content Release Cycle

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Remember, Pokemon Go’s paying population hit a big low point at the end of August. Original pre-orders were set for late July, but the game was already doing well. Niantic released the game unfinished, missing many of its originally advertised features, so I doubt they’d care about releasing the Plus in a simply usable state. The Plus was pushed back to September 16, about two updates after Niantic started giving minor content updates, like appraisals and the buddy system, both of which were updates aimed primarily at more casual players who didn’t use online sources or third party programs to help with their training. This not only generates interest with current players, but lapsed players who had pre-ordered the device but stopped playing may be lured back into the game. While the active users chart from Survey Monkey (below) shows that this didn’t bring players back, it does seem like a good plan from Niantic’s point of view.

Niantic's Pokemon Go strategy

Naturally, at this point, someone is going to ask about third party devices and trackers. Again, remember that we don’t want players, especially collectors, to eat through content too quickly. As there may be some legal issues with the game’s basic mapping system and possibly with the tracker, it’s natural that Niantic would hold back on this a bit. Assuming the reason certain tutorial items are minimal at best because of the assumption that players will teach each other, Niantic built a game that’s supposed to attract a large, broadly skilled audience.

With the Halloween event and upcoming dailies, Niantic’s plan for retaining their players theoretically seems quite strong and difficult to ignore: make players feel like the value of the game is going up, make them feel like they’re progressing, but add new, small roadblocks to prevent this. This isn’t just about delayed features or the gym changes!

For example, increased migrations means that, while players may see more of the Pokemon they need, casuals may not play often enough to collect, say, enough Geodudes to evolve a Golem before the Pokemon is rotated out. The Halloween event may be giving us more candy, but think about the rare Pokemon you’re seeing now. Your rare Lapras may now be a Golbat, and Venasaur may now be Gengar. It helps change the meta with an influx of (for many people) previously rare types, but makes it harder to get elusive Pokemon if you’ve just returned. It whets your appetite and gives core players a real chance to make progress, but the mid-core and casual players may just be motivated to stay on the ride.

The Player Perspective

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Again, from a hypothetical point of view, Niantic’s Pokemon Go strategy seems solid. A serviceable, social game that improves right when players are losing interest with broad mass appeal isn’t just good for the game developers, but their fans as well. However, there’s clearly a reason for Pokemon Go’s usage decline, despite Niantic’s best efforts.

Missing Features

The very first thing we need to discuss before any changes is the content issue. While collecting and battling are key, there’s a reason why there have always been multiple versions of the same Pokemon generation. Trading should have been a feature that came to the game sooner rather than later. While that goes against the idea that Niantic wants to control our pace, the problem is that the series is based on trading. Lacking that stands out, especially when early ads featured it.

Battling other trainers should also come sooner rather than later. Again, it’s a key feature from the earliest trailer. Gyms are nice, but PvP has always been what gets players to stick with the game, and while gyms are serviceable, showing us how Pokemon Go is supposed to advance the traditional game and replacing that experience with something that feels geographically tied seems, well, underwhelming.

There are tons of features Niantic could add to Pokemon Go in the future: breeding, bug catching contests, beauty contests, berry mixing, and more. Niantic’s buddy system is a cute new addition, but the other basics probably should have been prioritized and released shortly after launch, not six months or longer afterward. Clearly, though, as the game is doing well enough, this is probably a low priority issue Niantic can fix going forward.

“Everyone’s a Winner” Makes Former Winners Feel Like Losers

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Scaling, used correctly, is very appealing, even to hardcores. As long as the game releases with scaling, as a hardcore player, I know what I’m getting into and will use that to help get my friends involved. However, when scaling is added post launch to try to even the playing field, it makes high-level gains feel less important, as your previous efforts suddenly feel less important. Worse yet, since leveling Pokemon requires two types of consumables without having a more interactive method to get around that, it makes players question whether or not leveling is important. After all, if the game will scale down, what’s the point in becoming stronger?

This creates a second problem. While the ability to participate is up, it means nothing if the player count is down. Anecdotally, I’ve spoken to casual players who either stop caring about gyms already and have moved on or don’t want to invest in the new gym system. Had Niantic added a real tutorial or even just an update message, as they had with the Halloween event, perhaps more players would have returned. Currently, if players have come back, it’s been for the event.

That being said, there’s gym stagnation again in my area, and it’s worse than before. Once veteran players decided if they were staying or leaving and the few new players found their niche, we were left with many gyms that simply aren’t being visited. Through the revolution, three of my local gyms were never attacked. Two of my hot spots went through grueling wars for a few days (before and after the weekend), but are once again untouchable. The new players don’t understand the meta well enough so they’re locked out of gyms for a new reason, and the veterans that once at least helped keep certain areas destabilized have retired. As highly invested players are probably the majority at this point, the change is most likely unintentionally feeling like a punishment to the player population.

I’ve heard people suggest a decay system, where Pokemon in a gym get kicked out after a certain amount of time, but casual players rarely like decay systems. Making teams more fluid and offering incentives for joining the weakest side may help, but realistically, a daily to de-level an enemy gym, with a coin reward, might work better.

After big changes like the gym update, some log-in reward and/or special event should have been tied to the change to get players to return to the game and take advantage of it. The Halloween event may yet save things, but so far within my local scene, returnees are collectors, not gym trainers. As the change has driven players off or causes them to give up, this would be a critical to serious issue depending on the player.

New Hurdles to Trip Over

Pokémon Go Niantic's Pokemon Go strategy
Weak Pokemon have been trash for a long time. Most players have been used to identifying trash and treasure, knowing how to battle, and how much space they need. While some CP spread has always been needed, the new prestige system combined with a bigger CP spread fundamentally changes the nature of both collecting and battling. It requires several systems to be relearned, and while MMO players or hardcore gamers may be used to this, the casual crowd Niantic attracted is met with quite a large learning curve.

Already the gym system, where you’re strongly encouraged to handicap yourself to make the greatest gains, seems backwards in terms of game progression design (that’s why explicit difficulty tiers are often employed, to encourage an obvious challenge to be undertaken). When this suddenly changes without any notes on how it changed, players who mostly learn the game through quick trial and error may simply give up rather than look up answers online. Again, this mode of thinking requires community, but as Niantic hasn’t installed any official communication tools or supported/referred people to any official channels, it’s difficult for a non-gamer or casual to make a social connection. That’s without considering the fact that the population has greatly declined.

I’d wager that part of the gym system’s appeal, when it works, is that it’s relatively simple to play and can be easy to get into and out of. The game’s UI for selecting Pokemon teams is horrendous though, and the prestige changes only highlight that. A UI change that would allow you to, say, select Vaporeon on screen, opening options to choose a specific Vaporean, might help. The game memorizing your last used team, rather than constantly reset it, might help too. However, the whole gym system has become much, much slower, and for a mobile game, that seems like a terrible design decision, as your consumer probably has someplace they want to be. Besides, this is Pokemon Go, not Pokemon Stop. Having a lot of the game limited based on your real life position already cuts out handicapped users, and feels a bit punishing for rural players, but the gym system as the only combat system, and having it tied to real-life locations, is really, really causing players to stop for longer periods of time, defeating the exercise portion of the game. Despite poor UI, players stick with the game, so this is perhaps a medium issue.

Seeing Pay to Win

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The greater need to use battle items to learn the new system combined with the need for more storage has made PoGo’s “pay to win” system stand out more. Item storage may not seem like an important aspect of the game for people near a good amount of PokeStops, but for people who need to drive to specific locations or specifically to a city, it’s an important factor. Worse, as there are no known caps on storage, it seems bottomless. When a narrow range of CP are needed, players can choose between more Pokemon or more storage, or can combine the two about evenly. When there’s suddenly a bigger need for both, neither of which is a “fun” option to spend real money or hard-won coins for, players may feel less motivated to play.

Reverting back to the old gym system based on the CP level of Pokemon in a single battle would help minimize the sting of scaling. It would still be in the system as it was previously, but most of the shakeup could be focused on the new participants, not weak Pokemon strong players have to stoop down to defeat for the same results. Combined with some kind of sales on storage or even a buy once deal for maximum storage would increase sales and satisfy many customers as they have a specific “end” for their spending which they’ll be motivated to reach.

While the new dailies potentially will offer incubators (a very good decision if it goes through), it still needs to address the fact that fighting for gyms isn’t very rewarding, only controlling them at the right time. However, having dust rewards be based on gym leaders taken down and limiting it to 10 a day, while coins keeping the same system, helps cut back on the importance of incubators for competing but still makes them rewarding. This encourages more gym play and gives a measurable target that’s more achievable for your average player, plus gives people a way to play with more Pokemon types in the meta.

In terms of goals, Niantic may want to consider adding a 10th egg slot and second infinite incubator at level 40. Again, we need measurable goals to encourage players to keep playing. The second incubator encourages more people to reach the cap, giving them more of a reason to keep investing in other aspects of the game (like pack space). It also makes incubator desire increase, possibly encouraging more players to invest in them. Again, this helps mask how big of an advantage they give, and even downplays it, but increases their salience.

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While I think players would highly prefer the ability to pay a base price for all infinite incubators and deluxe storage options, assuming Niantic isn’t being greedy with their monetization plan, game development needs more funding and can’t afford to run on a one-time payment plan most AAA games do while selling DLC content (like future batches of Pokemon) for more money. As this is already being addressed in part, for now, let’s say a low priority issue now.

Final Notes

Pokemon GO Niantic's Pokemon Go strategy
Pokemon Go may have some declining numbers, but I’m sure it’s doing well. After all, Nintendo’s obviously entrusted the title to Niantic. For those who don’t know, Halloween is a Western-centric holiday. It’s relatively new in Japan. If Nintendo was working closely with Niantic, Japan most likely would have had more ghost Pokemon in summer, during the Obon season when haunted houses are more popular. Had the game been strongly controlled by Nintendo, there would have been some nod to the Japanese seasons.

No, Niantic’s at the helm and doing quite well. Despite perceived mistakes from the player base, the developers do have a rather solid plan. That being said, there’s obvious room for improvement in Niantic’s Pokemon Go strategy. Encouraging players to go out and explore but requiring them to go to specific places repeatedly, especially for combat, seems a little strange. Drastic changes to certain launch systems seem to discourage many players more than encourage them. The lack of application updates advertising significant changes, and tying them with rewards or events, is an obvious oversight. The lack of key features for this long may have cost the company some costumers, and reliance on the game’s players being social while preventing in-game communication seems at odds with the design goals we’ve hypothesized here. Hopefully Niantic’s taking in feedback and set to further improving the game in the coming months and years to follow.

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