Recent changes to Pokemon GO again sparked controversy. The Incense nerf and Community Day halving have once again sent a signal that Niantic wants mobile gaming to return to its pre-pandemic form, before some of its audience is ready. . We spoke to POGOLive Game Director Michael Steranka to ask why the studio is trying to get people to come together as covid-19 cases rise, about these changes to Incense and if Pokemon GO has plans to better meet the needs of players with disabilities.
April’s Community Day, focusing on the newly added Stufful, will last just three hours: 2-5 p.m. your local time. This is half the duration of the monthly event for two years, a decision announcement by Pokemon GO Niantic developers as a way to make the day a better chance for players to “play together and connect outdoors”. This is, they said, driven by their research which shows that only 5% of gamers participate for more than three hours anyway. I started by asking Michael Steranka, surely not the same three hours?
“Yeah, it’s spread across the entire six hours,” Steranka told us via Zoom call. Sitting in a gray room, the only visible detail being a graffitied orange beam standing to his left, the game’s live-action director and original Community Days creator, has strikingly Christ-like hair and beard. And like the J-man, he seems to be very fond of people gathering in public. Talking about how the three hours or less people choose are spread out over the day, he explained that this is – according to Niantic – the problem.
“That was actually one of the issues that we felt like there was, because you know, the community day as it was planned is meant to get people out at the same time.” Steranka’s goal is to see Pokemon GO going back to its original roots, a game that allows people to meet outdoors, move around and find their local gaming community. He wants to see what he calls this “organic discovery of the players around you”, explaining that early in the game this was how people made new friends.
Pokemon GO is certainly to find difficult to find the way back to those early days. Since March 2020, the game has been forced to make fundamental changes to how it works, given a global audience that, in the face of a pandemic, suddenly couldn’t easily (or safely) get out to play anymore. In order to maintain their player base, quick and smart changes were made that allowed the game to be much more playable while staying at home.
But Niantic really will not Pokemon GO to be a game that people can play at home. Last September, a quickly (but not fast enough) attempt was abandoned to reverse some of these changes, as the developer inexplicably tried to take players out in public for the Delta variant was at its deadly peak. Now, since Omicron’s numbers are incredibly high (although far less lethal), it’s happening again. The moment seems… strange.
Steranka adds the familiar prefix that they “encourage players to follow local guidelines and regulations”, as well as to do what’s best for them in their local environment. But, he insists, “it’s not something we try to control from our end.” Instead, he notes that they rely on their players to make wise choices, and if people want it, the game remains fully playable on its own.
So what East in for Niantic, then, to cut Community Day in half? Especially considering the reaction to the news has not been positive. It’s here that Steranka brings up Niantic’s oft-cited three pillars. “The first is exploration, the second is exercise, and the third is real-world social interactions. In terms of what we gain, it’s really us who intend to build on that. .
It seems important for the company that its games maintain this USP, that they are set apart from other mobile games by this roaming charge. “It’s a really meaningful thing for us,” adds Steranka, “We really want players to have that sense of their local community and bonding – and a strength in the bonding – because we really think that’s what sets our products apart from the rest of the game out there.
While it’s hard not to be skeptical of a profit motive for making these changes so urgently, I have no doubt that the incense nerf isn’t making extra money to Niantic. This month’s change saw Purchasable Incense create a single encounter every five minutes when idle, down from one per minute over the past two years.
“It’s definitely not to make more revenue on incense,” laughs Steranka. “We make less revenue because the item is less useful, right? Again, the reason given is to get back to those pillars, in this case the first two, exploration and exercise. “We never want Pokemon GO to be a product that you can fully complement and enjoy from your couch. And the thing is, Incense being as powerful as it was, stationary players were able to do that, right? »
But reduce it to one fifth as powerful, without in-game warning? “Carefully balancing things is always a tricky balancing act,” Steranka concedes. “Where we really wanted to lean heavily was to make sure the bonus on the move is stronger than ever. So we made sure that players get as many encounters as possible on the move. We also reduced the distance you need to move in order to trigger this moving bonus.
Keen to point out the pandemic changes that need to stay, like removing the walking requirement to participate in the GO Battle League, and adding daily field research, Steranka went so far as to call the previous change a “revolutionary” incense. ”
I came back to the fact that, all this accepted, these changes were still poorly communicated to the players. Millions of people have started playing the game over the past couple of years, many of them kids who weren’t old enough to play, and for them, the game has always been like that. Can Niantic see that not communicating these reversals, and assuming the audience all remembers what it was, creates a very negative response?
Acknowledging the problem, Steranka once again returned to these stated core Niantic principles. He explained that he was personally “pretty excited” to reintroduce the original ways to play, “because these players didn’t experience Community Day like it did pre-pandemic.” His enthusiasm seems very sincere. “I truly believe this is the most incredible three hours you can have in this game. And the long-serving players would vouch for that. The takeaway that I hope people will have is, please , suspend your disbelief until you have actually experienced this yourself.
I couldn’t help but think, throughout all of this, of those for whom this is not an easy option. During two years, Pokemon GO has been a game that can be played most of the time without having to walk anywhere. So, for players with physical disabilities who started playing anytime since March 2020, their full participation is about to come to an abrupt end.
“Yeah,” Steranka says, “that’s obviously the hardest question, and we talk about it all the time here at Niantic.” He went on to explain how “the full playable home game loop goes against a lot of our core principles as a business.” Approaching this idea from a few different angles, and again concluding that making games “about real-world exploration” is their area of excellence, but never mentioning the disabled gamers they think about so much. I insisted on this point. Are there any plans at all, given the amount of thought that goes into it?
“Nothing I can share today.” It’s a phrase that gaming journalists hear a parcel when talking to developers, but thinking optimistically, it’s usually rolled out when there’s are plans, but the studio is under strict instructions to keep them secret. Steranka adds, “But we’re discussing it, and it’s something that, as I mentioned, we’re looking at new features and stuff that should help with that.”
As for the future, Steranka talked about plans for more city-specific community events coming to the game. Niantic plans to “identify places around the world where we could distribute free Pokemon GO swag”, again out of a desire to mark these social interactions in the real world. He also teased that this summer’s annual GO Fest event should get gamers excited, but said details were to be revealed soon.
Along with asking him to extend the PokéStop distances from 80 to 81 yards, so I could spin my nearest stop without stepping outside, that’s where things ended. And after stressing quite loudly about the miscommunication, the danger of covid, and the lack of visible support for newly joined players with disabilities, I suddenly and very unprofessionally thanked Steranka for his part in creating a game that, despite all his changes, had given me and my own son some incredibly important happy times outdoors during the worst of the pandemic.
I think that’s the problem Pokemon GO, the reason it maintains such a massive and steady following nearly six years after its release. This outdoor thing, even if there is no “community-based social interaction”, East really important to what makes the game stand out, even if it hurts when the convenience of pandemic changes is removed. It’s a shame that Niantic seems to need to learn its lesson in communication over and over again, but I have to admit I look forward to those moments of seeing a group of adults in the park, staring at their phones in a circle, then smiling at each other as we realize we’re all doing the same weird thing.