This has been a momentous couple of weeks in the Pokemon Go community, and over the last couple of days it’s really come to a head.
We’re used to seeing fan anger in video games – it doesn’t take much to set certain groups of gamers off, as we all know – but it’s rare to see such universal, coordinated frustration and disappointment in a developer that actually has solid logic behind it.
So first of all, congratulations to Niantic on that – on taking a decision so universally hated that it united practically the entire fanbase against it, from YouTubers to website owners, media owners to vocal players on social media – pretty much everybody is either mad or disappointed. You might not be following it, though – so let me explain what’s happened.
At the onset of the global pandemic, Niantic and The Pokemon Company were faced with a difficult choice. Pokemon Go is of course a game about getting out of the house, moving around, and interacting with people and places. All of these things were, at a certain point in time, inadvisable. Niantic took steps to adjust elements of the game to counter this – and those steps were actually pretty good. Now, Niantic is taking the lion’s share of them away.
The removal of one pandemic change in particular has angered fans – an increase to the distance from which players can interact with PokeStops and Gyms, the little spinning discs out in the world that are crucial to Pokemon Go’s flow of play. In the pandemic measures, that ‘interaction distance’ was doubled from 40 meters up to 80 meters – meaning that you could interact with these elements of the real-world from much further away, but you still had to be geographically close to the point of interest to interact with it, and still had to move from one to the next.
This change was particularly smart as it helped to prevent Pokemon Go trainers from gathering in one small spot during a time when we were all supposed to be socially distancing from one another – but it actually improved Pokemon Go in numerous other ways.
That’s a big part of why fans are so rightfully angry. Forget the fact that companies like Niantic and The Pokemon Company shouldn’t be acting like the pandemic is over when in many countries around the world it decisively isn’t – this was reverting a change that has improved playing Pokemon Go across the board.
And it’s being reverted because… well, probably because they think it’ll raise playtime, engagement, and therefore spending, as people are encouraged to walk a little more and invest a little more time to get to each Pokestop, Gym, or what have you. Notably, other changes made for the pandemic such as Remote Raids, where players are encouraged to buy special raid passes in order to participate in special battles from a distance, are going to remain for the foreseeable future.
In a joint community letter posted by pretty much every Pokemon Go website and influencer that matters, the fans put across a strong argument for why this change should remain permanently. Among other things, the 80-meter interaction distance is better for disabled players, those with young children, and generally increases safety by removing the need to cross dangerous roads, enter unsafe areas, or leave shelter.
They also cannily note that it’s an easy fix for Pokemon Go’s problem with being a nuisance – that is to say, with the increased distance, you’re less likely to have a throng of players congregating in one place in a town centre or park, which can be an inconvenience to others, blocking pathways, sidewalks, or entrances to businesses – all of which was even reported on by the mainstream news during Pokemon Go’s first heady summer.
Outside of the respectfully-phrased, well-coordinated open letter, there have unfortunately been some idiots that have made it personal, targeting Pokemon Go developers. These people are morons. But the fan letter is brutal and straightforward to the point that it feels like an insurmountable argument. There is really no good reason that this feature should be reverted – even if you remove any pandemic-related arguments. It improves the game, and eighty meters means that Pokemon Go is still a game where you have to get out and move about – it’s just slightly less convenient.
For its part, Niantic has responded pretty quickly with an open letter of its own, issuing a formal response.
“We appreciate your letter and all of your feedback. We hear you. We are humbled by your response,” it schmoozes. “Not every game has such a passionate, global player base that we’re fortunate enough to have.”
The letter goes on to basically explain what fans already know – that the distance change is going away, reverting back to 40 meters, starting with the US and New Zealand. It goes on to acknowledge fan complaints, and pledges a “task force” has been mobilized to look at the issue, and that findings will be shared before the next Pokemon Go season begins, which is set for September 1st.
But honestly, I don’t get it. These feel like weasel words to me. There’s always more specific concerns on the inside, of course, but from the outside looking in I simply don’t see what there is for this task force to look at – other than how the change impacts revenue, and how serious the fans are about their boycott. With the statement, Niantic has just bought itself three weeks, basically. For all the smarmy wording in it, the statement offers little else.
Fans seem to have noticed, though. A common thread on twitter among fans seems to be the refrain that Niantic ‘hearing’ fans isn’t good enough – the company also needs to listen. Others are being less charitable, simply calling it, well, BS.
In reality, Niantic knows what it needs to do – it should roll back this pandemic measure, and make it permanent. It’s a simple ask, and provably doesn’t ruin the balance of the game. You don’t need a task force for that; just common sense.