Hey folks, I know you’re probably used to seeing PvP discussion associated with my name these days, but I have a much different topic to bring to your attention this time instead.
After deciding to directly engage him, dude to dude, on Twitter earlier this week, Michael Steranka (Director, Pokémon GO Live Game) reached out to me with a generous offer to have a chat about some of my concerns (and really, community concerns) with the recent direction of the game we all love, Pokémon GO… specifically, recent rollbacks to Incense effectiveness and Community Day hours to pre-COVID numbers.
We had an open conversation that lasted about an hour and a half, and if I didn’t have my own obligations I had to run to, I think he would have been happy to keep on chatting… and the door was left open to hopefully do so again in the future. Before I dive into anything, I want to express my gratitude for his time and candor. We may not see eye-to-eye on everything we talked about, going in or even coming out, but he was completely open to anything I wanted to discuss about the game and very forthcoming in his perspectives while remaining receptive to my own differing viewpoints.
There were several points where we clearly disagreed, but he didn’t try to shut anything down or call any topics out of bounds. And while there were a handful of things we discussed that he asked to be kept in confidence (a couple of them some potential positive changes they’re discussing and even already planning to roll out), he encouraged me to share the bulk of our conversation, recognising it may not all be what we want to hear, but that he wanted to make sure we all had the opportunity to hear without being buried in press releases and carefully curated interviews.
I jotted down a LOT of notes, some in a rather garbled, hurried manner. 😅 So bear with me as I attempt to piece this together in an intelligible form. Note that I am expressing most of the below as a neutral “reporter”, relaying what I was told, which again I may not all agree with but want to get the full story out there. (My opinions and thoughts will appear at times too, don’t worry. 😉) So here goes!
BACKGROUNDS AND PERSPECTIVES
We started out with a bit of “getting to know you”. I explained my own experiences in Pokémon GO as a month one player that has seen it all, from the early days of finding local players and forming a community as we all went on the grind together, before raids and PvP and all the things to come. From there welcoming raids to the experience, and then Community Days (which was an idea that came from Mr. Steranka himself) and other events, and PvP and GBL and all that has come with that.
I told him about the cookouts and local get-togethers I got to be a part of (and sometimes help plan) with my own local, awesome community, and that as many (though not all) of us do from those early days, that yes, certainly I do miss what once was. I have been very fortunate to experience relatively easy transitions as the game has evolved, for which I am grateful but recognize many have NOT been so fortunate.
He told me first about his love for the Pokémon franchise, about seeing the excitement of new game releases while living in Japan (his parents lived there for several years for work) and then coming to the United States and seeing the different excitement of releases there as well. He has a deep and abiding love of Pokémon in general. He then told me about his own early experiences in Pokémon GO, and the connections he was able to make with friends old and new through the game, from grinding together to finding himself in the middle of a pickup soccer game with a friend as a past Community Day was winding down.
Those connections and that sense of getting out and meeting together are very important to him as the key thing that sets GO apart from other games. As he put it, he “saw the magic Pokémon GO events could have” in people’s lives and the unique opportunities it offers.
He also expressed that a large part of what led them to roll out Community Days in the first place was, after the first year or so of the game, the sense of players that they were somehow sticking out, ashamed to admit they were playing GO in the middle of cities or wherever they were. That people were watching them and saying “people still play that?”. In short, the lull that Niantic saw creeping up after a while.
Mr. Steranka wanted players to be able to gather together and go out on the town all playing together, gathering together, enjoying the game and each other for all to see. To give them “social validation”, as he put it.
Michael also said his goal is shared by CEO John Hanke, who according to him, developed GO partly as a result of watching his own kids playing video games inside, and wanting to get them up and moving and “touching the grass” through a different gaming experience. The tenants of the game, Mr. Steranka emphasized, are Exploration, Exercise, and Social Interaction, a vision shared throughout the company all the way up to Mr. Hanke. Probably not a surprise to most of you, but he wanted to communicate that upfront.
So, that springboarded into our first topic…
THE BROKEN VISION
As has been reported elsewhere (by people more in the know and more eloquent than me), Pokémon GO had to take a hard left when COVID hit… as we all did with everything else in our lives, really. A number of these changes admittedly drastically altered their vision for the game. Instead of a game that was different in encouraging people to venture outdoors and make new friends and grow experiences together, it became — by necessity — like any other game. And specifically with Incense, in his words, players “never had to leave their home to have the full GO experience”.
Some of this was fine and they don’t intend to roll back, such as a wider distribution and saturation of spawn points so people have more spawns where they work and live and rest, and free daily research tasks so streaks could be kept going, and so on. But Incense, in particular, became a major sticking point internally at Niantic as it, as Mr. Steranka put it from those internal discussions, “broke the vision of the game”, the things that set it apart.
In their vision, it was counter-intuitive and really counter-productive to be able to theoretically spawn everything you’d need without ever having to go anywhere, and with such frequency and ease. There was (and is) a strong sense that “something important had been lost”. (Again, just as a quick reminder: I am just reporting what I was told, but trying to express it fairly, accurately, and without bias. Anyway, back to it….)
I brought the obvious topic of Community Day hours up rather quickly, just asking point-blank what had led to the decision to reduce hours. I noted pretty widespread criticism (and doubt) about the accuracy of reported figures and player percentages, and specifically that it made, in my mind, little sense to compare data from Walrein and Luxray Community Day — two events that I noted were popular really only with my fellow PvPers AND that took place during cold winter hours for much of the world, therefore surely leading to lower participation numbers — to Bulbasaur Community Day Classic, which featured one of the most popular Pokémon in the entire franchise AND took place as we began to emerge from winter AND finally a 2+ year pandemic in many areas of the world. I specifically said it was “like comparing apples and watermelons”.
I don’t feel like I held anything back and was pretty frank in the skepticism shared by myself and many in the community.
Mr. Steranka heard what I had to say, and noted the following:
- “What prompted looking into data in the first place was calls from community members”, though he openly recognized it was NOT the majority of players in the community.
- Specifically, this feedback came from talking to (some) YouTubers and discussions on community Discord servers.
- Such discussions were “the trigger to look into the data”.
- As has been noted several places by now, “the data says less than 5% of players play 3 hours”.
(And again, pointing out I’m just reporting on the discussion here, folks! 😅)
I asked about the idea of still having longer hours, like the six we just moved away from, for more players to be able to hunt for the featured Pokémon around their working (or other unavailable) hours, and having the touted bonuses available for just a 2-3 hour period during the larger window, possibly even at the very end of that window. (I specifically recommended the end because he had noted that it was ideal to have communities still together as events ended, thus encouraging staying together to trade, chat, and go grab a drink together now that the event had ended and they were still together.) Mr. Steranka noted that “longer periods work for established communities but aren’t as good for bringing in newer players/communities”. In other words, having a smaller window of total event increases the chances of non-established communities to find each other out and about playing the game at the same time.
Other concerns with the longer window were that “six hours encourages those who do grind for six hours” have inherent advantages over other players… more XL, more candy, etc. He firmly believes that having only three possible hours helps level the playing field.
That said, Michael did say that such a model with six hours and having a boosted, 3-hour block as part of that WAS the initial idea that had been discussed, the team was still mulling that idea, and he was expressly NOT opposed to it. He also wanted to stress that he and Niantic were “not opposed to feedback” (and reevaluation), but “would like people to give it a try in April and then give feedback on how they felt about it”. He noted, as I kind of already knew going in, that April (and likely even May) are already sort of locked into this model, but again emphasized that they DO want feedback on experiences, that this is still a trial, and they will be discussing potential changes/rollbacks after we see how it all goes.
So no changes are forthcoming to April Community Day as it has already been advertised. But DO please compile your own notes on your experiences and have them ready to share. Niantic will apparently be wanting to hear what we have to (politely, please!) say.
- I brought up the seeming conflict between encouraging getting out and walking for Incense boosts yet having boosts tied to Lures during the coming Community Day, which decidedly do NOT encourage walking. He said that, while it didn’t come out in the announcements made so far as he had hoped it would, the Lure bonuses during April Community Day will ALSO come with a “greatly” increased radius of effectiveness for said Lures. He said the exact radius distance was still being tested internally, but that it would be very noticeable and the intention was to have them collectively cover very large areas and benefit many, many players.
- I inquired specifically about the idea of having Incense effectiveness boosted during Community Days or other events, as even those gathering in large groups are NOT walking, especially at a brisk pace, all the time as we stop to catch, chat, and/or have local BBQs and such (as we have in my own community before). He did concede that point as far as that type of gathering and play experience being sort of a blind spot in their encouragement of walking and said that while this may not lead to a chance in Incense necessarily, they have discussed ways to address this with perhaps MORE spawns or other ways to boost the experience. He said he would again take this idea back to try and marry their vision with real-life play experiences.
- A bit off-topic, but one that’s been stuck in my craw for a while: I asked about a “Ready!” button for raids, at least for private groups, so that we didn’t have to stand around waiting for two minutes every time even when our party was all set. He chuckled and said he totally gets that and has had that same thing happen to him, but that, again, his concern was encouraging community play and bringing in new or detached players. That another frustration he has witnessed and experienced is having groups not only quick try and start a raid, but specifically exclude other players even when they arrived in time and requested the opportunity to join in. That those players are then left with a bad experience as they WANT to play but miss out. That said, while further conversation on this topic was something he politely requested remain confidential, he did say that this is something they’re looking to address in other ways, and hopefully very soon.
Other tidbits that I forget exactly where they fit in the conversation (oops!) but wanted to point out include that getting people who are able “a little bit outside their comfort zones, you can generate unexpected positive experiences”, that they want the game and their observations of improving it to be “be data-driven” and most definitely includes data from “co-located play”, and to reiterate that nothing from recent changes is “100% set”.
If folks were hoping our conversation would lead to wholesale changes… well, I am sorry to disappoint. I honestly didn’t expect that outcome personally. I am just one voice (albeit a loud one of late 😇) of many, and still decidedly NOT part of their Partner Program (wasn’t offered, which is absolutely fine, and I didn’t ask!). Just having the rare opportunity to come directly to someone high up in the company, from an invested and passionate perspective, on behalf of my fellow players, and have them open a dialog was awesome in and of itself. I do hope that can continue at some point, and while I wasn’t able to change any minds or direction, I very much appreciate the open ear and honesty offered, even in areas where we don’t agree. Thank you, Michael, and I hope we can chat again sometime. And I do trust that you’ve taken some ideas we discussed to heart, as I know I will be thinking on your explanations, and that you will keep evaluating and welcoming feedback. I appreciate the chat!
So there we are folks. As a reminder, they WILL be looking for feedback, so I strongly encourage we give it to them as events unfold, particularly April Community Day. I know I will certainly continue to raise issues as I see them… that’s not going to change. I love this community and ALL players in it too much to do anything less. But as Mr. Steranka and I were able to do, I only ask that we keep it civil. Direct, but civil. They’re listening, and HOW we express our (constructive) criticism is nearly as important as the content of that criticism… and a soft word is much more likely to catch their attention as my original tweet thankfully was able to.
Looking forward, in hope.