When the entire objective of your game is to make people go out and play and interact with each other, a global pandemic isn’t exactly the best thing to happen. That’s the position that Niantic Inc. is in today, with its wildly popular (yes, persistently so) augmented-reality game, Pokémon GO. Using characters from the extensive Pokémon universe, the game encourages players to go out and find Pokémon in their real-world, battle with powerful Pokémon at Gyms, and spin Poke stops to gain in-game items. Multiple gameplay avenues have emerged within Pokémon GO in the nearly four years since it was released worldwide. Almost every feature involved some aspect of interaction with the real world, either with other players, or with locations where in-game bonuses could be achieved.
However, in recent years, Niantic has increasingly relied on in-game events (time-bound bonuses, the release of rare variants of existing Pokémon, and the infamous costumes) to sustain player interest. Such events were quite uncommon in its first two years of release, with earmarked periods coinciding with holiday events (e.g., Easter, Lunar New Year, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and Christmas to name a few). Since 2018, Niantic has upped the physical presence of Pokémon GO by introducing city-specific events where rare Pokémon spawn and players who purchase tickets receive access to in-game exclusives and bonus experience points. So far, so good — but almost all of these events needed players to meet up together and often showcased the strength of a dedicated gamer community.
In 2020, Niantic moved from having single events peppered throughout the year, to many events choc-a-clogging every month. Event bonuses, the release of shiny variants, and exclusive raid bosses are all now recurring events and occur with alarmingly regular frequency. This has induced some older players to return to playing the game but has often resulted in player fatigue given that there is now simply too much to catch up on within the game. Updating an earlier article I wrote, keeping track of daily in-game activity for rewards is now even more cumbersome.
Unfortunately for players and Niantic, the buck stops here — with the global spread of the novel coronavirus (n-COVID-19), starting from China and heading into Europe and the United States more recently, there is likely to be lower community interaction between players who continue to play the game. To make matters worse, many events that were planned throughout the month are now being extended or canceled. Which is not to say that Niantic hasn’t responded to the global pandemic: they have made it easier for players to lure and catch Pokemon from the safety of their own homes, relaxed limits on walking distances to receive bonuses (at least for some rewards), and made it easier for more players to interact with each other without having to be physically close.
Thus, newer players that came over with the promise of shiny rewards may have to wait, and that’s not exactly the kind of incentive to offer for returning players. Coupled with the information overload from new events, social distancing measures (either imposed by the state itself or self-imposed by players for precaution) are likely to hit player interest and engagement across experience groups (new players and old alike). What would help is assurance that bonuses will still be available, postponement or cancellation of some events, and of course putting players’ safety and health above all else.
Luckily for Niantic, Pokémon GO has built strong and often tightly-knit local communities across the world — and it has been mostly up to them to ensure that players remain vigilant about existing measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Much of these communities (including those here in Mumbai) are now advocating their peers to stay at home to flatten the curve and prevent the spread of the disease. It helps that without the assistance of other willing players (much like a public goods game), not much can be achieved within the game.
If anything, a pandemic such as n-COVID-19 will force Niantic and the team of Pokemon GO to be more critical of their own in-game policies and scheduling. The case is stronger now more than ever for Pokemon GO to be used as a medium to affect social change – effective guidelines can be disseminated via the game, and rewards for those staying away from elements of the game requiring social interaction (e.g. higher level legendary battles) can be
introduced. One of the ways in which the game already does this is to provide current legendary raid bosses as rewards for victory in the GO Battle Leagues, which does not require physical movement in any way. For a game that always asks players to be considerate of others and aware of their surroundings, it’s perhaps time for Niantic to do the same with its global community of dedicated trainers. It’s true, you gotta catch em’ all — but maybe not right now.
Anirudh Tagat is Research Author at the Department of Economics, Monk Prayogshala.