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June 2017

Pokémon GO Update: The Highs, the Lows

Highs and LowsA little over a week since Niantic put the new Gyms system and Raids live in Pokémon GO, and the backlash is gradually being drowned out by the support for the way the year-old game has been reawakened by a cleverly imagined, although clunkily implemented, revision to a major part of the core game. The state of the player community is aptly summarised by these two pictures. On the left, five strangers (GPS spoofer not pictured…) took down a Tyranitar in a city in the US… on the right, someone turned up for a big Raid and found nobody there. Indeed, there’s far more of the experience on the right at the moment than the one on the left, but when it works, players are ecstatic about the Raids – and the fact that all three rival Teams can battle together makes it far more open than anything else in the game.

I mentioned before that there were too many Raids triggering for it to fulfil the needs of event gameplay, which is something any AR game wants to create if it can. Pokémon GO has had the most success with this by virtue of the power of the Pokémon brand. However, while I stand by the assessment that the sheer ubiquity of Raids makes no-shows far too likely, the one aspect of this set-up that could work out is that a group of players that set out to attempt a Raid together will have a good chance of finding one that would suit them, and big wins will generate a lot more social media buzz than the no-shows, which will be largely invisible in the secondary media. I have suspicions that part of the problem with Raids is that the app can only hold a relatively small geographic chunk of data in memory at any one time, and thus Niantic are not set up to flag Raids city- or county-wide… if they were, there are much better ways of designing the Raid allocations than those we’re currently seeing.

Meanwhile, and quite fortunately for Niantic, the furore over coins is starting to die down as players gradually adjust to the new arrangement. It becomes clearer and clearer than the most outraged players are the ousted nobility of an economy that was akin to a pyramid scheme in rewarding the players who had been at it for longest while excluding everyone else. Not long after the update, Niantic brought the cap on the Gym Defender Bonus down to 50 PokéCoins per day, but raised the rewards to 1 coin per 10 minutes (immediately after the update, it was 1 coin per hour up to a maximum of 100 per day), which didn’t go down well. But what’s becoming clear is that instead of 1-2% of players getting 100 coins a day and 5% of players getting 10-20 coins per day, now anyone who wants to can get 50 coins a day, at least if they’re not too close to the centre of a city nor too far away from any major settlement. (As someone who grew up on an island only 30 miles across, I can feel the pain of the rural players right now…)

The real switch in people’s heads is in understanding how everyone now gets ‘paid’. It used to be a salary system, where the pay was proportional to the number of Gyms occupied (up to 10). This encouraged squatting in Gyms with 3,000 CP overlords that the majority of players – especially those coming late to the game – could never match. The new pay is a mediated lottery system, because it’s not hard to get a pokémon to hold a Gym for 8 hours and get the full 50 coins (if you’re up late at night, it’s even easier!), but you need to ensure that you get at least one monster returned to you each day, and this isn’t something you can guarantee. Rather, the more defenders you put into Gyms, the better chance you have of getting your expected earnings.

The new Defender rewards is far a subtler system than the one it replaces.. you are going to get lots of creatures coming home in bandages at the weekend, when there’s a lot of player activity, so it can feel like those coins are ‘wasted’ when players still think in terms of salary. But the dominant strategy for the the new coin system revolves around ensuring that at least one 8-hour Pokémon comes back each day. I predict it won’t be long before players complain less about getting multiple monsters back at once (which at the moment feels like having ‘lost’ money, because of the comparison with the old salary system) than about living in an area where nobody comes and battles at their Gyms ever. These complains already exist, but those voices will get louder and more bitter the longer the situation persists, always assuming the players just don’t drop out entirely.

Urban players will quickly adjust to the idea that they’re going to be getting a steady 50 coins a day now (50 cents USD/40p GBP) – and I estimate 10-20 times as many players getting that full pay-out from Niantic than were getting it before, which is obviously a win for the game in terms of engagement and player satisfaction. At the same time, rural players are going to find their Pokémon stuck in Gyms and getting no coins at all. They’re asking for a button to recall the Pokémon – but this would break the Gym system. Niantic ought to be thinking about what they can do to balance the city and the countryside, although as a strict commercial decision it does make sense to favour the densely populated areas over the sparser regions. Still, they would earn a lot of brownie points for being responsive to this issue.

There’s one last issue: Stardust. It is used in the game economy to power up pokémon, and under the old system it was the scarcest and most valuable resource because it could not be purchased directly by IAP, unlike PokéCoins. Players who were earning 100 coins a day used it to purchase Egg Incubators because these pay-out the most Stardust, but they also got 500 stardust for each Pokémon in a Gym (up to 5,000 maximum per day), which was enough to power up a high level monster once, or a low level monster twice. Under the old ‘Overlord’ Gym system, Stardust was essential because you had to be competitive on Combat Points (CP) to stay in a Gym. But under the new system this simply doesn’t matter because visiting Gyms frequently is much more important than having played the game for longer than everyone around you. Players who became used to having a lot of Stardust (the toppled nobility) are feeling the loss… but for most players, the new arrangement is simply better for them than the grind-heavy old regime, even if the 10 Stardust per berry fed at a Gym is peanuts next to what used to be paid out.

Right now, Niantic are doubling down on bug fixes, since launching two new systems at once has understandably broken the game in dozens of different ways. The real testament to the success of the Raid system is that players who form a group and beat a strong Raid Boss enjoy the experience so much it completely blows away their irritations over fatal crashes, bar display fluctuations, and other such problems that in a less popular game would be fatal. With a week of Raids now over, I’m going to call the update a qualified success for Niantic – and it’s going to be interesting to see what it means for their revenue when that data is released. For the time being, though, there’s never been a better time to be part of the 65 million strong player community for Pokémon GO.

Pokémon GO Raids: First Weekend


Has Niantic hurt its player community with the new update, or has it succeeded in raising engagement and monetisation? This question is not yet fully resolved, but after the first weekend of Raids and Gym battles under the new system, we have a sense of how things are going for the 65 million-player augmented reality game.

As both a player and as a videogame consultant, I’ve been keeping a very close eye on how the new Pokémon GO update affected the player community over the weekend. It was a significant event in the game’s history, because multiplayer co-operative Raids are now live for all players, having previously been through an interesting Beta-by-level countdown (such that, for instance Level 35 players had first access, then Level 30 and so on). The Raids are an important part of Niantic’s monetisation strategy going forwards, so they need to work well enough for that to pay off for them.

The good news, for both players and Niantic, is that the Raids have been very well received, offering a new kind of battle to the players that are exciting and engaging. But there is a problem. The Raids are clearly intended to be event gameplay – the idea is that groups of players get together to fight a powerful Raid boss together. But this hasn’t happened. So far, in all my skimming around Raid sites, the most I have found at any one is two players, and a single player or none at all is more typical.

The problem is, there are currently far too many Raids triggering at once. The Raids only work as events if players all descend upon one Raid together – which is clearly intended, because the monetisation of Premium Raid Tickets (IAP $1 USD or 79p GBP) is the big win that Niantic is aiming for in the new system. With one free ticket a day, and dozens of Raids to choose from between 9 am and 9 pm, players are not congregating for the Raids at all. Perhaps Niantic is expecting players to self-organise for this. If so, they are being optimistic.

Eevee GymOn the plus side, the new Gym update has brought the player community out of hiding. Outside of Raids, I have encountered more Pokémon GO players in the last three days than in my entire time with the game thus far. That’s a win for Niantic – the revision of the Gym system has worked as intended, and it has ended the domination of 3,000 CP overlords. Now, more players than ever before are able to get pokémon into gyms, and more different kinds of beasties are appearing in gyms as players realise that the old rules don’t apply. This has also generated a lot of free publicity in social media, with images like the one above circulating rather well online.

But while players who had previously been marginalised are now coming out of the woodwork, the existing PokéNobility are still seriously offended by the changes to the coin rewards, as I discussed before the update went live. This is an ongoing mini-scandal, and how offended players are about it depends on how well they were doing out of the old system. There’s a certain degree of the aristocracy-after-the-revolution about this sour grapes, especially since it was the vast minority of players (I reckon between 1 and 5% of the player base) that were benefiting from the old regime.

Don’t think, however, that this means that the new PokéCoin system was clever design work on Niantic’s part: one of the serious problems with the way the new system works is that players have lost control of how their rewards are received. Previously, players chose when to take their PokéCoins, and this setup allowed even marginal players to get some coins every now and then. Now, players have absolutely no control over when they get rewards. You don’t get coins until your pokémon are ejected from gyms, and this happens when another team decides to attack. Players feel understandably set adrift by this, which is bad for player satisfaction, and (perhaps worse) it is an additional incentive for players to start secondary accounts – which Niantic are publicly opposed to.

Overall, this new update has been a good news, bad news kind of affair. My impression of the response from the player community is that the benefits have outweighed the costs for the majority of the players, but that a minority of well-established players are displeased by the toppling of an empire that benefited them greatly. That said, no-one is happy about a reward system that quashes player agency and creates huge ambiguity about how to earn rewards by playing the game. On this front, Niantic have some crucial fire-fighting ahead of them.

Wave Goodbye to the 3,000 CP Overlords

First Gym DataThe gyms went live last night at 9:00 pm GMT, and as predicted it was the biggest land grab in videogame history… Within two hours, every gym within ten miles of me was claimed. As a Team Mystic family, I was lucky to get any pokémon into slots as there are so many more blue players than anything else – but I did meet other players for the first time in the UK, who were clustered around my local gyms, working to secure them and fill them up. As someone who missed the launch of the game, it was a nice feeling to see the community in the flesh.

With the first night over here in the UK, the effects of the Motivation system are readily apparent: eight hours later, those who put 3,000 CP+ defenders into gyms will find their pokémon bored to death this morning, with zero motivation. Now it’s a face between allied players giving them berries to perk them up and rival teams to claim the gym – which will be easier the more behemoths were fielded. This is an extremely encouraging development! It really does end the pokémonopoly, even though (sadly) Blissey will remain ubiquitous on account of her unbelievable tanking stats.

I chose to field an unusual pokémon because it seemed in the spirit of the new meta-game to do so, putting in a 1,799 Typhlosion my kids had evolved at the end of the Solstice event. I have much higher CP defenders to choose from, but I was curious as to whether the new setup really would shake things up. This morning, the 3,293 CP Dragonite and a similar-strength Gyrados were seriously flagging, and down to roughly 1,200 CP. But my Typhlosion is only down to 1,631, and the Espeon of one of the trainer I met last night is down from 1,714 CP to 1,552 CP (odd that Blissey went from 1,918 to 1,935 CP, but it may have already lost Motivation in the first case, and have been recently fed in the second). This means, as predicted, the question of what is a good gym defender is back in play – and really will be different according to the local conditions. Great news for players who are in it for the fun of battling for control.

However, it has also become apparent that the new PokéCoin mechanic utterly destroys any hope of players in cities from making much in-game currency, since a pokémon must defend for an hour to get 1 coin now. Previously, as soon as you took a gym you could claim 10 coins immediately, and it was easy to take 30-40 coins a day from occupying gyms only briefly, and perfectly viable to claim the maximum 100 coins (worth about a dollar, or 79p here in the UK). Now, rural players will be able to take advantage of the slow turnover of their gyms, which is nice compensation for their isolation, while spoofers (who use fake GPS data to cheat at the game) will at least have to work harder to work out which gyms are worth holding. 

This strangling of reward may well have the desired effect of raising real money transactions – we'll find out the next time Niantic post profits. However, I for one will dig my heels in and be much less likely to buy PokéCoins knowing that the developer is intentionally starving supply. Of course, paid Premium Raid passes might be Niantic’s endgame here – and many will be tempted to buy these to get a chance at capturing unique pokémon. But it means in the monetisation meta-game, Niantic is going to have turned a lot of its friends into enemies.

Why Niantic's Gym Gamble Could Pay Off

PG updateWhat does Niantic hope to achieve with its substantial update of the gym system in Pokémon GO, already in progress? Is this about bringing in more players, maintaining the existing community, or improving monetisation?

Almost all news services this week have reported on the major update to Pokémon GO that is rolling out globally right now (the Android update is already available, and the iOS update is not far behind). The hugely successful Augmented Reality (AR) game still pulls in some 65 million monthly active users (MAU), which while not in the same league of the behemoth Candy Crush Saga at 405 million still makes it one of the world’s most popular games. For context, the entirety of Activision’s product line (including Call of Duty and Destiny) makes up 40 million MAU and all Blizzard’s monthly active users (including World of Warcraft and Overwatch) amounts to 41 million. Whichever way you look at it, Pokémon GO is a serious player in the market for games.

The changes coming in the new update primarily involve the gym system – but not the battles themselves, which remain unchanged. Rather, Niantic are redefining the way pokémon are stationed in gyms, providing new ways for players to engage with their local gyms and (in a further update coming a month later) adding Raids that are modelled on the endgame concepts popularised by World of Warcraft. You can read the most complete description of the changes from Niantic’s support article about the update.

Most sources have correctly reported that the new system limits only one pokémon of each type to a gym, transforming the meta-game and ending the days of gyms containing a depressing multitude of pokémon’s tedious ubertank, Blissey. Most mention the arrival of the new Motivation system and the consequent retiring of the old Prestige system, which asked players to train at friendly gyms to increase the number of pokémon that could be stationed there. However, few have commented on the significance of these changes, and very few mention the most crucial aspect of this overhaul, which means players with less time spent in the game have a chance of participating in the gym battle system.

This, indeed, appears to be the primary motivation for Niantic’s overhaul. The current gym system suffers from major king-of-the-castle problems: players who have been playing from the beginning are now at approximately level 30-36, and can field pokémon with more than 3,000 Combat Points (CP), the measure of the little beasties’ strength in battle. Crucially, these high CP monsters lock up friendly gyms and make it very difficult for new players to have any involvement whatsoever in what’s going on in their local battlegrounds. New players are frequently unable to do much at gyms until they clear about level 20, and even then, there is an inescapable feeling that they are outclassed by the ‘big guns’ who have been playing for longer. This is never a healthy state for a player community: newcomers are all too easily discouraged.

The update not only limits the number of big guns in each gym by only allowing one pokémon of each species, the new Motivation system radically changes the nature of gym defence. Motivation is a morale system – as the gym defenders are defeated in battle (or whenever they lie idle and don’t get to fight at all), they lose Motivation, which reduces their effective CP value. This makes them easier to defeat, which lowers their Motivation further until eventually they give up and go home. Taking a gym is now about the pokémon chosen to defend, not about Prestige, which in the old system could be reduced by battling just a few of the gym’s defenders.

Crucial to the success of this new system is this line from Niantic’s notes:

To help balance different Pokémon strengths and abilities, stronger Pokémon generally lose motivation more quickly than those that are not as strong.

Now the actual game implications of this design element will not become clear until the update has fully rolled out and Niantic turn the gyms on, but it is clear how this is intended to function: putting in ultra-strong 3,000 CP pokémon is no longer the only viable strategy for gym defence. These pokémon lose morale faster, and thus will presumably get kicked out of gyms faster. The new dominant strategy for gym defence, therefore, depends on finding a sweet spot in the strength of the monsters deployed to gyms – too strong, and they will suffer a crisis of morale too easily; too weak, and they’ll roll over in battle without putting up any serious resistance. The fact that there is a sweet spot to discover – and that it could be different in each local area – revitalises the gym system in a way that is highly likely to reinvigorate the interest of its existing players, as well as potentially bring back some that left it over its first year.

There’s an important ambiguity, however. Although it is something most Pokémon GO players are unaware of, the Prestige system for gyms (which is being retired) created a role for weaker pokémon as ‘prestigers’ who trained at friendly gyms to raise the Prestige and increase the number of available slots. The second-string monsters were relevant since bigger Prestige bonuses were awarded for using weaker pokémon to train, creating interest in a whole raft of relatively weak pokémon that would otherwise be useless. (I have been maintaining an army of Furrets for this very reason.) With Prestige going, there is a big question about whether the only useful gym attackers will now be the high CP pokémon – effectively undoing a great many of the benefits of the new system. However, if defenders lose more Motivation for being beaten by weaker pokémon (which would be sensible, but that doesn’t mean Niantic have done it…) there could be seriously interesting questions about which team to take into each and every gym battle.

The community is showing overwhelming support for the new changes, although there are some concerns about alterations to the rewards for defending gyms. Previously, you could collect PokéCoins (which are the in-game currency that can be purchased with real money transactions) once every 21 hours, amounting to 10 coins per pokémon defending gyms, up to a ceiling of 100 per day. The 100 per day cap still stands, but now you only get coins when your pokémon loses its morale and returns from the gym. This creates substantial uncertainties that some players are already getting anxious about. It’s not clear this will end the strategy of ‘gym squatting’ or not: players still have a motive to deploy many pokémon into gyms, and it’s not up to them when they return, which creates worries about yet further advantages to ‘gym shavers’ who (against Niantic’s terms and conditions) have multiple accounts belonging to different teams so they can manipulate the gym situation to their personal advantage.

What is very clear about Niantic’s plans with this gym update is that it is all about strengthening the community around local gyms. Players of all levels can give berries to defenders of their team to help them stay on – allowing players to effectively ‘vote with their berries’ as to which gym defenders they want to keep. Furthermore, players earn status with gyms to level up gym badges to give them advantages. These changes help make a player’s relationship with their local gym stronger, which could have beneficial results for player experience. Add to this the Raids (which will start in July) that will create community events at local gyms, and this could give a serious boost to the sense of player community that Pokémon GO engenders.

Making a radical change to core game mechanics is always a risk, but Niantic seem to have thought this one through quite carefully, and it certainly has the potential to invigorate the existing player community and bring back a few players who left out of either boredom or frustration. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, particularly in terms of whether the motivation system truly breaks the pokémonopoly of Blissey, Dragonite, Snorlax, Rhydon, Gyrados, and Vaporeon, which dominate every gym I have visited anywhere in the world. But even the possibility of thoroughly shaking up the meta-game is one that players of Pokémon GO are excited about. Let the battle for the pokémon gyms begin – again!

Are you a Pokémon GO player sad to lose the Prestige system, or excited about having to only fight one Blissey per gym? Leave a comment – we’d love to hear from you!

Cyberamicable Game Design

FriendsIs it possible to design videogames to encourage friendships? This is a question about whether cyberamicable games are a possibility, and it’s one that

Earlier this year, Dan Cook published a long report from his November 2016 Project Horseshoe visit, entitled Game Design Patterns for Building Friendships. This is precisely a discussion about what I have been calling cybervirtue, in the context of games, and I want to suggest that games that are designed to encourage friendship would be cyberamicable, since we call ‘amicable’ a person who gets on well with others, or who forms friendships easily.

Here’s an extract from Dan’s piece:

Games that lack the tools for disclosing personal info between two people will never facilitate deep relationships. They may never even facilitate shallow relationships since players see that there will never be a long term future for any relationship they form in the game. However, disclosure is a highly risky action and teams will often try to cut it from their designs. Sharing information before a relationship is strong enough can result in broken or antagonistic relationships.

There’s a ton of useful and thought-provoking ideas here, and it’s well worth a look for anyone working in the space of multiplayer games. Check it out!