What happens to your location-based game when your players can't really go anywhere or congregate? Niantic had a unique challenge with Pokemon Go, which requires players to walk around to catch Pokemon, take over gyms, and undertake multiplayer raids against boss-level Pokemon. In a talk during GDC Summer, Pokemon Go product lead Matt Slemon and senior game designer Laura Warner talked about how the game evolved to survive COVID.
The pair said that the main pillars of Pokemon Go's design were socialization, exercise, and exploration. The game is aimed to get players walking around their neighborhoods on a regulars basis. Realizing that the pandemic would stop this, the team looked to the data. Niantic pulled mobility data from Apple in Italy, showing a steep drop in walking during the virus' early spread in that country.
"We were pretty happy with the series' road map. We had worked out something that we were all aligned on a while back, and we were ready to keep on working on it. But then… COVID showed up," said Slemon.
That led to the decision to stop live events for the game. Slemon acknowledged that it was a larger problem than it seemed on paper, as it takes a great deal of effort to stop planned events. Canceling events lowered player activity, so Niantic also had to make changes to the core game loop of Pokemon Go.
This was a heavy push within the team, drastically changing how players engaged with Pokemon Go. "How could we keep the integrity and stability of a game meant to send players outside in large groups, and make it function when trainers can't leave their homes?" asked Warner.
The system that spawns Pokemon was changed to spawn more over shorter distances. The Trainer Battle system removed some requirements, and players were allowed to send more gift to one another. Items bundles within the game shop were drastically lowered to give players access to items like incense. And that incense caused a drastic increase in spawn rates in your area when used. Finally, players could use a remote raid pass to catch rare Pokemon from home.
Ultimately, the changes mark a more accessible Pokemon Go, even if that wasn't Niantic's original intent. "All the features we covered were built and shipped in just a few months. As we began releasing these updates and new features, things kept moving forward," said Warner. "Our vision of the game continued to evolve. Instead of focusing on a model where the only option is to go outside to play, or the model where the only option was to stay at home to play, we started thinking of the game as 'play wherever you are'."
It's unclear if Pokemon Go will stick to that philosophy once the COVID pandemic dies down, but we honestly don't know how long that will be in the United States. At least for the foreseeable future, this is the new normal for everyone's favorite Pokemon catching simulator.
Not everything has gone swimmingly for Pokemon Go. The all-digital Pokemon Go Fest 2020 had some connection issues for players, so Niantic will be running a global makeup event on August 16, 2020. The event will only be available to players who previously purchased a Pokemon Go Fest 2020 ticket. There's also the upcoming Enigma Week, giving players enhanced access to Pokemon like Elgyem and Deoxys from today until August 14 at 1:00 PM PT.