It was summer 2016. Parks were flooded with children, teens, and adults trying to catch virtual monsters. Pokemon Go was a mobile phenomenon, but like all fads the sensationalism would die down.
This didn’t mean the game was dead. A fanbase remained when the craze was over. These core players have stuck with the game for four years, going outside with each event. Niantic, developer of Pokemon Go, designed the app to be a social and experiential game:
We created Niantic with a mission to help people get outside, exercise, and explore the world, with the ultimate goal of helping people connect with others.
Then, people were told not to go outside. Of course, this was in response to COVID-19. The pandemic has resulted in people sheltering indoors, social distancing, and limiting exercise to the constraints of their residence. This should be a kiss of death for the game, but instead Pokemon Go is thriving.
How Niantic Made It Work
If you didn’t quit Pokemon Go after the summer of 2016 you’d know the game has been producing events for players as well as implementing new features. This aligns with Niantic’s mission to get people out of the house and connect with other players.
The month of March had events planned, such as their monthly community day and one of their annual “Go Fest” events in St. Lewis, Missouri. Both of those events were cancelled for the time being. Niantic took a leap of faith, assuming players would understand the seriousness of COVID-19. Players have been understanding of Niantic’s decisions to postpone events. They also understand the pandemic prevents people from engaging with the game.
Somehow, Niantic managed to have its most successful week of the year in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To be fair, their spike in success is partially thanks to a pay-to-play event for a legendary Pokemon. This would encourage players to spend money when they normally wouldn’t. If a player doesn’t want to spend money, Niantic has allowed other methods of obtaining the legendary Pokemon in the coming weeks. Whether you paid get this Pokemon or not, obtaining new legendary Pokemon had always been dependent upon community raids, something discouraged by Niantic (not to mention the government) right now. These but they could no longer be included in March’s event.
So, Niantic changed the event. They made the objectives dependent upon battles and wild Pokemon encounters. They didn’t want to do this, it was necessary to hold the event. Given the fact they’d cancelled a few social-based events, it was smart to keep the pay-to-play event.
There’s a reason Niantic could pull this off. They’ve steadily been adding features to their game over the past four years to give players a more robust experience. They’ve revamped their gym battles, added raid bosses, tasked players to complete research, allowed players to battle one another, and introduced battles against Team Rocket enemies. When Niantic couldn’t rely on their regular event formula, they used their event to highlight other game features.
Playing Go With Nowhere to Go
Pokemania died after summer of 2016, but the loyal fanbase stuck around. Niantic evolved, and the core players responded. In fact, 2019 was the most profitable year for Pokemon Go. Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, Niantic is trying to give players a reason to keep making purchases.
For the past few years, Niantic has implemented events on a monthly or weekly basis. In April, they will continue to have events, but they will also implement some changes to make the event accessible to people can’t get outdoors.
First, Niantic made sure they weren’t going to be the reason people had to leave their houses. Then, they gave them ways to attract more Pokemon from the comforts of their own home. They allowed users to purchase 30 incense for a single poke coin (which can be obtained through gym battles in the game, or the the approximate eqivlant on $0.01). Then they doubled the length and efficiency of their incense. After that, they halved the distance needed to hatch eggs and doubled the items users receive from gifts. Finally, they doubled users’ ability to reach gyms so they can battle and get coins.
All of these initiatives have allowed people to engage in events without leaving the house. Still, they’re adapting to the current sitation. As the future seems increasingly uncertain, Niantic will need to make more changes to make the game playable. Many events are based on the time of year. We know the Easter event will look different than anticipated, and it won’t be the last event that needs to be modified.
Uncertainty impacts both Niantic and Pokemon Go player, but the efforts from Niantic do not go unnoticed. They are even trying to change their raid system so players have a new way to do their favorite activities. Niantic never anticipated a need for this feature, but their commitment to their users have forced them to reimagine their existing experience.
Why Niantic Will Win
When all is said and done, Niantic will not become a casualty of COVID-19. The circumstances surrounding the pandemic are changing quickly, but Niantic is responding just as fast.
Niantic has been successful because they’ve constantly redesigned their virtual world and the ways players can progress in the game. The core features of the game, the part that makes users “go” has been restricted by COVID-19. Niantic has used this opportunity to showcase newer and underutilized features in the game. Trainer battles have allowed players to catch pokemon that were once restricted to raids while incense have been the most efficient way to encounter new spawns.
Pokemon Go hasn’t stopped building the game since it first launched. When restrictions were placed on activity, Niantic had to reimagine their user experience. They have enough features to keep players in the game, and this is why their transition isn’t going to destroy them. They may need to tweak some features and downplay others, but the overall experience is still engaging.
After all, this is an augmented reality game. The reality of the current situation means people can’t go outside and movement is limited. When restrictions are lifted and people can go back outside, Pokemon Go will survive. Players are going to be familiar with more features than before, Niantic is going to have a reimagined vision of gameplay, and the direction of the game will be shifted in a very user-friendly way. Niantic has stayed focused on their players and their safety, and this challenging situation will be viewed as another success in Niantic’s history.