I started playing Pokémon GO on July 7th, 2016. That was the very first day that the app was available for download here in Taiwan. I started with the declared goal of catching ‘em all. Let me clarify that for me that only includes the original 151 Pokémon from the base set in the Kanto region. For me, that’s Pokémon. I started with Red and Blue (and Yellow), played through Gold and Silver, and then stopped playing. I’ve never really had an interest in the Pokémon past the original set, with a few special exceptions. So for me Pokémon GO was always about catching Bulbasaur to Mew. I finally accomplished this feat last week after 1 year and 9 months of continuous play. By continuous play I mean playing every day without fail, often for hours at a time. I’ve walked 2,411.3 km, caught 21,123 Pokémon, and spun 24,745 PokéStops. Finally I’m done. And let’s be very honest. There are players who have walked, caught, and spun way more than me and still don’t have all 151. That’s not a good thing.
I am a serious gamer. By serious I don’t mean I spend a ton of hours gaming, even though I do. I don’t mean I own and buy a lot of games, even though I do. And I certainly don’t mean that I play PVP at competitive level, which anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter knows I absolutely don’t, because I hate PVP. What I mean when I refer to myself as a serious gamer is that I take my gaming seriously. As in I think about and play with a consciously serious mindset. I’m not the type of person to say things like “as long as it’s fun that makes it a good game”. I’m not the kind of person who buys a game, plays it for 30 minutes, gets bored, and then moves on to another game. I play games with intent and I think about them critically at pretty much all times. I set target goals for the games I play to specifically define when I’ll consider myself finished with them and what I need to accomplish before I stop playing them. This is true regardless of genre, platform, or hours spent. Some games I play with an achievement based goal like how I platinum every single Ratchet & Clank game that gets released. Sometimes I play just to get to the end of the single player story campaign like with most of the Final Fantasy games. Even with multiplayer PVP games I tend to set a target goal like achieve prestige level 1 in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. And as I’ve already stated, with Pokémon GO my goal was to catch all 151 base set Pokémon.
At the end of most games I complete, regardless of what my goal is/was, I’m usually happy to finally be done with them. With such a long backlog, I really like to clear games as quickly as possible. And some games are so long that by the time I get to the end of them I’m just completely burned out. But every so often when I reach the end of a game I want to play more but there’s nothing left for me to do. With most games I play, this occurs only when the game is very good, such as with Super Mario Odyssey. But for the first time in my life, it’s the opposite situation. I have finished a game, Pokémon GO, and would like to play it more but won’t because it’s not a good game.
Pokémon GO is not a good game. I have played hundreds, maybe even a couple thousand, hours. I’ve played in four different countries. Though I’ve never spent money in the game itself, I’ve spent more than my fair share to play it with travel fees, phone data fees abroad, and of course time spent. With all this experience under my belt, and of course the many years of gaming and reviewing games I have and had long before ever playing Pokémon GO, I can say without hesitation that it’s not a good game. If not for my serious commitment to gaming with a purpose and completing my declared goals, I would have stopped playing months ago. I have grown to love catching Pokémon just like I did as a kid and genuinely would like to keep playing the game because there are still more Pokémon for me to catch and new ones being added in the future, even if I don’t have any sort of personal connection to the later gens. But there are just too many problems for me to keep wasting my time with this game considering how many other games there are to play.
The saddest thing of all about Pokémon GO is that it doesn’t have to be a bad game. Niantic willfully makes it so. At its core level, it’s actually a pretty solid game. Certainly one of the best mobile games I’ve ever played. But the higher level mechanics are just wrong on so many levels. Almost all of which come down to a combination of greed and gameplay padding in order to arbitrarily increase play time. With just a few simple fixes this game could be something good that wouldn’t be constantly hemorrhaging players as it has since at least gen two. It could very easily be fun and playable for more than just us committed hard core players, and again the fixes necessary aren’t rocket science. The most important being adding PvE coins and rare candies, wild Legendary spawns, rotating spawns in any given area, removing all regionally specific Pokémon (as in distributing all Pokémon to all regions), making incubators acquirable at all levels by spinning PokéStops in unlimited quantities, prioritizing hatches to Pokémon players actually need, and adding trading, which in all honesty would become unnecessary if all the other changes mentioned were implemented.
What it really comes down to is that Pokémon GO plays like a game that only considers paid players. Like with most things by EA today . . . cough Star Wars Battlefront II cough . . ., it demands you to spend money not just to make the game better but to even make it manageable. I’ve been playing since day 1, yet I only have 500 spots in my PokéBank. I believe the current maximum is 1500 spots. Really these spots should be free, but instead they cost coins. Coins can only be acquired through sitting on gyms. Depending on where you are, this can be extremely easy or extremely difficult. For me, a person living in literally one of the most competitive GO cities in the world, Taipei, with no gyms that can be reached without leaving my block, it’s very difficult to get on and more importantly stay on a gym. And when I can there’s of course the 50 coin limit so I can’t even get my maximum potential coins in those extremely rare moments where I can actually keep a gym for several hours. For my friend, who literally lives on top of a gym, he has never gone a day since the latest gym update where he didn’t get his 50 coins. He of course has the maximum number of PokéBank spots available, even though he too is a free player. Of my 631 eggs hatched, I would say maybe 20% of them were Pokémon I could actually use. That’s Pokémon I needed to add to my Pokédex. This low number is due at least in part to the fact that I have such a limited number of incubators as a free player and the fact that I tend to get 5k eggs, which are the absolute least useful eggs in the game. Of the four Pokémon, not counting regionals, that I still need to hatch in order to finish the current available Pokédex, only one is available from a 5k egg and I have never hatched a single one. And to be honest, I’ve only seen one in the wild, which I caught. For the record, that Pokémon is Lileep. For the most part, these are all super easy fixes that would drastically improve the gameplay experience for pretty much all players, other than those who are willing to spend tons of money and can travel the world to catch a single Pokémon. But sadly those are the only players that Niantic considers when developing the game.
*After writing this but before I published it, I did see a second Lileep in the wild, which I caught, so I have actually now seen 2 Lileeps in the game.
Free players and casual players matter in Pokémon GO, as well as every other game with multiplayer elements. The fact is that GO makes a ton of money, but the percentage of paid players is relatively low. Yet if all the free players stopped playing the game would literally cease to work. You couldn’t have working gyms without players to fill them. You couldn’t complete raids without players to help. The game cannot work without your free player base because that makes up the majority of players that give all the paid players a reason to spend money in order to be competitive. So really it’s in the best interests of Niantic to do everything they can to keep free players happy enough to keep playing the game. The truth is that GO only still exists because of the popularity of Pokémon. If this was just a random game about catching monsters no one knew about it would have already collapsed due to the terrible management of the app. These flaws are why I cannot happily play this game anymore even though I would very much like to.
Let me be very clear about something. I don’t expect Niantic to fix their game. In fact I’m confident they won’t. But what I do hope for is that this post and others like it by gamers as serious as I am are seen by other developers looking to make similar games and hopefully they will take my feedback to heart when designing their own games. It’s not just about hour 1. It’s about hour 100. Mobile games like this only work with long term, dedicated players and many of them. As I said before, GO, in its current form, wouldn’t still be a thing if it didn’t have the advantage of Pokémon. We will soon be getting Jurassic World Live and I will be playing it. I haven’t decided what my goal for it is yet because I don’t know enough about it, but I do hope that the developers do a better job than Niantic at making a game that’s actually fun after the honeymoon period ends for all players, whether paid or free.
For the record, I have causally continued playing Pokémon GO at a drastically lower level of play since catching all 151 while I wait for Jurassic World Live to drop. Can’t say for how much longer that will be the case.