Pokemon Go Just Can't Catch a Break

Bloomberg View , December 18, 2016

On Monday, the company announced a much-anticipated update. Players were looking forward to a bevy of new creatures to catch and maybe a chance to earn double points as they had during Halloween and Thanksgiving promotions. Instead all they got were a handful of new baby monsters and Pikachu in a Santa hat. To make matters worse, the babies can only be hatched from eggs, which means walking many kilometers, preferably with a bunch of incubators you’ve bought from the Pokemon store.

It was like expecting Santa to bring you a bicycle and getting socks instead. Hard-core players were bummed, and the millions who’ve quit the game had little reason to return.

Then Tuesday the medical journal BMJ published a study finding that players only moderately increase the number of steps per day they take, and then only temporarily. “The change in number of steps in the first week would translate into 11 minutes of additional walking daily,” the authors wrote, “which is around half of the World Health Organization recommendation of 150 or more minutes weekly.” Within six weeks of installing the app, even that modest increase dwindled to nothing, possibly because people stop playing.

Even with declining downloads and active users, Pokemon Go is still by far the most popular mobile game in the U.S., and its worldwide rollout continues, with South Asian countries including India and Pakistan added this week. But it definitely faces challenges.

After trying out the game for a column in July, I fully expected to stop playing. But five months later, I’m at level 32. The only time I haven’t played daily was a week I spent in China, where the game isn’t available. Contrary to my predictions and the BMJ study, I do walk more: about 12,000 steps a day compared to around 8,000 before I started playing.

It turns out that if you live in a mild climate and already walk a lot on city streets, it’s easy to get hooked. Traveling also makes the game more interesting, because Niantic varies the fauna with locale: Magnemites on Coronado Island, Drowzees in Berlin, Ponytas in Salt Lake City. Although I haven’t taken to haunting Reddit boards and have only made one trip to the legendary hunting grounds of the Santa Monica pier, I have to admit that I’m a hardcore player.

But even I am getting a little bored.

Novelty and a sense of accomplishment are what make Pokemon Go, or any other game, interesting. You don’t just want to do the same thing over and over again as you get more experienced. Pokemon Go tries to address this problem by making its monsters harder to catch and hold as you advance. But what starts as adding challenge to the game, eventually gets tiresome. Some unknown algorithm is making you waste all your ammo trapping monsters that keep breaking lose, even though you’re taking perfectly fine shots. Making a game too hard, especially for reasons that have nothing to do with skill, is as bad as making it too easy.

The desire for new challenges is why fans were so excited by the prospects of a hundred new monsters to catch -- and why they were so disappointed by the news that nothing new would be appearing in the wild. It’s also why players keep clamoring for ways to compete with one other, rather than the computer, in Pokemon gym fights. (Given the latency problems even with the existing setup, I don’t see this happening anytime soon.)

Niantic knows how to get players back on the streets. It did it at Halloween, by making its spooky monsters show up more frequently and doubling the rewards for each captured critter. That boosted both play and revenue significantly. It gave players new thrills and a greater sense of accomplishment. A Thanksgiving promotion, while not quite as lucrative, did the same. The latest update offers little of either. Pokemon fans can only hope Niantic has a New Year’s surprise in store.