Stuck inside with: Pokémon Go


Stuck Inside With is a new series where, because we're all stuck inside, we venture off the beaten path to explore other parts of the gaming world. This week we're looking at Pokémon Go.

After Pokémon Go launched in July 2016, I loved going to the Santa Monica Pier to walk around and try to catch the dozens of different kinds of water Pokémon spawning throughout the busy tourist area, hoping that I might catch a shiny Magikarp. I would look forward to the end of a long hike, hoping that my 10-km egg had hatched into something cool like a Dratini. A trip to Florida became even more exciting when I caught a Heracross, a region-specific Pokémon that's not available where I live in California.

With people around the world stuck inside amid the coronavirus pandemic, going anywhere very far from home has not really been as easy, safe or fun. Niantic, however, has adjusted quickly to the coronavirus pandemic by making it easier for people to still have fun playing Pokémon Go safely from the comforts of home during this health crisis.

"Over the past couple of months we've been trying to keep an eye on the global situation and trying to make changes that make sense," Pokémon Go's lead project manager Matt Slemon said. "We tried to be as local as we could initially, but as the situation became global it ended up being global changes."

Many of the changes that have been implemented globally in the past couple of months were initially more experimental in nature and first rolled out in a few countries.

"Before the U.S. had any major outbreaks, we did still see impacts to our player communities in other countries, so places like Italy and Korea where COVID sort of started taking root, we noticed very quickly changes in player behavior and changes in government policy that we had to adapt to," Slemon said.

Some of the first global changes were announced on March 12 when Niantic said it was decreasing the distance needed to hatch eggs, increasing Pokestop gift drop frequency, and letting players buy a bundle of incense, which draw Pokémon to your location, for one coin -- the equivalent of one cent.

On March 31, Niantic announced it was doubling the distance at which you could interact with Pokémon Gyms, which are physical locations where you join with other players to battle and potentially catch the Pokémon defending that gym. This would, of course, facilitate social distancing.

Other changes that have been made in the past couple of months are increasing the amount of gifts you can hold to send to your friends, allowing you to battle in raids remotely and receiving field research tasks without having to visit a Pokéstop location. Niantic has even made changes to the fundamental act of finding Pokémon around you.

"For catching we've tried to make sure players who had that reduced mobility still have a chance to find Pokémon, so we've made it so Pokémon are easier to find," Slemon said. "We don't specifically put Pokémon in your house or anything like that, but Pokémon are easier to find in your immediate vicinity."

Slemon says Niantic has also improved the effectiveness of incense, which players can use to draw Pokémon to their location.

"That allowed a lot of people from the outset of the health crisis to have something to do regardless of their situation," Slemon said. "If they could walk around a little bit, their experience should be better, they'll see more Pokémon, they'll hatch more eggs. If they're stuck completely at home they still have the battle features, they still have the incense to bring Pokémon to them."

So many changes have been made to gameplay that Niantic recently revealed a "Play At Home" guide on Pokémon Go's website dedicated to informing players about all the things they can do while at home. It's also going to be a feature within the app in the future.

Being able to battle in a gym remotely is a significant development. While you can walk to a lower-level Pokémon Gym and easily take down and capture the Pokémon defending those gyms on your own, the gyms featuring legendary Pokémon require a larger party. Whereas in the past you needed to congregate with at least five or six other people to be able to take down a gym that Mewtwo, Moltres, Giratina or some other powerful legendary Pokémon was defending, you can now do that from home. Of course, you still need to make sure you have enough other people participating in the raid. According to Niantic, soon you'll be able to invite other players, regardless of where they are, to battle remotely with you.

Besides battling in raids together with others or trading Pokémon and sending gifts to friends, Community Day tends to be one of the more social aspects of playing Pokémon Go. It encourages you to go outside and catch as many of that month's featured Pokémon as you can. My roommate and I used to meet up with a friend who lived down the street during the monthly Community Day and walk around the neighborhood to catch Eevee, Mudkip, Chikorita or whatever Pokémon was spawning more frequently that day. Sometimes we would join up with other groups of people we noticed who were also playing and take part in a raid together. It was just a really fun way to hang out with friends for part of the day.

For this month's Community Day, which took place on Sunday featuring Seedot and was called the "Play At Home Edition," Niantic did something different to facilitate the "community" aspect. The day featured a 24-hour livestream on the Pokémon Go YouTube channel in which you could see Seedot appearing in various scenes like a forest, a garden or a beach. Mostly, the chat alongside the livestream served as a way for players to talk about their Community Day experience and share their trainer codes to gain new friends. Beginning with April's Community Day, Niantic actually made it easier for players to take part in the event from home by making sure their buddy Pokémon is actively bringing them necessary items instead of having to acquire them at Pokéstops.

"We know people tend to go through Pokéballs like crazy on Community Day -- you're catching Pokémon every few seconds for some of our most dedicated players -- so making sure your buddy serves as a partner and is out and about collecting extra Pokéballs for you as you go," he said.

The timing of many of the coronavirus lockdowns happened to coincide with the launch of Pokémon Go's newest feature in March -- the Pokémon Go Battle League, which allowed players to battle remotely against other players. While there was initially a walking requirement to compete in the Go Battle League, Niantic eliminated the requirement a week after this feature launched.

"I think having the Go Battle League launch at that time gave us a good opportunity for our players to experience the newest feature without having to feel like it was immediately being taken away from them by the winds of chance," Slemon said.

It remains to be seen how long the various changes Niantic has made will remain in place. With Pokémon Go designed as a game to be played outdoors, Slemon indicated that most of the changes would be temporary, though there might be some things that the developer decides to make permanent.

"There are definitely some changes where we think it has pretty radically changed the feel of the game," Slemon said. "So for things like raids, as an example, someday raids really should go back to how they were. I think that's part of the critical identity of the game. ... It's fun to get the Pokémon, but part of the fun of Pokémon Go has also been the real-world exploration and community engagement that you get, so we do want to bring those elements back.

"On the other side of coin, you have changes that might be what we could have for the longer term. ... For instance the number of Pokéballs you get from a gift -- like that might not be something that we have to turn down, that might be something that could stick around."

While I still pull out Pokémon Go whenever I go running around my neighborhood, I can't wait to head back to the Santa Monica Pier with friends to catch Pokémon and battle in raids. Until then, I'm happy that Niantic's quick pivot has made staying indoors most of the day a little more enjoyable.