I’ve been meaning to write a Pokémon GO article for awhile – at least since Pokémon GO was first released in the US (I’ll be honest, I was kinda busy playing it). So much has happened in the since release that the article I was planning to write originally is now, to a certain degree, unwritable. Instead, I’m going to talk about what’s been happening since.
For the article I was going to start with a rundown of what Pokémon GO is, but honestly I’d be surprised if anyone visiting Ready Up doesn’t already know by now. I was going to continue with my interpretations of the good it’s doing in the world – encouraging people to walk, helping people to be social, and generating a huge change in social culture literally overnight.
But again, if you’ve heard of Pokémon GO, you’ve probably already heard about all of these things – about how all walks of life are coming together and having fun with this game. How kids and adults alike are joining in the spirit of it.
On the flipside of that, you’ve probably heard stories of people walking over cliffs, or drivers getting into accidents playing whilst driving. None of this is unexpected – there can be nothing revolutionary without good and bad elements, particularly if you use it in a way you’ve been explicitly told not to do.
And on the topic of it being revolutionary – it really has been. It’s united so many walks of life in a way that wasn’t possible before, and it’s great to see. Which is why it pains me so much to see Niantic handling the situation of bugs in the game the way they are. Niantic committed to updating the app every 2 weeks and on July 31st they released an update that has killed the 3 steps feature of the game, and rendered all outside trackers (like Pokevision) unusable. I’m not usually one to comment on a developer’s procedure, and whilst I’m wary of being a salty player myself, I can’t help but be disappointed. When I played the game back when it was first released in the US and when the 3 step tracker still worked, it was so much fun.
If you’ve never played the game, or never played it when the 3 steps worked; The game used to be able to track how far away a Pokémon was from your location. 3 steps was 300 meters any direction, 2 was 200 meters, 1 was 100 meters and no steps meant you were directly on top of it and it should appear soon.
There were so many times walking around me and my partner would stop and walk 4 different directions just to find the Pokémon we were looking for and it felt like what the spirit of the game was meant to be. Today, Niantic have decided that, for now, they are going to remove the feature. This makes sense to me in that, as it’s broken, it should be removed until it works, but the issue is with Niantics lack of communication, there’s no telling if they’re still working on a fix. And people are mad.
Which leads me to the real crux of this article – how much communication does a game developer owe to its fan base? I would argue that as little as 10 years ago, a developer would require very little communication, and could happily develop without needing to reach out to its user base in any other way than official notices. Today however, with the rise of forums like Reddit, and more and more server based games that are prone to glitches, it feels like employing a community manager is now a given for any large developer.
But that still doesn’t answer the question of are fans owed the communication. As in to say, by playing the game, are we owed feedback on development from the developers? Niantic don’t seem to have a community manager and I can’t decide if this is just an oversight, or do they just think it’s not necessary? Or alternatively, did they really just not think Pokémon GO was going to be the huge success it was?
Note how I saw ‘was’. I’m not saying that Pokémon GO still isn’t a huge success – it completely is – but since July 14th Survey Monkey has noted that the rate of users playing Pokémon GO has been steady declining. Around July 14th also just so happens to be the date the 3 step bug started. It’s important to keep in mind that user drop off after 10 days in any mobile game is not unusual – this is a completely expected thing within game development; However, I think it would be prudent to say the three step bug, and perhaps to a certain extent communication or there lack of, is definitely a contributing factor.
Whilst I ask the question of how much communication should a developer have with its audience base, users from many Pokémon GO user community groups I’ve seen are being very vocal about the fact that they don’t think Niantic is doing enough.
On the other hand, I’d hate to be an employee of Niantic right now. I imagine that the amount of crunch they’re going through to get things working is incredible and fair play to them to sorting out other issues, such as the server down times, in such a short space time (albeit it felt like a year to the players). The company is in a cursed but blessed situation were they have so many users who want to play their game, that they don’t appear to be able to handle the numbers. Which also begs the question of, even if they did hire a community manager (or more likely a community team), how would they handle the insane amount of people playing and talking about the game, not to mention the current level of frustration that’s currently in the water?
On one hand from the outside, the general consensus is it feels like Niantic aren’t doing enough to communicate with its fan base, but on the other, no one other than Niantic have any idea what’s going on inside the company, the issues they’re facing, and the fires they’re fighting. It could be that they’re hearing everyone’s requests but simply don’t have the resources to deal with it, and until they sort those issues can’t dedicate resources to communication, which when you think about it that way, makes some sense. However, whilst as a professional company I believe it’s down to them how they handle their development and fan base communication, ultimately it’s not really down to what they do or do not owe the fans; It’s more prudent to consider what the developer will lose or gain by their choices. Fixing a game is of course incredibly important but should be weighted up against the potential losses; from a business point of view, what’s the point of fixing a game if there’s few left to play?