July 6th marked two years since the launch of the seemingly enduring augmented-reality game, Pokémon GO. As has been discussed previously, Pokémon GO often draws (knowingly or otherwise) on principles of behavioural science to keep players hooked. It would then come as no surprise that the game has been downloaded more than 100 million times and claims to have at least 5 million daily users. There have been sweeping gameplay changes since the game first launched in 2016, and this article discusses what has worked and what the future looks like for Pokémon GO.
For those not in the know, Pokémon GO overlays friendly, furry, and sometimes bizarre pocket monsters in the real world using a map of the world around you. Players interact with their immediate environment by either catching these monsters, by spinning discs at Pokéstops, or by battling at a local Gym. As a Pokémon GO trainer, especially in urban areas, these features are quite common and usually are aimed at a continuous stream of player engagement. The rewards are in the form of experience points (XP), which enables a player to level up (presently the maximum level that can be reached is 40, which takes 20 million XP). Along the way, players can hatch powerful Pokémon from eggs by walking specific distances, and/or battle other trainers’ Pokémon stationed at gyms.
Around the time that the first anniversary rolled out, Niantic, the company that developed Pokémon GO in collaboration with the Pokémon Company, reworked the way gym battles work. This was likely due to the flawed nature of battles that were perceived as unfair and weighed odds heavily in favour of trainers that had powerful defensive Pokémon such as Blissey. As behavioural science informs us, we have an inherent aversion to unfairness, and in this case, daily average users were likely plummeting. In addition, Niantic introduced the possibility of cooperative gameplay by introducing Raid Bosses, where trainers could team up to take down a powerful Raid Boss. This was aimed at incentivizing more person-to-person gameplay, bringing typically introverted gamers out in the open and talking to each other. The dynamics of cooperation have already been discussed elsewhere, but essentially this new form of gym battles (which provided more XP rewards than other tasks) required players to coordinate and time their Raid Battles.
In the past year, Pokémon GO has featured a steady stream of events tied to holidays and festivals, as well as rotated a number of rare, powerful Pokémon (Legendary Pokémon). Taking a cue from behavioural science, it has also cracked down heavily on trainers who spoof their location to appear to be walking in, say, New York’s Central Park, when in fact they might be working on an assignment in the comfort of their homes. These are all indications that Niantic has been proactive and almost relentless in engaging with players (potential, current, and past), particularly if one was already familiar with the Pokémon universe. However, this is not to say that everything has gone the right way over the past year.
One issue that has recently come up is the extravagant rewards that trainers can access for completing a set of tasks in the game. For example, nearly every month for the last three months, there has been at least one event that doubled the XP for either raid battles or spinning pokéstop/gym discs. This means that newer (or lower level) trainers are more easily able to gain XP and catch up with levels of older trainers – suggesting that Niantic is concerned about levelling the playing field for newer trainers. This particular policy is hard to argue against, since Niantic clearly must incentivize trainers to continue playing, and the easiest way to do that is to balance higher rewards with meta-relevant rare or special Pokémon for older trainers.
Pokémon GO also recently introduced two types of ‘Research’ tasks in the game that are featured as quests involving specific tasks for trainers. The more regular (daily) field research tasks provide smaller rewards and can be collected daily to provide a larger gift (breakthroughs) upon reaching a milestone of smaller tasks. Special research tasks have so far included a set of tasks that are more specific and could take trainers weeks to complete all together, but with a much more significant reward: Mew, the first mythical Pokémon to be released. Clearly, trainers who completed the Special Research Task in a week’s time (or less) are eagerly waiting for future Special Research Tasks since the challenge was quite significant and, in some ways, more rewarding.
Seems like a lot doesn’t it? This leads us to our current predicament: Pokémon GO has so many things going on, it could be causing an information overload on players. As behavioural science informs us, when individuals are provided with too much information, they end up making suboptimal decisions that devalue their own well-being. That’s not entirely off the mark in this case since there are at least five different tasks that a player has to do on a daily basis to stay in sync with other daily players. She must catch at least one Pokémon (daily / weekly bonus); spin at least one Gym/Pokéstop (daily / weekly bonus); complete a field research task (weekly bonus); send a friend a gift (the friendship system release was meant to facilitate trading and gifting); and open a gift from a friend (to keep a friendship level increasing). Plus, in order to gain Pokécoins (the in-game currency), trainers must have their Pokémon ‘defend’ a gym for at least 1 hour. Clearly, if this was not enough, trainers must choose a Buddy Pokémon to walk with to gain candy that helps in their evolution into stronger, battle-ready Pokémon. They can also gain candy by trading, catching, or hatching Pokémon, all of which can be done either in isolation or only with the cooperation of others. Clearly, how to gain candy (or even XP) happens to be a challenging decision now for trainers, with several options available. Again, studies from behavioural economics tell us that too much choice can be demotivating, and in this case, could even confuse diligent players since there is no longer a clean and straightforward strategy to get ahead in the game. This precludes the new dynamics of reciprocity that gift-giving between in-game friends is characterized by, a feature that warrants a whole different study!
The year ahead clearly seems challenging for Niantic and Pokémon GO. There are many opportunities to harness the collective of the Pokémon GO community to do good (one example was the clean-up drive they organized across the world for Earth Day). More such events aimed at getting people outdoors and engaging with their community is what Pokémon GO certainly has the potential to do. However, Niantic could do well to review what they implement from time to time, with the basic question: Can they do it all?