The spread of COVID-19 has created existential and logistical problems for game developers of all stripes. When the pandemic began, Niantic didn't just need to send its employees home for safety, it needed to make sure its massively popular game didn't drive players out into the world to catch or spread the very infectious disease.
Pokemon Go product lead Matt Slemon and senior game designer Laura Warner broke down how the company tackled these challenges in its recent GDC Summer talk. According to them, Pokemon Go's primary design goals are to encourage exploration, help players exercise, and drive social interaction--all three activities that naturally can drive the spread of COVID-19.
The team got advance warning about how COVID-19 would impact their game from data pulled from the virus' spread in Italy. In one slide shown to the audience, Slemon drew data from Apple's mobility maps that showed a sharp drop in walking after the virus began to spread in early March. Even in one country, players could not play Pokemon Go as much.
This threw a massive wrench into the Pokemon Go's development plans. The first step was to delay and cancel in-game events. By comparison, this would be like a mobile game of a similar scale just decided to stop running the live events that drive a majority of their revenue. At the same time, "canceling" an event doesn't mean "no work" it means "doing work to stop something from running."
But with a drop in events, came with a drop in normal player activity. Slemon and his team learned that the game would need to readjust in order to retain the game's community. To combat this, the Niantic began removing requirements based around walking from its Trainer Battle system, and lifted the restrictions on letting players challenge each other to PvP combat, opening play options up while folks were stuck at home.
From there, more changes were made to Pokemon Go's walking/gathering loop. More Pokemon were made appear on shorter walks, players were allowed to spend more gifts to each other, and releasing ultra-discounted bundles in the game shop, effectively reducing the cost of $1 bundles to go as low as 1 cent.
These changes took place in mid-March, which stemmed the exit flow from the community, but the team had a new discussion--would this temporary hold on the community size be okay, or would the team need to start regrowing the community even as the pandemic raged?
To regrow the community, Niantic began making public commitments to (quickly!) build new features that could work in a world of social distancing.
This is where Warner took over, explaining the core challenge of developing COVID-friendly (unfriendly?) game mechanics. The team needed to address three questions: "How could we keep the integrity and stability of a game meant to send players outside in large groups, and make it function when trainers can't leave their homes? What did it mean to play Pokemon Go when I couldn't leave my house? How could I stay connected with my friends and family even if I couldn't physically be with them?"
This led to a few particularly neat solutions, the first of which was changing the game's sticker system. Stickers existed in Pokemon Go to act as a randomly distributed reward that could be sent to friends & family. Warner explained that after the team's COVID-driven changes, stickers would be guaranteed to appear at Pokestops, and players could send messages with their stickers to send sweet notes in-game.
The next change was to the game's Pokemon Buddy system. In Pokemon Go, players can pick "buddy" Pokemon, who sometimes give players gifts. In changing the system, Niantic enabled a system where Buddy gifts would include more Pokeballs, and that they'd go fetch more friend gifts from nearby Pokestops. Even if players couldn't go far from their neighborhood, they could still benefit from a Pokestop they couldn't quite reach. It's a small, but socially-focused feature that encourages positive player interaction.
Then, the team changed the game's in-game quest system, which is nicknamed the "research" system. Many research goals encouraged players to meet in large groups. Those needed to be removed, but to accommodate the reduced amount of, the team began giving away free research points every 24 hours.
For live events, Niantic also cut activities that encouraged walking long distances or gathering in groups, offering players an "incense" item that would allow them to attract rare or specific Pokemon, even if playing in their own bedroom. For PvP battles, Niantic removed the near-distance requirements for trainer battles, letting them challenge each other from afar, and creating a GO Battle League Event system, so that players have a reason to log in and battle from home.
For the game's raids, players can now use a 'remote raid pass' to join friends in efforts to catch/defeat rare Pokemon, and invite their friends to join them in the process.
And of course, it wouldn't be a Pokemon experience if the show's antagonistsTeam Rocket, didn't get involved somehow. The trio of Jesse, James and Meowth have hopped into hot air balloons, and now confront players in their home instead of at local Pokestops.
Finally, Niantic's huge Pokemon Go Global Fests, which require a nominal amount of event planning. With physical events canceled, the team (like the folks at GDC) shifted to a 2-day Challenge Event, which encourages all players to work together to work for a specific goal, to unlock rewards for every player.
All of these changes led to a new philosophy around designing content for Pokemon Go. According to Warner, the philosophy shifted from "Play out in the world," to "Play at home" to "Play Where You Are," supporting players who can safely leave their homes in more isolated areas, and players who need to stay indoors due the spread of COVID-19.
Slemon & Warner didn't address this, but it's worth noting that the "Play Where You Are" design philosophy answers requests that a number of disability advocates have been asking for since the game's launch. Ablegamers' Steven Spohn for instance, has pointed out that the changes line up with what he was advocating for in 2016, though it's unclear if "Play Where You Are" will remain permanent philosophy once the pandemic recedes.