The cultural event of the summer – Pokémon Go – may be a global smash that has broken all records, but like many hyped games, its long-term success depends on acquiring and retaining users. In a game less about individual skill and more about the amount of time invested, the barriers-to-entry and barriers-to-progression are far higher than traditional mobile games.
As is common with MMO games, in particular, new player onboarding and managing player progression are major obstacles that developers have to overcome. Niantic Labs is no exception.
In the case of Pokémon Go, battles take place in gyms. This is where a gulf between new, inexperienced players and the game's most hardcore players comes to the forefront.
With hundreds of millions of hours already invested by players around the world, the team at Niantic will need to think about how to ensure new players aren’t put off by starting the game.
Already, players are noticing that the game needs to have better balancing and player management. On the official Pokémon Go Reddit thread, named ’Silph Road’, player Riggnaros delivered the following analysis:
“First and foremost; Scaling is WAY off in every area and needs to be adjusted. Pokémon that you capture do not need to give the same XP at level 30 as they do at level 1, especially rare/evolved/high CP Pokémon (Snorlax/Venusaur/2k CP/etc.). It makes no sense that a 10cp Pidgey should be giving the same XP as a 1600cp Scyther. Stronger, evolved, and more rare Pokémon should reward you with more XP, plain and simple. Also, the way each level scales with XP is horribly designed. Most people are probably around level 20ish at this point and don’t realize it, but once you get to 25+ it starts to sink in just how daunting each level is when it comes to XP required…As someone who has gamed for their entire life, some of which has been at a competitive level, I can promise you this scaling is out of touch and will be a huge problem in the coming weeks/months if it's not addressed.”
So what can Niantic do to address its scaling and balancing issues? How can its team nip these issues in the bud, before players begin to churn at an alarming rate?
One common technique to help with player onboarding is the balancing of level difficulty. So that new players can level-up faster, Niantic could alter the game parameters that adjusts the experience points (XP).
As Keith Burgen wrote about in his article on Gamasutra, ‘Understanding Balance in Video Games’, Gameplay is all about making choices and in a poorly-balanced game, many of the choices available to the player are essentially rendered useless. And this, in a nutshell, is why game balance is so important -- it preserves your game elements from irrelevance.
To prevent newer players from unfairly overtaking those who have been playing for longer, the difficulty would increase as the player levels up, plugging the gap between new players and veteran Pokémon Trainers.
Recently at Comic-Con, Niantic outlined its content and update roadmap to reassure players that a wealth of new game features (and fixes) are on their way, yet there was no explicit mention of game balancing. It’s safe to assume, however, that this is something that’s being discussed behind closed doors.
The more the game grows, the more mechanics it will need to use to make sure that players can progress through different levels. The more powerful gym leaders become, the greater the need for players to see gyms as an end goal rather than an immediate one. At the same time, players who have invested vast amounts of time, miles and battery life into Pokémon Go will also want to feel like their dominance is paying off.
As of writing, we’ve also seen one of Pokémon Go’s biggest updates – changing a plethora visual facets in order to create a cleaner UI. In addition to cleaning up the UI and addressing minor bugs, Niantic has made changes to some features, such as the removal of the broken step system for nearest Pokémon and customisation options for player avatars.
Part of this update involved Niantic shutting down Pokevision and other third party map services: apps and websites that allowed players to easily identify and locate nearby Pokémon. The outcry after this change, in particular, shows just how dependent some players had become on those third-party apps, and without an alternative, the game may begin haemorrhaging users.
In a game that suffers from major balancing issues and new player onboarding, Niantic has failed to recognise that these fan-driven tools were helping new players develop and grow. So what if a new player knew a Haunter is five blocks away? That knowledge could have be the difference between he/she becoming a long-term player, or instantly falling by the wayside when seeing just how large that gap between themselves and other players is.
Given rarer Pokémon can occupy areas for a matter of seconds, the game needs an official tracking feature to help with game balancing and new player onboarding. This allows new players to find that rarer Pokémon, generate larger amounts of XP and subsequently progress faster. As for veterans, their usual lunchtime walk is merely a more targeted one instead.
But perhaps the biggest challenge that Niantic faces is something beyond the complexities we’ve discussed – the weather. Once it’s dark and cold outside, will players still be interested in going outside to build up enough distance to hatch eggs or find new Pokémon? Nintendo recently announced that Pokémon Go Plus, the wearable to ‘catch-em-all’ had been pushed back to September. While we’re in peak Pokémon hype, it’s too early to know whether mother nature or poor game balancing will impact the game's future success.
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