Pokémon Woe

Last month, game developer Niantic released the long-awaited Pokémon Go. The augmented reality mobile game was a hit and made the dreams of every 90s gamer come true. Calling the game “a smash hit” is a significant understatement; Pokémon Go has surpassed both Twitter and Tinder for daily users. But for all its early success, there are several glaring issues that have left some wondering if the game is less a shooting star and more a flopping Magikarp.

The first set of issues concerns a lack of features that you’d think would be available from the jump. For a game that prides itself on literal real-world integration, you’re quite isolated from your fellow trainers. Anyone familiar with the original games remembers the built-in social aspect. You could link your Gameboys and battle it out with friends, or trade your Pokémon. In Go, social networking is all but a non-factor. I’m sure that when many people first opened the game they looked for an “add friends” button and were soon disappointed . The closest you can get to experiencing the game “socially” is by being with your friends as you play the game at the same time.

In the earlier games, battling other trainers was the way to power-up your monsters. With the lack of a similar battle system, the only way to power-up is by accumulating vast quantities of “candy” exclusive to that Pokémon. The result is that you need to catch dozens of the same creature until you have met their candy requirement.

Niantic could solve many of these issues if they introduce a social networking feature. In a way, they aren’t issues per se — we just take “issue” because several desirable features aren’t available. But the game does have problems that affect its limited capabilities.

Part of the Pokémon Go experience involves tracking the monsters as if you were a stone age hunter searching for a rare beast. For most, this was the most fun aspect of the game until users began reporting a bug shortly after launch. The glitch rendered the in-game tracking system pretty much useless. It alerted users to which Pokémon were around but lacked any clear direction beyond that. It’s like a radar that tells you “things are here!”, but gives you no sense of your proximity to such “things”.

To combat this glitch and keep the game enjoyable, several third-party developers built apps to replace Niantic’s tracking system. Among the most popular was Pokévision, which gives more precise locations of nearby Pokémon. Although fans of the game were divided on whether the use of the app constituted “cheating”, it’s easy to argue that the apps wouldn’t have taken off if Niantic’s wasn’t so buggy. It wasn’t a perfect fix, but it was a fix nonetheless.

But all of that came crashing down this weekend.

When users saw an available update for the game, the assumption was that it would fix at least some of the game’s problems. It did everything but. When some users relaunched the app they found their hard-earned progress reset. Luckily, there was a way to restore your progress, and the outcry died down shortly afterward.

Unfortunately, the patch presented a new wave of issues. Apart from the reset of progress, the big question we all had concerned that problematic tracking feature. It turns out that while Niantic has acknowledged the bug, their latest update gave the appearance that they did away with the tracking system altogether. Sure, that’s a bit disappointing — but there are those third party apps to help out with that. Eight?

Not anymore. Most of those apps have gone offline, rendered useless in the wake of the update. This could be Niantic punishing developers for improper use of the game’s API, but it’s easy to see fans’ frustrations when you consider Niantic’s clear half-hearted effort in fixing their own system. Video game contributor Paul Tassi provides some excellent criticism in a recent piece for Forbes:

I have no doubt that Niantic is working tirelessly on the game, and as a small studio, they are stretched incredibly thin. However, writing one blog post, composing a handful of tweets or having one person chime in on forum threads can’t destabilize the entire production line, and if they can’t do it, they should be relying on the much larger infrastructure of Nintendo and The Pokémon Company to help them out.

Also affecting the game are changes to Pokémon behaviors. They have become harder to capture and flee at a higher rate. Due to the tracking failure, it’s pretty much impossible to hunt down the Pokémon you want. Yet, you are always bombarded with monsters that aren’t worth your time. At the end of the day, Pokémon Go has found itself quite the unsavory cocktail.

The game is not even a month old, so gamers can find solace in that. Even with all the issues and grumbling, the game is still popular. Niantic has every reason to keep making the game better and to encourage us to get out there and catch ’em all.