Monetization in Pokemon GO

So Pokemon Go is pretty much here, and the hype is practically overflowing. Many people have expressed concerns that the free* mobile app by The Pokemon Company and Niantic Labs could be a cynical pay-to-win cash cow. Having access to the .apk and a rudimentary understanding of the gameplay loop, augmented by a deep understanding of Niantic’s other game (Ingress), I thought it might be interesting to make a preliminary judgement on their model.

The Currency

Premium Currency Bundles.

We’ll get onto alternative methods of earning coins in a moment, but for now we’ll just look at the price list. So that means pokécoins are accumulated through these six bundles — in GBP this equates to a price per 100 coins of 79p, 72.55p, 66.58p, 59.96p, 57.67p and 55.16p respectively. All standard fair for mobile games, these pricing schemes upsell users to opt for higher tiers for the greatest value.

However there is an alternative way to earn up to 100 coins per day — players who defend gyms successfully with their pokémon earn 10 coins per pokémon gym per day, up to a maximum of 10 gyms. This means no content is technically “locked” from free players, which seems to be a reasonable chunk compared to the token “daily bonuses” you see in other mobile titles.

What can players spend said currency on, you ask?

Pokéballs

Simply put, this is a terrible deal. The game intends for players to use “Pokéspots” to regain their items, which correspond roughly to Ingress’s portals. I cannot think of any reason a player would wish to top up their item pool through a microtransaction instead of the intended “walking the dog around the local park” or whatever puts the player in contact with portals.

It may well be however that there are places with very poor approved portal/pokéspot coverage. I live in a quiet, countryside area just outside of a small town that has enough of these, but that’s due to my involvement with Ingress prior and having submitted these ‘interesting locations’ to their portal approval process. I believe that they will re-enable and approve new locations for play but until then it feels like people are going to have a very bad experience of running out of pokéballs, gazing at the shop and thinking that the game’s model is obscene and offensively pay to win. In reality, visiting a town or city would be massively successful in replenishing their supply of items.

If you’re struggling with this, ask an Ingress player to look at your local area on the Ingress Intel tool. It highlights where all the portals are, and since most are converted to Gyms/Spots its of use to Pokémon Go players. If anyone wants a hand with this, get in touch! (twitter, @tobypinder) But outside this, I think people’s first impressions are going to count and there could be a backlash.

Incense

This is “reverse Repel”, effectively, and makes more pokémon appear outside of the usual spots. It appears you are given a limited number as part of level up rewards (I had 2 samples in my inventory as a level 4 character, after an hour of bus commute play) but it is unclear to me if there is any way to obtain these from pokéspots. Regardless, I don’t believe these speed up the experience that much and they seem to only yield pokémon that would otherwise be available in that region.

Lucky Eggs

At first glance I was a bit disgruntled — it appeared that Niantic were selling “premium” eggs akin to a gachapon/slot machine mechanic for rare pokémon. However, it’s clear that the eggs are not the eggs you hatch by walking around — the lucky egg is an exp booster and not a form of premium hatchable egg. This in my opinion is a fine way of monetizing and allows those who support the game to progress quicker without inhibiting free players’ ability to “catch em all”.

Lure Modules

Lure modules are very similar to Incense but affect all players in the vicinity, adding a social component to the monetizable items. These allow players in organised groups/meetups to gain a collective benefit from someone’s use of the Lure module. It’s an interesting addition to a game that more deemphasises real time teamwork compared to its older sibling, but the impact on the game is very similar to the Incense and I don’t think it’s unreasonable. In fact, this sort of item enables free players to share in the benefits that paying players choose to spend their money on. In a game that seems to encourage usually-asynchronous teamwork across the three factions, it’s interesting to see something that is a little more synchronous. It’s unlikely to be seen as free players “leeching” off paid ones because of the teamwork involved and the fact that all players benefit equally (so nothing is being removed from the paid player’s benefit, extra benefit is only being added through sharing it at a meetup).

Egg Incubators

This one is the most puzzling to me. Players by default can incubate one egg at a time and after travelling a certain distance the egg will hatch. These incubators allow for concurrent hatching but the price (50 coins per egg) seems rather steep. I had at first thought that these were similar to the Bag/Pokémon Storage upgrades detailed below but the egg incubators break after 3 uses, so I have to say their effectiveness seems limited.

Bag Upgrades

And now we move on to the more permanent upgrades. By default players can hold 350 consumable items, including pokéballs, incense etc. This seems to be more than enough for now, but given how these things go I imagine late-game players might want more to work with so they can stockpile more resources. These are paid upgrades, but they will last for the life of the account. I can understand the reasoning for this but it will be interesting to see if late gameplay is more geared towards using up inventory slots in order to push players to upgrade.

Pokémon Storage Upgrades

By default players can hold 250 pokémon. Extra pokémon don’t stack, so you are encouraged to release all those spare Rattata that you’ve accumulated on your adventures. Again, you can increase the size of this inventory, but it feels like this is definitely designed to pressure players into upgrades as their pokédex fills up. 250 is just about enough to “catch em all” right now but you won’t have much space to work with.

Summary

That appears to be all the monetization options available in the game (If I find more I will keep the post updated). It’s my personal opinion that while this game is more “efficiently” monetized than Niantic’s Ingress, it nevertheless mostly avoids the trappings of mobile pay-to-win. Players will eventually be pushed into buying slots for their inventory/pokémon, but lets run the math: the £7.99 package allows players to buy 6 slot expanders for 300 total extra pokémon/item slots. Slot expanders will be available through the free coins given for defending gyms too, theoretically every two days! While it’s too early to tell how many slots will feel optimal it mirrors the Key Lockers that Niantic introduced into Ingress as a permanent carry capacity upgrade for a similar price point, without the ability to earn the premium currency for free.

Hopefully rural players aren’t off-put by the availability of pokéballs in the store. I hope players make the effort to try to find pokéspots in the world before drawing the conclusion that it’s some kind of ‘con’ but I suspect many people will do this after taking a look around their local area and seeing no way to replenish their supply. I’m not quite sure how Niantic could improve the messaging around this without removing pokéballs from the store entirely, which would be my recommendation. But then again, said players are always going to have a sub-optimal experience while there is little content in their area.

I think on the whole they probably intend for a good chunk of long time players to sink in a few quid here and there, but I appreciate that the game does not seem to cater too strongly towards exploiting “whales”. The boosts and items on offer appear to confer limited advantages over other players compared with what I’ll depressingly and euphemistically refer to as “mobile gaming industry standards”. It seems Niantic and The Pokemon Company don’t intend to rinse children of their hard earned pocket money through psychological trickery and upselling, and from what I’ve seen it’s a solid experience that’s probably ultimately worth chucking a few quid at if you’re sinking significant time into Being The Best Like No-one Ever Was. Hopefully it follows trends set by its ancestor game in being a more sustainable model.


Edit1: Changed to reflect the fact that up to 100 coins/day are available for free via gameplay means (thanks, reddit!)


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