'Pokemon Go' Buddies: Way Too Many Steps in the Right Direction

Pokemon Go's buddy system is a step in the right direction for the game, but when you do the math, it may be way, way too many steps for many players to take.

Pokemon Go

Developer: Niantic
Release Date: 2016-07-06

I've been following the evolution of Pokemon Go fairly closely for the past couple of months. I like the game, and I especially like the game as a social experience (for example, see my recent article ”Field Observations from a Non-Pokemon Go Player”).

I have watched the game since its initial launch and have seen the unprecedented numbers of Pokehunters that emerged to play the game at its launch. Even as player interest has dropped off and players have dropped out of the game following the initial mania to “catch 'em all”, the game still clearly has its adherents. The initial numbers of players trying out a free app weren't going to last, of course, but when you are talking about a player base that still remains in the millions, the game is unlikely to die out all that soon.

Of course, in order to keep as many of those millions who tried the game out in the last couple of months for as long as possible, developer Niantic is going to need to continue generating interest in the game. Players of the game have been ravenous for promised eventual features, like the ability to trade Pokemon or a PvP mode, a few possible ways of maintaining interest.

Both features seem like reasonable desires to me, although I am somewhat skeptical of the benefit of a trading system being launched before the game receives more content. If Niantic's goal right now is the retention of a large player base, this may be one feature that might work to their detriment. Most players that have engaged with the game for the last two months have fairly substantial collections by now. Of the 140+ Pokemon to collect, most long term players I meet have filled in about 90-120 of the entries in their Pokedexes. I would suggest that adding trading as a feature at this point in the game's life span has the potential to “end” the game for players more quickly, rather than to retain them.

Of course, I am making the assumption that “catching 'em all' is the central allure of playing Pokemon Go, which doesn't seem unreasonable, as collection is the cornerstone of the original turn-based RPGs that the franchise itself is based on and its very successful collectible card game follow up. Working under that assumption, then, it seems to me that having the ability to fill gaps in your Pokedex too rapidly becomes a hindrance to a game that seems to particularly click for players who find pleasure in collection. Completing a collection creates a sense of an endgame for players of this sort, which would be bad for the life of a game.

Up until now, I would have argued that the best thing that Niantic could do in terms of player retention would be to focus their efforts on adding more Pokemon to the game to add to the game's longevity. Essentially, I think that it might be in the game's best interest to add a generation or two of new Pokemon before launching a trading system to avoid seeing players filling in their Pokedexes very rapidly by trading for the few that they are currently missing through the click of a buttons.

I continue to think that this is probably the right thing to do if Niantic wants to really add serious legs to the game, add content, not features, for a little while, before getting into what could be very good for a game with a larger amount of content than they have now. However, when I heard the announcement of the Pokemon Go “buddy system” this seemed to me, at least, to be an even smarter move on Niantic's part for the foreseeable future.

Despite being a new feature, for anyone who has played Pokemon Go, the buddy system is a fairly easy system to grasp. The game already has another system that rewards walking for large distances with the Pokemon Go app running. In addition to catching Pokemon in the wild through random spawns, players can also accrue Pokemon by hatching eggs, eggs that hatch when the player has walked two, five, or 10 kilometers.

The buddy system uses a similar principle. By choosing one Pokemon in your collection as a “buddy” that accompanies your player on their walk, players are able to receive candies associated with that type of Pokemon each time that they walk one, three, or five kilometers. Those distance vary depending on the Pokemon that you choose. For example, many more powerful Pokemon, like Snorlax or Dragonite, require five kilometers of walking to produce a single candy, whereas more common types, like Pidgie or Caterpie require only one kilometer of walking to produce one candy.

Candy can be used to power up Pokemon, which is nice, but many players have been especially excited by the idea of collecting candy because candy can also be used to allow evolutions of harder to find Pokemon, thus, filling in gaps in their collection through a slow, but steady drip of candy. This idea may sound antithetical to my earlier observation that systems that aid a player in completing their collection may hasten the game to its end for some players much too rapidly. However, the fact that walking these distances will take some time to accomplish, provoking more play, not less, seems like a promising way to scratch the players' itch to collect by offering the promise of continued collection at a moderately slow pace.

My wife, for instance, has been sitting on her starter Pokemon, Charmander, for two months now, having never seen any in the wild, leading to no real hope of eventually evolving a Charmeleon or a Charizard. The buddy system would seem a Godsend in this situation, the idea being that while hunting other wild Pokemon needed for her collection that she would slowly acquire enough candy to eventually evolve a very rare Pokemon. This, then, is a system that potentially keeps that central interest of the game, collection, alive, while not providing an especially easy means of completing a collection through a few good swaps (as a trading system might).

However, neither I, nor she, hadn't crunched the numbers on what “moderately slow” progress might mean in terms of the actual time required to make this experience seem worthwhile. Fortunately (but dishearteningly), Paul Tassi, a contributor over at Forbes has: “To evolve a Charmander into a Charizard, assuming you have no candy, it would require 125 candies, meaning 375 km (233 miles) walked with just that one Pokémon”. To put this amount of walking in context, Lassi further explains:

Since I first started playing the game in early July, I have walked 162 km with the app open, according to in-game record keeping (it’s been a lot more than that, but GPS distance tracking in this game isn’t terribly accurate). I would need to walk another 10% of that to even upgrade a 5 km Lapras once. I would need to more than double my entire total to get a Charizard from scratch[. …] It’s still being tested, but there may be chances to find singular bonus candies with you buddy Pokemon, but even with a few freebies, the distance walls are still daunting.
(Pokémon GO's New Buddy System Is Finally Live, And It's Way Too Stingy With Candy”, Forbes, 13 September 2016)

Given the reality of these numbers, what initially seemed to be a stroke of genius, a system that further supported the conceit of the game, “Gotta Catch 'Em All!”, and encouraged further play, may actually be more discouraging to players than not. Slow growth to completing a collection seems a reasonable way of promoting a sense of progress to players, keeping them hooked on an experience that those millions who have hung in there have clearly liked. Agonizingly slow growth, though, could turn the promise of progress into something closer to hopelessness.

Normally, if a new system launches in a video game, I tend to argue that players should wait and see how a feature plays out before drawing a conclusion about it. However, most games are pure simulations that need to be tested out. After all, your sense of the realities of the game can only be tested by actually crawling into the game world. However, there is far too much reality in the Augmented Reality Game that is Pokemon Go. I know what 233 miles means in real life, and, therefore, what the game is asking from players physically, not merely virtually, for a nice, but fairly minimal reward.

It is my hope that Niantic is taking a “wait and see” attitude themselves and is open to adjusting the numbers in this system as they see how players respond to it in the coming weeks. Tweaking numbers slightly could make all the difference. While, perhaps, seemingly drastic, going from 1.0, 3.0, and 5.0 kilometers to 1.0, 1.5, and, 2.0 kilometers for candy drops would still retain a fairly slow progression toward collection completion, but that progression might at least feel like a solid step or two towards it. At the moment, it seems like the game is asking its player base to take a few too many steps.

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