THE developers of Pokémon Go are often shy to talk about the game, which has been a staple of many people’s lives since 2016.
It launched the genre of mobile games, now known as geo-gaming, which encourages people to play games out in the real world.
We spoke to Michael Steranka, director of Pokémon Go at Niantic, about his future plans for the game, the team’s relationship with the community, and if there will ever be Justice for Kecleon.
On Pokémon Go’s space in gaming, Steranka said: “ It adds a little extra fun and magic to your day.
“That’s always been an intentional design choice for us. It’s kind of like a companion app to your daily life.”
However, since Pokémon Go started, a number of other titles have popped up trying to imitate its success.
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Steranka is pleased to see others taking the reins: “I think it’s great to see other developers get into the geo-gaming space.”
“But they find it isn’t as easy as it seems on paper. We don’t think that Pokémon Go needs to be the only VR real-world game.
“There’s plenty of space in that category.”
Pokémon Go has developed a lot over the years, going from a basic, battery-draining Pidgey collector, to the competitive battler that even appeared at the Pokémon World Championships this year.
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He says: “It was a dream come true for us. It’s the most fast-paced competitive Pokémon game that people can spectate.
“We’re part of the tournament season for next year as well.”
However, balancing the competitive play with the original casual intention of the game is a tricky tightrope to walk.
Casual players just want something fun and easy to get into, while the hardcore audience wants catching rare Pokémon to be an achievement.
Steranka agrees: “To be honest, that’s the most challenging aspect to developing a game like Pokémon Go.
“We think we’ve done a pretty solid job up until now, of creating that layer of depth that hardcore players are looking for, and making it super accessible to new players.
“Every system has an impact on another; we have to think about the game holistically and make sure that changes don’t have an effect on something unintended.”
During lockdown, many of these systems changed. One was that incense brought Pokémon to you, so you didn’t have to go outside to play Pokémon Go.
When this was removed, players were distraught, but Steranka believes this was necessary.
He explains: “We know that was a painful thing for a lot of the players.
“There are great games that are designed to be played at home, but that’s not Pokémon Go. That will never be Pokémon Go.
“Ash would never have beaten the championship, if he never left his home.”
For rural and remote players this can be a source of tension, though, as players are needed in big numbers to take on the more difficult raids.
However, Niantic is trying to combat this in a number of ways, including with a new app it’s launching, called Campfire, that’s currently being trialled.
He explains: “We think it’s really important for players to meet others in person.
“We’ve launched a companion app to Pokémon Go called Campfire, where you coordinate with other people.
“You can send up a flare and communicate with everyone in your community that you plan to go there.”
Pokémon Go is hosting a special event this week, where players from around the world can catch all available Ultra Beasts, with some exciting prospects for battling.
These events are designed to bring people together at certain spots, especially those who would normally not be able to take down a five-star raid.
He explains: “For many people it’s their first chance to be able to catch all of these Ultra Beasts.
“There will also be some fun stuff happening only in London, so you’ll want to make your way out there over the course of the weekend.”
“It’s one of the few times that you’ll be able to catch them at under 1.5k CP”
The one style of raid that has been mysteriously missing is the two-star raid, which high-level players were capable of taking on alone.
Steranka explains the reasoning behind the decision: “We narrowed it down to one, three, and five because there wasn’t enough of a challenge difference.
“We couldn’t really find that perfect balance in difficulty to keep a two-star [raid] in the game. No plans currently, but as Justin Bieber fans say ‘never say never’.”
Whether it’s #JusticeForKecleon or changes to the battle system, the Pokémon Go fan base has never been shy to voice their opinions.
Niantic is often blamed for not listening, when really it’s a conscious decision to bring its idea for the game to life.
He explains: “We have a passionate playerbase, and that’s what makes this community so fun and vibrant. Everyone has strong opinions on what they want to see.
“Ultimately, we always go back to the core pillars of the game: exercise, exploration and social interactions, that’s our guiding north star for any decisions we make.
“We know that not every decision we make is the perfect one, and we want to adjust the game over time.
“But there will always be a core tension, with what many people want and what we envision as the mission of the game.”
That’s all well and good, but where is Kecleon? Will it ever come to Pokémon Go?
He says: “In the main series games Kecleon has a very unique ability. There are certain Pokémon that we want to make sure we want to do right.
“Before we introduce Kecleon to the world, we want to make sure that the way we introduce it is special. Justice to how that Pokémon works.”
This makes it sound like when Kecleon is introduced, it will come with a special ability in the overworld like Ditto or Zorua, a design the team has clearly discussed.
With the success of Pokémon Go crossovers with the mainline games, everyone has been waiting for the Let’s Go sequel. There was promising news on this.
He explains: “We work very closely with The Pokémon Company in Tokyo, and we’re always looking for crossovers when they make sense.
“We’re always open to that, and we’re always having active conversations, and players can definitely expect to see more in future generations.”
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I pointed out that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet have a number of new evolutions for some underrated Generation 2 Pokémon.
He replied: “Right. They do.” With a twinkle in his eye, and a knowing smile.
Written by Georgina Young on behalf of GLHF.
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