Pokémon GO Developer Interview - Niantic on Communication, Commitments, and Kecleon

Love may have waned for Pokémon Sword and Shield, but hype builds for the next iteration of Pokémon games. Between the innovative-looking Pokémon Legends: Arceus and long-awaited remakes Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, one Pokémon game remains strong, Pokémon GO.

Retaining a loyal following of fans, players still log in everyday to spin PokéStops, battle the biggest raid bosses, and generally catch ‘em all. Like all games, Pokémon GO has a casual player base alongside the everyday grinders, but it’s those die-hard fans who recently hit the headlines, campaigning for developer Niantic to do better by their favourite game.

A month ago Gfinity sat down with streamer Reversal, who quit the game over said complaints shortly after, but other players are willing to allow Niantic one more chance.

At Safari Zone: Liverpool, we sat down with Michael Steranka, director of product marketing and Philip Marz, head of Pokémon GO marketing for the EMEA region to discuss the future of hybrid events, how things are for rural players, and of course the #HearUsNiantic campaign.

Gfinity: Welcome to Liverpool! It’s rare to see UK events that are outside of London, so why did you choose to host Safari Zone here?

Philip Marz: [Our agency partner] came up with a with a shortlist of cities and we looked into most of them, but Liverpool was the one providing the best framework and on-site conditions that really met our internal requirements to ensure we could provide an exciting event.

A large PokéStop appears over an IRL mountain with items floating in the blue sky around it.
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Obviously, this event is a bit of a hybrid - I've seen players playing Safari Zone: Liverpool in America or wherever they bought a ticket. Was it difficult to adapt to this hybrid approach?

Michael Steranka: The reason these events are so cherished by our players is because of years of building a really premium experience in person. Of course, with this year, with a pandemic and the fact that we sold tickets a year and a half ago to this event, we didn't want to put players who purchased tickets in a tough situation where they felt uncomfortable but they had to come to the park in order to enjoy it. Or for players that are in countries that aren't able to travel internationally who purchased a ticket - we didn't want them to be totally out of luck. 

So, the approach we took with this one is more of a hybrid approach, but we definitely encourage players who are comfortable with it to come to the park because we do believe that that's the best experience you can get. Pokémon GO is not just about the Pokémon that you catch, it's about the people that you meet, it's about the places that you go to, it's about the sweat that you build up after walking for eight hours and catching Pokémon. And when you come to the in-person experience, that's where you really get that.

So that's definitely the approach we're taking this year. As we move forward into next year and beyond, we're not ready to announce how we're going to approach that just yet, but we have seen the players that have welcomed the hybrid approach. We also really feel that the in-person stuff is even more important, so we'll try to strike a balance moving forward.

Over the summer, there was obviously the big #HearUsNiantic campaign and that was really focused on communication. Has that affected how you'll communicate these kinds of plans?

MS: As you correctly pointed out, the core of what [the #HearUsNiantic campaign] was really all about was communication - I think that was the straw that broke the camel's back in many ways for players. We've definitely heard the desire from our most dedicated fans for more communication, more transparency. And so, we've made a couple commitments coming out of that. First and foremost, we'll be releasing a developer diary on a minimum two-month cadence, maybe even more frequently as opportunities come up. [Author’s note: you can watch the first developer diary, which was released after our conversation, below.]

Second, is we're actually hosting regular roundtable sessions with community leaders from around the world. We can't do this with every single player in the community, but there are definitely folks who we feel like are a good representation of our global community that we are able to bounce ideas off of get real-time feedback on what's happening. Game design is a very nuanced thing where you have to think about what's best for the game in the long term, but then also make sure that players are enjoying things and in the short term - we're always trying to strike that balancing act. But overall, we really want to ensure that when we communicate, and the cadence of our communication, we step our game up there.

It's also about how we're communicating as well. Something that we're actively trying to do is not just say, ‘Hey, here's the event and here's what's happening,’ but also give a little bit of context as to why we're doing things this way - a little bit of insight into the background there. And the final thing that we also committed to was better updates on known issues within the game, so our operations team is hard at work updating our known issues tracker so that players have more visibility into the status of those issues. 

Do you have any regrets about the campaign or the decisions that you were making?

MS: Absolutely not. We love the fact that our players are so passionate, and we're fortunate to have players that are that passionate. Ultimately, this has to be a symbiotic relationship. We want to put together the best product that we can, and in order to do that we need to be able to take in feedback from players and how they're enjoying that product. There are also things that we think are going to be valuable to the game in the long term that players might not have visibility into. But it's something that we need to carefully measure and balance on our side as we plan out different features and releases and whatnot for years to come. 

Internally at Niantic, we refer to Pokémon GO as a ‘forever game.’ We're not looking at what the next month is going to be or what the next year is going to be - we're always talking about the next five years. What's the next 10 years in Pokémon GO and what's the path to get there? That can be frustrating from the player's perspective, but if you stopped to think about how we're looking at this as a forever game, a lot of that starts to make more sense. Again, it's a matter of how we're communicating that and letting people know that there's thoughtfulness behind all this stuff. And we're making an active effort to ensure that communication goes through.

A trainer sits on an IRL mountainside surrounded by Pokémon.
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On the exploration side of things, being at these kind of events in-person is at the core of that. But do you think there's room for improvement in more rural areas, because all of these events take place in big cities? I understand that they've got the infrastructure, but is there scope for rewarding exploration of, I don’t know, ‘that little park that's down the road’ in nowhere-town?

MS: We're always trying to improve our map data as much as we can, and that is only as good as the communities that help build it. The only way that Pokémon GO has reached the scale that it has is players saying, ‘Hey, here's an interesting statue here, here's like a phenomenal park over here.’ So that's always being built on and improved over time. I will also say, though, that a part of one of our three pillars is that real world social, and it's tough to generate that real world social interaction if the gameplay is completely distributed everywhere. From that POV, we do want to identify those lightning bolt locations, where it's like, ‘hey, this community should all like go check this place out.’ 

And by going there, you're going to see other people and you're going to make new friends. And you know, it's not necessarily about walking around, you know, your, your block, because you might end up just playing Pokémon Go by yourself, if you do that. And there's nothing wrong with that, we definitely encourage people to, you know, exercise, it's another one of the pillars. If you want to do that in your local place, then great. But as much as possible, we do want to encourage people to check out these communal gathering spots around the world.

Pokémon GO World Championship logo over a faded background of fields and sky.
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Pokémon GO will make its debut at the Pokémon World Championship next year – do you think GO Battle League is ready for the big stage?

MS: There are definitely a couple things that we want to improve on in the system before we hit the big stage. I know that the team is hard at work to make sure that that's going to be a smooth and seamless experience.

Is lag one of those things?

MS: Lag is definitely something that we don't want to have occurring and any of our features. It's particularly important for us to ensure that the internet connectivity at the at the venues for the different tournaments is completely, you know, up to standard for what we need for the product. That is one of those tricky things, right, where individuals who are playing in different locations and have their own internet set up in different areas can experience a varying degree of that, but one of the benefits of being able to participate in a major tournament like this is that us and the tournament organizers have a better control over that connected experience and can set things up in a way that is optimal for PvP.

Will there be some kind of Pokémon GO event to tie in with the tournament?

PM: We are hard at work and intensively coordinating and working with all partners from the Pokémon Company to make it as engaging as possible for Pokémon GO fans, and not only those in attendance, but also those who are just around in in London and get excited about the pure fact that the World Championship is taking place in their city.

Green chameleon Pokémon Kecleon in a battle arena.
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That’s very exciting. One final question: when is Kecleon coming?

MS: Nothing to share about that right now. But Kecleon has special attributes in the main series games that are not shared by any other Pokémon. And so, we really want to do right by that in Pokémon GO when it's time to release it. We're working towards that, and we want to make sure that when we're ready, it's a special release for players to catch. 

Unfortunately, we couldn’t get anything more out of them regarding the elusive chameleon which is the last Pokémon from the Hoenn Pokédex yet to be released. However, Niantic’s insight into events and communication bode well for the future of the game – for hardcore players and casual fans alike. 

Safari Zone: Liverpool felt like a tentative return to the live event formula that has proved so wonderful for Pokémon GO in the past – players came together to catch, battle, and trade in a (mostly) safe manner in the stunning outdoor environment of Sefton Park. 

As much social distancing as was involved in Liverpool, it would be a shame to give up on the hybrid event model completely. Much like the larger PokéStop radius that caused a global movement, hybrid events offer plenty of accessibility benefits for players who are not able to get to a specific place for a myriad of potential reasons. After all, the message of exploration that Niantic sends is an expensive one, and catching ‘em all is nigh-impossible in GO without international travel. Let’s just hope that Niantic’s improved communication can be sustained, and that players are listened to when they bring up such causes.

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