23 Sep 2021 4:00 PM +00:00

Pokémon GO Needs to Rethink Rural Play if It Really Wants to Encourage Exploration

Niantic always wanted to "encourage outdoor exploration" with Pokémon GO, and so they have reiterated over the AR game's five-and-a-half-year life. The developer even used the premise of exploration to defend its reduction of pandemic bonuses that would have negatively impacted the game's accessibility.

The pandemic meant that Niantic had to rethink how their AR exploration game could be played, and initially made positive changes. “Initially they did a phenomenal job for people to still enjoy Pokémon Go from home,” former Pokémon GO streamer 'Reversal' told Gfinity. However, he and millions of others campaigned to keep the pandemic bonuses in place when Niantic wanted to reduce them in the name of exploration.

However, what's the point of exploring if there's nothing to do when you get there? I was in the centre of London last week and there are PokéStops everywhere. Every piece of graffiti or street art, every old pub, and every sponsored EE shop has an associated PokéStop or Gym - and with those come copious Pokémon spawns. I happened to be in London for Eevee Community Day (the first one) too, and I couldn't see the floor for brown, furry creatures.

Sudowoodo walks happily through a dappled forest.
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Go and climb a mountain, however, or go to a beach or even a small town, and there's nothing. Maybe a singular PokéStop at a Victorian postbox or its lone drinking hole, but you'll be lucky to even find a gym. Local players will be able to tell you the precise spot you need to stand in order to get the Pokémon spawn point - likely in a car park or something - but you get the picture.

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Don't get me wrong, these locations look stunning with Pokémon GO's new skybox. Go to a beach at sunset and your shinies look simply divine, but what's the point of exploring that stunning location if you aren't going to be rewarded?

Rural players have been saying the same things for years, and I've experienced both ends of the spectrum. I've lived in a city centre where I could reach three PokéStops and numerous spawns from my bed, and I've lived in places where I have to squint to see my nearest PokéStop on the very horizon of my screen. But if Niantic is serious about wanting players to explore, it should incentivise getting off the beaten track and help rural players out in the process.

It's noticeable that a lot of Pokémon GO's marketing shows stunning vistas of mountains and forests, despite the fact that playing the game in these locations would be an uphill struggle

This would be a complete rework of the systems that make Pokémon GO tick, but the very least Niantic could do is increase the spawn rates away from PokéStops. Other than that, it could allow natural landmarks to be added as stops and Gyms so that the game could lead you towards the best viewpoint at the top of a mountain or a romantic spot on the beach. Maybe having these in-game prompts would ruin the actual fun of exploring, but it would certainly give players the opportunities to get out of the city and see the world while still playing the game as intended. 

Alternatively, could Team GO Rocket Grunts roam the wilderness rather than being attached to PokéStops? Their hot air balloons go some way to adding content to rural areas, but since they still spawn when you're in a city too, it's hardly an incentive to get out.

Remote raiding goes some way to helping rural players, but if anything it puts a stop to exploring. Regional exclusives are now available from the comfort of your own sofa, but international travel isn’t the be-all and end-all of exploration. Niantic expects regular Pokémon GO players, who have jobs and bills, to travel to Tokyo and Buenos Aires and Cairo and Berlin, but never to leave these cities once they get there.

Pokémon items hover in the air around a giant PokéStop, overlaid over a beautiful view of a forested hillside and mountains.
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It's noticeable that a lot of Pokémon GO's marketing shows stunning vistas of mountains and forests, despite the fact that playing the game in these locations would be an uphill struggle - it seems to have one definition of exploration for its marketing team and another for those developing the game. And it's hard to see why - is the data that Niantic harvests from AR mapping less valuable outside a city or have they just overlooked vast swathes of the planet because it's too difficult to find notable landmarks?

It’s not that a city break isn’t exploring, it’s just an inaccessible version of the concept. How many people have lost their income over the pandemic or don’t want to risk international travel with coronavirus rates high in many parts of the world and are therefore being punished in-game? I’m not against the concept of regional Pokémon, but instead of having Uxie only appear in the Asia-Pacific region, why not have it potentially spawn if you aren’t within 500m of a PokéStop? While there are obvious safety caveats to consider, this could go some way to getting players to explore off the beaten track, whether abroad or at home.

In the era of staycations and home holidays, Niantic’s vision of exploration seems old fashioned. Instead of expecting players to “explore” by simply hopping on a plane, why not encourage them to explore closer to home? It would be great if we were rewarded for getting out to that local wood a few miles up the road, or to that coastal town an hour’s drive up the coast. I don’t have all the answers, but if Niantic truly wants everyone to explore – whether they can afford plane tickets to the other side of the world or not – then improving the rural experience is the first step.