A Random Player's Thoughts on Niantic and Pokemon Go
Introduction: My Background & Pokemon Go's Release
First off, let's go over my background with Pokemon. I've mostly only played the first generation Pokemon games that came out on the Gameboy as I was growing up. I've played through and beaten the Blue version more times than I can count and I've had a bit of experience with the other versions that were coming out around that time frame (Yellow, Red, etc). Although I wouldn't consider myself a "hardcore Pokemon fan" (because let's face it, some of you guys are insanely in love with Pokemon) I do consider myself a fan of generation one and was therefore very excited with what I was reading about the soon to be released game. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those generation one elitists, but the Pokemon and characters in generation one will always hold a special place in my heart because they were what I watched and played growing up.
The day that I started seeing articles popping up on Facebook and Twitter about the release of the game in Australia and New Zealand I was excited the entire day, constantly checking the IOS store waiting for the release in the US. Later that night I checked the store and the game was there. I immediately downloaded the game and created my account. At first the game was extremely fun and new and exciting but later I would learn that in the following month Niantic would make seemingly small changes to the game that ended up having an impact on my enjoyment of it and would make some decisions that effected my opinion of them as a company.
Like most other players I noticed extremely bad server issues when the game was first released, sometimes not being to log in for hours and often having to log out and log back in because the game was freezing or it couldn't find my GPS signal (or a variety of other reasons). However, I wasn't too surprised by this. If a new game comes out and has way more players than the developers were expecting then it makes sense that they wouldn't have their servers ready to handle the hoard of people. Although I wasn't surprised by these issues, it still sucked walking a few miles away from my house specifically to play Pokemon, only to have the servers crash and walking back home without being able to play the game. I guess I got some exercise though so it wasn't all bad right? It still felt pretty bad.
The Three Step Glitch
If you've played Pokemon Go then you probably know about the three step glitch. If you didn't, allow me to explain.
In the game you have to track down Pokemon that are near you by walking to an actual physical space in the real world in order to capture them. To figure out where the Pokemon were the game had a feature where it would display nearby Pokemon with 1 of 4 possible graphics below them. Pokemon with the graphic showing 3 footprints were the furthest away while Pokemon showing a graphic with 2 or 1 footprints were closer (obviously 1 footprint meant the Pokemon was closer than 2), and Pokemon with no footprints under them were the closest. The three step glitch refers to a bug where every single Pokemon in the nearby list would show up as having the three footprint graphic, which would lead a player to believe that every single Pokemon is far away from them, no matter how far they walked. To my knowledge the bug happened for every player and never stopped, essentially rendering the footprint tracking system useless.
How Niantic "Fixed" the Situation But Still Messed Up
How did Niantic respond to the three step glitch? Well they removed the footprint tracking system altogether. Yup, they completely removed it so every single Pokemon in the nearby list had no footprints under them (which is just as useless as every Pokemon showing three footprints). My opinion on why they did this? Probably to save resources. It would make sense that if a game feature 100% isn't working then there is no point of it still being in the game taking up memory, resources, server space, whatever it may have been taking up. I'd like to think that Niantic will re-introduce this feature once it is fixed or maybe even introduce an improved tracking system later on, but I don't have any confirmation on that. All I know is that the longer Niantic waits to re-implement some sort of tracking system the more players are going to be upset, especially since Niantic has released very little information about what updates they are making and why.
Here's where Niantic messed up. If you didn't know, people have made third party tracking systems online that tell you the location of various Pokemon throughout the world. The most popular one so far has been a site called Pokevision although it, and some other sites like it, have been officially taken down by Niantic because the company considers maps that give you the exact location of Pokemon as cheating, or that's what they've said anyway. It could also be because these sites are getting information from the Niantic servers that they are not supposed to have.
It was known for a little bit beforehand that Niantic would soon be going after these kinds of websites and shutting down their services, however Niantic picked one of the worst times to go through with this plan. They shut down the tracking services, like Pokevision, after removing the bugged footprint tracking feature in the game, essentially making it so the only way players could find Pokemon was to randomly wander about and hope they run into the one they're looking for. Another feature of the nearby Pokemon list still exists that places closer Pokemon further up the list, but this isn't nearly as accurate or easy to use as the footprint system.
Here's where the irony comes in, Niantic CEO, John Hanke, was completely okay with players essentially cheating to hatch eggs. In the game players need to walk certain distances to hatch different eggs which could give them rare or strong Pokemon without having to find said Pokemon in the wild and capture them (and some Pokemon are region specific, meaning if you don't live in that specific region your only chances of getting those Pokemon are through hatching them in an egg or physically traveling to that region. For example the Pokemon Mr. Mime can only be caught in the wild in Europe, or hatched from a 10km egg which requires you walk 10km or about 6.2 miles).
Hanke gave the following quote in reference to someone placing their phone on a toy train on a circular track to trick the game into thinking the player is walking around (essentially bypassing the need for the player to actually walk around and get exercise, which is what the game is intended to do, get players outside so they get exercise, explore their city, make new friends, etc).
"Hah! To hatch his eggs? Well that's kind of cheating, but it's kind of creative and funny too so I don't really mind it. He's only cheating himself,"
So what I've gathered from this is that Niantic considered finding a Pokemon's location cheating (even though you still have to leave your house and walk to that location to get it, and you know, exercise) but they are totally fine with players hatching rare Pokemon in their bedrooms that would normally require them to walk 10km. Not that Niantic would be able to do much about this anyway since they can't necessarily watch every player playing the game, but it is a little unsettling how much they don't care about it. You'd think the CEO would be more inclined to promote playing the game the legit way so the players could reap the benefits of socializing with others and getting out of their houses.
"I saw a turntable hack. I saw that one for hatching eggs," Hanke said in reference to someone placing their phone on a turntable for the same exploits.
Cheating on Twitch
Honestly just the fact that I have to write this section kind of makes me disappointed with the Pokemon Go community and Niantic for not handling it.
Basically people are streaming themselves playing the game on Twitch, but a lot of players are using emulators on their computers instead of walking around with a smart phone. Because they're playing on a PC they have to fake their GPS location to move around (which is actually against the game's rules). Many streamers are essentially teleporting their character wherever they want in the world (most notably New York City's Central Park since it is known as one of the best places in the world to catch Pokemon due to it's abundance of Pokestops and the ability to find a very large amount and variety of Pokemon there) and reaping the benefits without actually traveling to said location. A person living in Russia (or anywhere really) can fake their GPS location to have their character be in Central Park collecting Pokestops or even worse, take over a gym. How would you feel as a player if you walked to the location of a nearby gym, spent the time to beat the current leader and take over the gym, only to have someone from a completely different country take the gym away from you with their extremely overpowered Pokemon they collected by cheating?
You know what's even worse than these streamers cheating in the game? They collecting money by doing it. Many streamers set up donation systems so people can donate money to them while streaming on Twitch. These streamers that are cheating in the game are collecting real life money by doing so. Some of these cheating streamers are actually giving out information about how other players can cheat in the game and how to avoid being banned while doing it. However, the biggest surprise to me was that a large percentage of the community is actually wanting these streamers to cheat at the game. People will literally enter a streamer's channel and ask if they're cheating, then leave if they aren't. To me this is absolutely disappointing. Usually players think poorly of players that cheat in popular games but with Pokemon Go it seems to be the complete opposite.
While writing this article I went to the Pokemon Go section on Twitch and discovered that 7 out of the first 9 streams that showed up featured streamers that were cheating in the ways described above. Shout out to the two channels that were actually playing the game legit.
Hopefully Niantic will contact Twitch and do something about this since cheating in online games is against Twitch's rules. The following quote was taken from Twitch's Rules of Conduct page.
"Any activity, such as cheating, hacking, botting, or tampering, that gives the account owner an unfair advantage in a online multiplayer game, is prohibited. This also includes exploiting another broadcaster’s live broadcast in order to harass them in-game, such as stream sniping."
In all I would like to see Niantic fix the problems with the game, obviously, but I would also like to see Niantic taking bigger steps to combat cheating and start encouraging players to actually walk around and play the game as it's meant to be played instead of hatching eggs while they sleep. On top of that if Niantic could actually start communicating with the community more and let us know what's going on with the game, that so many people have spent money on, that would be fantastic.
I can't say that Niantic is my favorite game development company, or even close to it, but I can say that Pokemon Go is a very fun game and I would like to continue thinking that as time goes on. Being able to play Pokemon in the real world (or as close as possible) has been a dream of mine since I was a kid and I would be very dissapointed if everything crashed and burned because of poor communication and an abundance of cheating.
What are your thoughts on Niantic as a company and how do you feel about the Twitch streamers cheating? Leave a comment below!
Update (August 5th, 2016)
Niantic has actually communicated with the community like we've been asking! Great step in the right direction on Niantic's part. In an article they wrote on their website (pokemongo.nianticlabs.com) they spoke about how the third party tracking systems (like Pokevision) were taking up a lot of their server resources and how shutting down the system helped them to be able to push for a release in Latin America.
If you're interested you can read the full article here.
See Niantic, that wasn't so hard! Great job with the update, if you continue to reach out and let us know what's going on and why you're making changes a lot of the discomfort in the community will subside.