A year ago, I started to take strange shortcuts home; ones that looped around the backs of familiar streets, and took me up the kind of hills that my legs would normally beg me to avoid. And I wasn’t the only one. Thanks to Pokemon Go, which release a year ago today, seemingly the whole world went mad, slipping down long forgotten back alleys, where the odd Ghastly, Nidoran, maybe even a Pikachu, lurked.
As the summer turned to autumn, though, I found myself taking these shortcuts less and less. Gradually, the idea of turning on my phone to faff around with an unreliable game, when I could already be at home, began to lose its appeal. I wasn’t alone.
Pokemon Go peaked just a week after launch, with 28.5 million daily users in the US, and its playerbase began a steady decline from there. By the end of the year, according to ComScore, that number had dropped to around 5 million – meaning four in five players had given up.
A year on from its release, as the sun shines down on the UK once more, it seemed like a good time to revisit Pokémon Go, and find out what’s been going on in the game since I last turned it on. To help guide me through, I tracked down just a few of those dedicated 5 million players who’ve stayed the course through its winter of discontent.
There are players like William in Dubai, who gained a new favourite Pokémon from the experience: “I never loved Snorlax, but his power and elusiveness in Pokémon Go has given me the best memories I've made in the last year. One night I jumped in a car with a hunter I'd never met, at 2am on a school night, to go after a Snorlax ten minutes away. Another day, I careened past screaming security guards on my bicycle into a flooded construction site, falling into the mud, to get a Snorlax three seconds before it despawned.”
“I went for a walk just after midnight on New Year's Day to do some hunting, when it was both freezing cold and drizzling,” says Nick (near Brighton; an avowed fan of Bellsprout). “So I am fairly committed, for better or worse.”
Firing up the app for the first time in nine months, it’s these kinds of memories that come flooding back. For me, Pokémon Go always was best as a way of overwriting physical locations with virtual memories. Scrolling through my collection (which now tells you where each Pokemon was caught), every glamorous location – from Croydon to Stourbridge – comes with its own story: The party that dispersed to chase an Electabuzz two streets over; a summer’s afternoon in Wetherspoons, throwing out Lures with each round of drinks; the holiday where I risked extortionate roaming data charges because I couldn’t wait to catch my first Squirtle.
That blend of fantasy and reality is even stronger now too; In place of its original footsteps system, which fell over about two days after launch and never recovered, Pokemon Go now has a dedicated ‘Nearby’ section, which shows monster next to a photo of the Stop or Gym that it’s closest to. It encourages you to apply your knowledge of the local area, or to discover new landmarks – even if, as is the case where I live in South London, that means lots and lots of nearly-identical churches.
Pokemon Go’s inextricable link to the real world, and the way it encourages exploration, is one of the things that comes up constantly when I ask players what made them stick around for so long: “As someone who doesn't exercise a lot, the game gets me walking so I can hatch eggs or get Candy,” says Shannon (Atlanta; favourite Pokemon, Drowzee), “I've discovered that my neighbourhood is huge and it rules. I live next to the Chattahoochee River! I literally had no idea until last summer.”
Not everyone agrees about the new Nearby system. “I still miss the original radar system, where you could gauge the distance of Pokémon around you and actually track them down,” says Traci (Arizona; Nidoking), “They've tried to introduce different systems since then but they've all just made gameplay more passive than active.” Overall though, players are pleased with Niantic’s changes.
“It's definitely a better game than at launch,” says Tom (Illinois; Lapras). “For one thing, it's more stable. Even in my rural area with spotty phone signal, I spend a lot less time looking at loading and login screens.” According to Steph (Suffolk; Pikachu), “It still doesn’t feel finished to me, being so used to the main series for the last 18 years, but Niantic has added a lot of good features over this first year, keeping new content and events happening regularly to keep people engaged.”
As I continue to play, more of these features reveal themselves. Let’s start with the most obvious one: the ‘Generation 2’ Pokémon from the Gold and Silver games. These were first teased at Christmas, when Togepi and Pichu started hatching from eggs, and there are now around a hundred of these new creatures out in the wild. It’s genuinely exciting to have blank spaces in my Pokédex again, and my relative lack of familiarity with the new additions only adds to the fun as I squint at and ponder the mysterious silhouetted shapes in the Nearby section.
“I only ever played Pokémon Blue, so as far as I was concerned, the list stopped at #151,” says Tom, “I didn't think I'd get excited about the second-generation Pokémon being added to the game, but now Ursaring and Donphan are among my most-used fighters.”
Even with these new additions, it doesn’t take too before the old feeling of weariness starts to creep in for me, reminding me why I dropped off in the first place: there was too big a gap between common Pokemon, which swarmed you in the hundreds, and the rare ones, which you really had to work for. My original Pokédex was barely two-thirds full but, in terms of what was realistically in my grasp as a casual player, I’d caught ‘em all.
It’s a sensation that Michael (London; Chikorita) remembers acutely too: “My enthusiasm started to wane in the winter, when everything felt like grinding I was mostly seeing the same Pokémon, walking miles to try and evolve something, and had given up hope of occupying any gyms.” Unlike me, however, Michael soldiered on.
There’ve been other issues threatening to dampen the enthusiasm of players I spoke to, such as the departure of fairweather Pokéfans like myself. “I remember going out to play the first few weekends to the local campus and you could tell that the server was down because people were carrying their phones and looking dejected,” says Luke (Ohio; Dugtrio). “Now you might see people playing, but that zeitgeist is lost.”
“There’s also an increased stigma,” says William. “Basically everyone I know outside of my Pokémon Go community quit within a month or two. If someone sees me playing, it's treated like last summer's fad. I'm regularly greeted with dismissive, condescending looks.”
“There was a fallow period late last year, maybe early into this year, where it just felt like the developers weren't interested in their product anymore. Updates were far apart and nothing was really being added to the game experience,” says Traci. “But once they rolled out the second generation of Pokémon, it seemed to bring a renewed sense of vigour in the product from the top down.”
February’s update, for instance, also brought more player avatar customisation options, gender-specific Pokémon variants, and berries which can be used to influence the outcome of an encounter with a wild Pokémon. Niantic supported this with an increased focus on events, which boost XP and increase the likelihood of encountering certain species. “I live in Arizona and something like a week where Water-types were suddenly showing up everywhere made a huge impact,” Traci says.
Then there are the streak bonuses, which reward you for catching a Pokémon or visiting a Pokéstop seven days in a row, the Buddy system - one of my favourite additions to the game. It enables you to pick Buddy Pokémon to waddle alongside you, Pika-esque. Every 3km you walk, they earn a Candy that can be used to power-up or evolve them. It helps to solve one of Go’s biggest problems: the lack of attachment to your squad. The game’s design urges you to ditch older Pokémon in favour of the bigger, badder ones you encounter at higher levels, which runs counter to the appeal of the rest of the series.
The Buddy system puts Squirty, my creatively-named starter Pokémon, back in the game. With a deeply unimpressive CP rating of 43 CP, Squirty is hopelessly behind the curve, but now every walk is a training montage, running him endlessly up those steps he’s ready to take on the Apollo Creeds of our local Gym.
Speaking of Gyms, they’re the focus of Niantic’s most recent update, offering possibly the biggest overhaul to the game since launch. All gyms now come with six slots for the reigning team’s Pokémon, dropping the previous level system, and trainers can keep friendly monsters motivated by feeding them berries. “I miss the ability to train a gym and build it all the way up to level 10,” says Steph, “but I realise the new system is much fairer for players who are of lower levels and were struggling to get into and stay in gyms full of level 30-40 players.”.
Steph has more of an issue with the recently added cap on the number of coins you can earn when holding a gym with one of your Pokémon. It’s potentially part of Niantic’s attempts to create a more level playing field, but it makes it harder to earn in-game currency in-game too, inevitably pushing players toward paying for things with real money.
Far more popular is Pokemon Go ’s new Raids system. Borrowing from classic MMO design, Raids enable up to 20 players to join together and battle a single powerful boss Pokémon, which spawns in a Gym for a limited time. Beat it, and you’ll be rewarded with exclusive loot and a chance to catch that Pokémon. They’re the closest thing Go has ever had to an endgame – and thus completely out of my league. My wife and I stumbled into a Tier 4 encounter with Venusaur (recommend number of players: 17), and barely managed to chip away its health bar before time ran out. Even the experienced trainers that I spoke to, haven’t managed to fully explore this feature yet.
“A few times I've gone up against the lower tier Raids by myself just to use up my daily pass and to get some of the rewards,” says Michael. “But there have been a couple of instances where I've randomly joined someone else at the gym to take down the Raid boss and that felt cool. My girlfriend and I have ventured out to attack a boss together a couple of times and that experience has reignited our interest in going out and playing the game together.”
Through Raids, Go will finally introduce Legendary Pokémon like Mewtwo, helping to restore a sense of forward momentum to Pokémon Go. Updates are vital to keep players coming back, and everyone I spoke to has clear ideas of what they’d like to see added in the future, whether that be player-vs-player battles, trading, breeding, or, of course, the remaining 550-odd Pocket Monsters.
It’s not clear if or when we’ll see these additions, and personally I doubt that my current run with Pokemon Go will last until even the next update. I’ll still be popping in from time to time, as each new feature drops, but I can’t imagine sticking around long-term. Even with its raft of new updates, the game hasn’t managed to sink its hooks into me as deep as it did last summer, or got me returning to those back alleys and old haunts. Even so, it’s been a pleasure to discover that there’s still a little of that old magic in Pokémon Go.