I've written in the past about how important the Pokémon series was for me growing up, both in helping to build social skills and better adjust to change in my life. I used Pokémon as a kid to make friends, memorising the stats and sharing with other children. As a teen they were a comfort gaming staple, somewhere safe to retreat to when things got tough. As an adult Pokemon Go played a huge role in getting me out the house, exercising, and meeting new people following serious surgery.
But as much as Pokémon Go has been a force for good in my life, from helping me feel comfortable moving away from my home town, to meeting new people once I got there, the people I met through it were always more brief acquaintances than friends. It's just how the game's structured. Players are encouraged to show up at one spot at the same time, do an activity lasting five or ten minutes, then go their separate ways. There's little to encourage pairing up or hanging around as a group, so you end up in these weird scenarios where every local Go player knows each other's face and name, but not much else.
When Pokémon Go's long-awaited trading system was unveiled early last week, after two years of delays, I was initially a little bummed out by the number of restrictions placed upon it. You have to be in the same physical location to trade, you have to interact many times with the same trainer in order to trade legendaries, shinies and Pokémon not yet in the Pokédex, and even then there are limits to how often you can trade those more desirable creatures. As an obsessive collector, I just wanted to put a 'needs and haves' list up on Twitter and get my desires taken care of in an afternoon. Niantic pls.
As I've spent time with the trading system, however, I've warmed to the concept. This is entirely because a large side-effect of how it works is turning those local acquaintances into chums. When the trading and its rules were announced, I saw my local raiding Facebook group spring into action, revving up to arrange the opportunities every collector wanted. A separate chat was set up, where players share what they have to trade and what they want. Those who find trainers that match then private message each other to sort out the specifics. The main chat set up group meeting times for the first weekend of trading, so that newly paired-off trainers could meet and get to know each other, before committing to the regular meetings needed to build up trading friendship levels.
To zoom out from this for a moment, what Niantic has done here is introduce rules around trading that - first and foremost - maintain the integrity of the rest of the game. I might want to put up a list of 'needs and haves' then just swap, but such a system would see players complete their Pokedex or get what they want extremely quickly. There'd be a whole splurge of gratification, then you'd... maybe be done with playing?
To avoid this Niantic has come up with slightly complex rules that, essentially, depend on trainers building up a relationship over time. This achieves the developer's purpose, of allowing trading while not allowing it to dominate the game's 'economy', but also builds on the kind of social scenarios Pokémon Go was always good at. The outcome is a set of rules that facilitate repeated one-on-one meetups and, of course, you end up getting friendly with your partner-in-Pokecrime.
This is no small commitment. If you want to level up your friendship with another trainer, it would take this many days if you were doing so via an interaction once per day:
Good friend — 1 day
Great friend — 7 days
Ultra friend — 30 days
Best friend — 90 days
Missing a day doesn't reset progress or anything, you just have to do this many total days to build up that friendship. Also, you don't need all those interactions to be in-person interactions either. For example, one of the primary methods of building up your friendship level is sending other trainers on your friend lists gifts. You have a roughly 25% chance of receiving a gift every time you spin a Pokéstop, an item which cannot be opened by the trainer that found it, but if sent to another player will give that player a handful of oft-rare items.
Every day you can open twenty items sent to you from other players, and these can be sent globally. So while meeting in-person is a big part of trading, just playing the game 'normally' and sending gifts to your buddies will also gradually build your friendship level for later trading.
As for the levels themselves, after becoming a 'good friend' with one interaction you can make basic trades for things you both already own. Interact for a week and you can trade anything you want, but check out this small print: the Stardust costs are so prohibitively expensive I have never possessed enough resources in game to make one of those trades. No I don't have 1,000,000 stardust sitting around in order to trade for that legendary my collection is missing. But if you build up to 'Ultra' and then 'Best' friends, the cost goes down until eventually that legendary trade will need a week's worth of resources rather than half a year's worth.
Since the feature went live last week, I've already found myself getting to know three local players even better. We all vaguely knew each other already from raids, and had chatted before but only really small talk. But we hooked up to start off our long-term trading partnerships, and chat about the options awaiting us, and next thing you know we're talking about what everyone does for a living and how many cats they have.
Over the past few days I've spent several hours hanging out with these new friends, rather than five minutes. We discuss the best places in town to collect resources, how they got into playing the game, and just generally chitchat about life and Pokémon Go. We've started doing low-level trades during lunch breaks just to test out the system and grant each other small bonuses, and it feels like the game is somehow building a bond in a way that raids never really managed.
I recently moved to a new town and so, obviously, I don't know as many folk around me as I used to. In one of those strokes of fate, a favourite video game's latest feature is now incentivizing its players to make local friends: a prospect I might otherwise find terrifying but, with the safe fallback topic of Pokémon Go, is pretty perfect for where I am in life right now. The game encourages you to be in the same space as people and talk to them, banking that the repetition of this structure will have an impact socially as well as in-game. My Poké-buddies and I now exchange messages at least once a day, just so everyone's keeping on-track with the progression, and are already 'just passing through' each other's home turf for quick in-person exchanges. It's funny that the Pokémon games have always featured worlds full of other trainers, friend or foe, and Pokémon Go is somehow now paralleling the former in the real world.
I don't know if these new friends will hang in with the routine and get our in-game friendship level to the highest rank, or indeed if these friendships will endure once the trades we're after are done. It's early days fore Pokémon Go trading. But already the game's introduced me to a few new people around where I live, who happen to share a similar hobby, and whom for the next few months I'll be seeing pretty regularly for a lunchtime trade and a catch-up. We shoot the breeze, enjoy each other's company, and as Pokémon trainers swap stories about our journey, and where we hope to go to next. If that's not a triumph for the concept of augmented reality, then I don't know what is.