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Pokémon Go creators say COVID is ‘existential to our game’

A pandemic makes pushing your players outside impossible

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Pokémon Go was ready to kick off a new major event in March. Battle League — which asks players to walk in order to gain entry — was similar in spirit to many of Niantic’s initiatives within its game, one that encourages players to leave home and socialize. But outside, COVID-19 was beginning to take hold. “I remember being like there’s no way that this could be, there’s no way that this is anything,” says Veronica Saron, Niantic’s product marketing manager. “I was so stupid. I had no idea. None of us had any idea.”

By March, companies were beginning to send their employees to work from home. For Saron, her last day in the office included a meeting with the company’s CEO and a series of talking heads via video call. She hasn’t been back to the office since. 

Video games have thrived in the pandemic, with sales hitting all-time highs in roughly a decade. Development, like many other jobs, has continued from home. Even with some delays, studios like Naughty Dog, Insomniac, Sucker Punch, and more have managed to successfully release their big budget games this year. Stuck at home, audiences have been even more eager for experiences to pass the long hours.

The pandemic only makes the stakes higher

Pokémon Go is not like most games. Where titles that found popularity this year, like Animal Crossing or Among Us, are perfectly suited to sitting on the couch, Pokémon Go is about getting up, heading outside, and socializing in real life; look no further than Niatnic’s focus on in-person events every year. That won’t work in a pandemic. Even outdoors, large gatherings can still pose health threats. And though its development now proceeds through continued updates to an existing product, as opposed to the work required for a big, initial launch, Pokémon Go has a unique pressure point: a moral obligation to its players to keep them safe. This has always been the case, as the game has a list of accidents and tragedies tied to its name. The pandemic only makes the stakes higher. It’s ethically dubious to encourage any of your players to get outside, when medical professionals have asked them to not. 

“The current issue [of COVID] is existential to our game,” senior product manager Matt Slemon tells The Verge. “And if we just continue on as we’ve been continuing on and build features and sit on them until COVID’s over, that wouldn’t be right by our players.” 

In the early days of COVID, Niantic — a global company with offices through the US and abroad in places like Japan and Germany — had a better picture of how the virus was spreading than most. In late January, Slemon recalls, the team began to discuss how COVID was impacting places like South Korea, Japan, and Italy, the last of which was already in lockdown. By pulling data from resources like Apple’s mobility maps, Niantic was able to track the decline in players’ walking and get a clearer picture of just how little its players were moving. “For us, walking is sort of the base thing,” Slemon says. “It’s a good trend line to follow just to see how the world generally has responded to COVID, because that app actually doesn’t motivate people to do things. It just kind of helps them do what they’re already doing. It’s a good read on how culture is changing around walking.”  

Initially, Niantic tweaked its walking requirements and changed its rules around legendary pokémon and raids. “That lasted us maybe two and a half, three weeks,” Slemon says. More countries were experiencing a surge in cases or even locking down. “We realized that we didn’t have the expertise or staffing to keep up with the levels of changes that were happening per country around the world.” Niantic, which weeks before had been rolling out local updates to accommodate COVID, shifted its focus to changes worldwide. 

As our understanding of the virus, its impact, and how to best combat it has changed rapidly this year, so too have protection measures. States shut down as hospitalizations swell. Cases rise and fall, making different locations hotspots at different times. The state of the world has changed at a breakneck pace, making everything more difficult. Niantic’s work was no exception. The developer created what Slemon calls strike teams, groups to quickly brainstorm and enact new ideas they could roll out in sprints. It can take as much as nine months for some features to go into effect. During COVID, that cadence simply doesn’t work.

“We were first at a little bit of a loss”

“When COVID first happened, one of the things that it necessitated — it wasn’t necessarily a change in day-to-day working, it was more of a strategy style change,” Slemon says. “Because of the unpredictability of the situation, we found that the best way to manage things right now is to be as flexible as possible.” 

Part of that involved canceling the game’s community events and embracing remote play. “We were first at a little bit of a loss ... this is a huge component of what makes Pokémon Go unique,” says Saron. “While it will never be the same as an in-person event where we activate a park, we were able to take a lot of those best elements and encourage communities to come together and have their own Go Fest, whether they needed to stay socially distanced or stayed quarantined.”

Typically an in-person event takes months to plan. Saron says the team now has weeks to execute their ideas. Niantic has relied on features like remote raids and Team Go Rocket Balloons — air balloons that bring fights to players, rather than make them travel — to make things feel a little more normal. “Over time we had to go from that local approach to the global approach of ‘let’s make a bunch of universal changes that will allow people to play no matter their circumstances,’” she says. “And of course if they’re able to go outside, go for a walk, socially distance, that’s great — but if they’re in a situation where they have to quarantine, we also want to make the game accessible for them, too.”

We built [what] we did knowing we’d be in a world with the pandemic for a while

These updates haven’t been painless or even without fair criticism. Advocates like AbleGamers COO Steven Spohn have been asking for accessibility options since 2016. In March, in response to Niantic’s feature changes, Spohn tweeted, “The fringe reality that ‘only a few players’ (46 mil, btw) experience is suddenly everybody’s reality. Now, people are finally understanding what disabled gamers have been saying for years: Being Socially Isolated SUCKS. Leaving your house whenever you wanted was a privilege.” In a follow-up tweet, Spohn added, “I’m sad it took a global pandemic to bring these accessibility options to life and teach this lesson.” When asked directly why it took a pandemic to add these features, Slemon said that’s not “really how we look at some of these changes.”

“We know the cultural norms have changed all around the world,” Slemon says. “So what it means to be doing things like going outside, exercising, socializing, have all changed. Zoom chats are common now instead of face-to-face chats, even with friends or family. We wanted to stay responsive to those times.” Slemon added that Niantic does “take seriously problems with accessibility,” pointing to issues like mobility and color blindness. “There are accessibility challenges that we do take seriously and we do want to handle. But this set of changes is really intended to focus on the changes to basically the entire world’s cultural norms. Over time, I think we probably want to have specific changes that target those types of accessibility problems.”

Niantic plans to keep many of the changes it’s brought to the game this year, like remote raids, permanently. This year it celebrated its biggest Go Fest yet, despite being online only. “We built all of the feature changes that we did knowing we’d be in a world with the pandemic for a while,” Slemon says. The game means many things to different people, whether it’s as a collection tool, exercise, or staying connected with friends. “We tried to find the path that ... whatever we meant to our players, we could continue to be that for them. At the end of the day, we hope that regardless of how you use Pokémon Go you’re still able to find you can do the things that you really wanted to do, regardless of the situation you’re in.”