Pokémon GO announced yesterday that it will permanently keep an in-game feature that made the game easier to play while social distancing. Introduced at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the feature doubled the interaction radius around key augmented reality landmarks that are essential to gameplay. Though Niantic — parent company to Pokémon GO — removed the feature earlier this month, it chose to permanently reinstate it after weeks of community- and creator-led backlash.
Trainers – we’re looking forward to sharing our plans as a result of the task force on September 1, but one thing does not have to wait! From now on, 80 meters will be the base interaction radius for PokéStops and Gyms globally. (1/2)
— Pokémon GO (@PokemonGoApp) August 25, 2021
Pre-pandemic, Pokémon GO players needed to be within 40 meters of a PokéStop or Gym to interact with it, but with the now-permanent change, the radius is expanded to 80 meters. Incidentally, disabled players found that this feature made the game more accessible to people with limited mobility. As one of the first mainstream AR mobile games, Pokémon GO is virtually unplayable if you’re unable to travel to real-world landmarks like PokéStops and Gyms — so allowing users to interact with these landmarks from farther away (for example, if a wheelchair-user can’t journey off of a paved sidewalk) opened the game up to new players.
Because Pokémon GO has long positioned itself as a game that encourages real-world exploration, worldwide lockdowns posed a unique challenge for Niantic. But by making some small changes — like expanding the interaction radius by just 40 meters, increasing Pokémon spawns and making it easier to obtain more PokéBalls — the game became easier to play from home.
These changes didn’t break the game or contradict its adventurous spirit, which made the rollback of a well-loved upgrade confusing for players, especially in light of the spreading Delta variant. From a financial standpoint, the app thrived during the pandemic. In 2020, Pokémon GO had its best-earning year since its launch in 2016, earning over $1 billion. According to app analytics firm Sensor Tower, this upward trend continued for Pokémon GO in the first half of 2021, with $642 million. This marked a 34% increase in consumer spending compared to the first half of 2020, when it made $479 million.
Dear @NianticLabs your community needs you to address the recent in-game changes to #PokemonGO. #HearUsNiantic we love this game and the communities we've built together. This game thrives on inclusivity and diversity. Show us you understand that. pic.twitter.com/1N6EAaM5m2
— ZoëTwoDots (@_ZoeTwoDots) August 5, 2021
After Niantic reduced the interaction radius, Pokémon GO content creators and community members worked together to write an open letter to Niantic, which caused the hashtag #HearUsNiantic to trend on Twitter. The letter expressed that the increased radius made the game safer, more accessible and less intrusive.
“Encouraging people to explore, exercise and safely play together in person remains Niantic’s mission. The health and wellbeing of players is our top priority,” Niantic’s statement read. The company formed an “inter cross-functional team” to address these concerns and invited prominent Pokémon GO content creators to share community feedback. While expanding the interaction radius is the first result of the task force, Pokémon GO tweeted that it will share more findings on September 1.
TechCrunch asked Niantic why it initially chose to rebuke these gameplay updates despite positive community feedback, increased revenue and an ongoing pandemic, but Niantic declined to comment.
Despite players’ visible negative response on social media, Sensor Tower told TechCrunch that it didn’t see any change in consumer spending or active users for Pokémon GO around the time of the in-game strike. However, there was a significant uptick in negative App Store reviews.
Though the wider interaction radius is now reinstated, some players remain frustrated, since community leaders had previously provided this feedback in June after Niantic announced its plans to roll back these changes.
“Why did it have to take this giant community movement for any of our feedback to be heard?” said creator ZoëTwoDots in a YouTube video.
The creators of Pokémon GO, Niantic developed one of the first mainstream augmented reality games, boasting 166 million users and over a billion dollars in revenue last year. Taking inspiration from the main series Pokémon games, Pokémon GO uses in-game incentives to encourage users to explore their surroundings, team up with other users to fight legendary beasts, and travel to places they’ve never been before.
Before the pandemic, this posed an accessibility issue — when certain tasks could only be completed by walking a certain distance, for example, it alienated users with physical conditions and disabilities that prevent them from easily taking a walk around the neighborhood. Plus, for players in wheelchairs, it might be impossible to access certain PokéStops and Gyms. It’s necessary to interact with these real-world landmarks to play the game to its fullest.
When much of the world entered lockdown March 2020, Pokémon Go doubled the size of the radius that players can be within to interact with a PokéStop or Gym, widening the radius from 40 meters to 80 meters. So, you could now be further away from a landmark but still reap its rewards. This made it easier for users to play from home, or play outside while social distancing — but it also made the game much more accessible. Plus, for a game that still gets a bad rep for causing traffic accidents, the increased radius helped pedestrian players access landmarks without brazenly jay-walking across the street (to be fair, it’s on users to make smart decisions while gaming in augmented reality — but, Niantic has responsibility here too). And for businesses that happened to be located in a prime location for raid battles, which require players to gather in-person within a Gym’s radius to defeat rare monsters, this meant that Pokémon players could maintain a respectful distance from store fronts while playing the game (later in the pandemic, it became possible to join raid battles remotely — this feature will remain in the game, probably because it proved profitable).
These pandemic incentives were always framed as temporary bonuses, but players embraced the changes — in 2020, Pokémon GO had its highest-earning year yet. Now, the increased landmark radius has been removed “as a test” in the U.S. and New Zealand.
“As we return to the outside world again, these changes are aimed at restoring the focus of Pokémon GO on movement and exploration in the real world,” the company wrote in a blog post. “These changes will be introduced slowly and carefully to make it more exciting to explore the world around you.”
One new incentive gives users 10x XP for visiting a new PokéStop for the first time (or, in real-world terms, visiting a new place). But as the Delta variant spreads in the U.S., players find these changes to be frustrating and misguided. Why roll back features that made the game more accessible while also netting the company more money?
The removal of double distance is nothing short of a slap in the face towards the #PokemonGO Community.
I’ll realistic and say I that I’ll quit GO if changes aren’t being made ASAP.
I REFUSE to cover a game that doesn’t have it’s player base in its best interest.
— REVERSAL – Pokémon GO (@REVERSALxPoGO) August 1, 2021
The Pokémon Go YouTuber, Reversal, who has created sponsored content for Niantic, wrote that he will quit the game if changes aren’t being made ASAP. Other players launched a petition with over 130,000 signatures to keep increased PokéStop and Gym interaction distance. Prominent Pokémon Go content creators like ZoëTwoDots and The Trainer Club have referenced a potential boycott of the game in videos they uploaded today, citing Niantic’s refusal to listen to community concerns after they announced the impending end of pandemic bonuses in June.
“I’m more than down to boycott the game with everyone if we’re vibing that,” ZoëTwoDots, who has also partnered with Niantic, told her 212,000 subscribers. “I know for myself personally, I’m just straight up not spending money in the game going forward until they address it publicly.”
My opinion on the Pokéstop radius hasn't changed. It was a clear quality of life change that was only fully realised because of a (ongoing) pandemic. It has provided accessibility to disabled players, safety to all players, and NEVER affected our enjoyment of exploration. https://t.co/DK1VWkw0ga
— ZoëTwoDots (@_ZoeTwoDots) August 1, 2021
As the game celebrates its five year anniversary, the conflict it now faces isn’t about players wishing for the game to be easier. Rather, this represents a failure by Niantic to listen to its user base, prioritize accessibility, and incentivize users to stay home as COVID-19 cases rise again in the U.S.