How Pokemon Go Simulates The Ravages Of Old Age Though Terrible Game Design

Want to know what it’s like to go senile?  Pokemon Go is the perfect way for teenagers to experience what it’s like to get old, so much so that I presume your trainer just dies when he hits level 30.

Because in Pokemon Go, you start out as a young and hale Pokemon trainer at the top of his game.  Every monster is capturable.  You can track down monsters easily, and the rewards for getting them are plentiful.  The world is your oyster.

But as you level up, old age settles in.  Your senses dull.  Monsters you once tracked easily become findable only with great effort, and by today you can’t even find them at all – you know, maddeningly, that the Clefairy you so desperately seek is somewhere in the neighborhood, but deafened and blinded, you have no idea where it might be.

Your grip weakens, too, as you level up.  Trivial Pokemon that once took a single ball to capture now require you to weakly lob five or six balls with your arthritic, useless hands.  The rewards you used to get for accuracy and skill get removed, so the 50 extra XP you used to get for a nice throw no longer count – presumably because you’re so bitter and jaded that you no longer believe you deserve reward for an excellent throw.

Other games, foolishly, have equated “levelling up” with “more power” and “greater skill.”  Pokemon Go breaks with that tradition by demonstrating that levelling up is merely crawling closer to the nursing home – with each level and Pokemon Go patch, you lose power and skill.

I’m level 19 now, and I dread becoming level 20 because I can barely catch a Weedle as it is, and how do the poor bastards of level 24 shuffle about?

You may think I’m kidding here: I’m not.  Thanks to a combination of poor game design and inexplicably terrible patches, Pokemon Go has become a game that actively punishes you for playing it, and players are not happy about this.

Let me first explain how I play Pokemon Go, however, because there’s two ways you can play the game.  A lot of people are concerned about levelling up their biggest Pokemon so they can battle for dominancy of the gym markers placed all over the map.  Personally, that’s of no interest to me.  Pokemon Go released in summer, which means that teenagers and college kids have nothing to do except squat near their gyms and battle.  If I, the underlevelled fortysomething, do manage to squeeze a Vaporeon into the gym, the seven camp kids squatting near the Rocky River pool will ensure I’m kicked out in short order.

No, I play Pokemon Go for Pokemon’s very mandate:

Gotta catch ’em all.

There are a hundred and fifty or so Pokemon, and the only way to catch them is to go wandering for great distances in real life.  My wife and I, who know little about Pokemon, get a thrill every time we find a Pokemon we didn’t know about – “What the hell is that magnet thing?  Look at that” we cry happily, as one of us captures some weird-ass beast we had no clue existed.

We could look up the list of Pokemon on the Internet.  We don’t.  For us, as for many people, the joy is in the exploration.

And Niantec has actively started punishing us for exploring.

In the beginning, the game gave you a list of Pokemon in your neighborhood, along with a rough estimate as to how far you needed to walk to get them.  You had no directional element – but you knew there was a Ponyta roaming through this Target parking lot somewhere, and you could play an elaborate game of cold/hot to find it.

After a few weeks, Niantec removed this feature.  Now you could see the Pokemon in your neighborhood, but they were only sorted by distance.  You couldn’t tell how far away you were, only that you were closer to the Ponyta than you were this useless frickin’ Weedle.

And now, with the latest update, Niantec has removed the order.  You can only see the Pokemon in your neighborhood.  You don’t know which direction to go, merely that they’re within about a half a mile of you.  Good luck!

If you started playing from the first week, in the last month you have watched your ability to find Pokemon degrade.  That’s Pokemon Senility, Part One.

Now, “finding Pokemon” is pretty much the largest reason people play – so much so that there are multiple sites that fake geolocations to map out the Pokemon in your neighborhood.   Or there were.  Niantec has shut them down, ostensibly because they were overloading the server – but their game trailer promised that you’d be able to find Pokemon by direction and distance, so basically Niantec has eliminated third-party services that provided what they promised.

Want to find a rare, specific Pokemon?  Hell with you, buddy.  Now you can’t.  And by the way, we’re going to punish you for wanting to do anything else while you’re hunting for rare Pokemon.

Punish?  How?  Well, as every Pokemon player knows, your local neighborhood is infested with Com Mons – Pidgeys and Rattatas are everywhere.  You will, quite literally, find Pidgeys and Rattatas on every corner, sometimes two or three at a time…

…and you will hardly find anything else, if you live in a “Pokedesert” like I am.  See, Pokemon are generated according to the number of people playing Pokemon Go in your local area.   If you live in a big city, rare Pokemon spawn all the time, because the game goes “Oh, there’s fifty people there, let’s drop some good loot.”  But if you’re walking through the sleepy suburbs Rocky River, you will hardly ever find a Pikachu – just Pigeons and Rats everywhere.

Which would be fine, if the game encouraged you to capture pigeons and rats.  But as you level up, it encourages you not to.

See, Pokemon Go’s way of encouraging you to make in-game purchases is Not Subtle. In fact, it’s so blatant that it literally makes you feel feeble.  Because as you level up, Pokemon become much more likely to escape your tossed balls, until eventually a Pidgey that would have taken a single ball at level 5 suddenly starts requiring four or five balls.

Now, admittedly, quietly ramping up the difficulty on pay-to-play games is a long-standing tradition.  Seriously; go read this article on a guy who’s spent $9,000 on his iPhone game, it’s terrifying.  But Game of War has tons of fiddly options that confuse the user – which doesn’t sound like a strength, but at least when the game screws you over, your dignity is preserved because you’re not sure what’s happening.

Pokemon Go has so few stats that it’s blatantly apparent the game is jacking you.  Pokemon have a single rating: Combat Power.  And you know that at level 12, getting a Pidgey at CP 45 never took more than a single ball, but when at level 18 it takes two or three balls to capture it, there’s no denying the game is making you less effective as you climb the ranks.

And that Pidgey breaking loose is maddening, because you don’t even want the Pidgey.  You’ve captured literally hundreds of Pidgeys, and if your goal is to “catch ’em all,” then Pidgeys are an active annoyance because they’re taking up a spot that maybe an exciting Staryu or a Bulbasaur might occupy.

Why would you try?  Because the game is boring otherwise.  You’re just looking for some small entertainment while you’re endlessly wandering around, hoping a Squirtle appears.  Having it burn up four or five of your precious supply of Pokeballs, particularly in Poke-dry areas where you can’t refill them except by buying them or driving to better locations, means that when a Squirtle does hove into view you might not have the balls left to capture him.

(Oh, and Niantec inexplicably removed the XP reward for super-accurate throwing of your Pokeball.  That didn’t matter when your reward was a rare Pokemon, but removing rewards when all you’re getting is a Pidgey makes the grindy parts even grindier and less fun.)

So you wander, the game encouraging you not to interact with its low-level entertainments, rendering you unable to find its high entertainments.   And you can’t have the game on in the background, you can’t text while you have Pokemon Go on, you can’t do anything but Pokemon Go and maybe have some tunes on.

Basically, Pokemon Go demands PAY ATTENTION TO ME and then, as you level up, actively punishes you for trying to interact with what it offers the most often, and has taken away the tools that allow you to find the things you want.

That is the epitome of bad game design.

And unless Niantec can deal with this problem, it’s going to start hemorrhaging users soon; oh wait, it already has.  Unsurprisingly, people don’t like feeling stupid, and the entire game is currently devoted to making its most invested users feel feeble.

They can fix this; I know the stated issue is “server overload,” but honestly if the game allowed me to home in on rare Pokemon, I’d be okay with it not working more often.  Helping you find rare Pokemon is a must-have feature in a game that is about capturing and exploration; otherwise, why do I even have this thing on?

Likewise, yes, technically speaking we’re “encouraged” to buy Pokeballs when the game ramps the level up.  But that ramp is so apparent, and for Pokemon we actively have come to hate, that we’re more likely to quit the game out of disgust, or only check it when we’re in a high-traffic zone.

This game is broken, and broken in a way that screws over its most heavily-invested users.  It can be fixed, but that’s gonna require communication – Niantec is infamously closed-mouthed, but an announcement of “We know how important Pokemon-tracking is, we’re working on that, it’s our top priority” would keep me playing more because I’d know they knew why I was playing.

As it is, Niantec looks clueless.  That’s not a good look.  Especially when you’ve taken an interesting game and patched out all the features the “Gotta catch ’em all” people liked.

1 Comment

  1. keth
    Aug 3, 2016

    Try Ingress instead. Thats the game that Pokemon Go was based on. I think the equivalent of your gyms is our portals, and they’re not difficult to find. You can get keys for each portal so it still encourages you to explore, and even better, there are trails (missions) set up, world wide, using the game, so you could play it on the same collector-basis that you play Pokemon Go. And even better still, Ingress connects to Field Trip, an App that gives you info about the portal in question when it’s a place of historical interest or something like that, so you learn while doing it.

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