Last week, “Pokémon Go” got a huge new update, bringing sweeping and long-awaited changes to the game’s multiplayer battles.
These changes are just in time: As “Pokémon Go” approaches its one-year anniversary, the early mega-hype over the game has all but faded. Make no mistake, there are still 65 million active players, including myself, but the game has gone stale for many — even the very first “Pokémon Go” master has quit the game for lack of new worlds to conquer.
Fortunately for all, these new updates are exactly what the doctor ordered. While I never stopped playing casually, the update has me out in the streets again in my quest to catch ’em all.
After a year of same-old same-old multiplayer, the new update truly makes “Pokémon Go” great again — and sets the stage for even more exciting things to come.
The old way
The basics of “Pokémon Go” haven’t changed. Players explore the real world in search of Pokémon, which can appear anywhere. Along the way, players will find Pokéstops, which dispense helpful items when you walk near their locations, and gyms, which are guarded from attack by other players’ most powerful Pokémon in a variation on king-of-the-hill.
The problem with the original setup is that it got old, quickly. Players quickly figured out that only a few Pokémon — most commonly Dragonite, a rare dragon-type — actually had the stats necessary to guard a gym from attackers for any length of time.
And so, players raced to swell their collections with mega-powerful specimens of those few Pokémon, with many opting to cheat to get the biggest, baddest monsters.
The net result: Players were forced to grind against the same handful of souped-up Pokémon, over and over again, just to make a dent in the gym. And even if they were somehow victorious, those same hardcore players would unseat you pretty much instantly. It rapidly became apparent that it wasn’t worth it, so many players didn’t bother.
The new hotness
Niantic, the developer of “Pokémon Go,” took its time rolling out these updates, but it’s obvious that they were well-considered.
With this update, Pokémon placed at gyms lose “motivation,” and thus combat power, the longer they’re placed at a gym. If motivation hits zero, the Pokémon is automatically kicked out. Motivation can be restored by feeding berries to each Pokémon at the gym in regular intervals.
This neatly solves one big problem — if the lineup at a gym is too intimidating for a player, simply wait, and it will be easier. Plus, any Pokémon over 3000 CP, or “combat power,” lose motivation super quickly, meaning they’re more likely to vanish, barring organised enemy action in keeping them well-fed. Oh, and you can only have one of each type of Pokémon at a gym at any one time, which further increases the variety in defending lineups.
The icing on the cake: Niantic is cracking down on cheaters, making a more concerted effort to keep them from ruining everybody else’s fun.
That’s a very good start. But wait, there’s more.
It’s a raid
What’s really cool are the new addition of “Raid battles.” From morning until around sunset, certain gyms will play host to a massive, mega-powerful Pokémon. You and up to 19 other players can team up to take it down. A successful Raid will net you otherwise-unobtainable items and a chance to catch a version of the Pokémon you just took down.
Better still is that certain Pokémon, otherwise unloved in the game, are actually found to be amazing at Raids. It’s just another way that Niantic is thinking through how to increase variety in the game.
Down the line, this Raid system feels like the logical way to distribute “legendary” Pokémon, the rarest of the rare — forcing 20 players to work together just to catch a Mewtwo or Articuno sounds like my idea of a good time.
“Pokémon Go” has always been at its best when it encourages real-world camaraderie between players, and this is a positive step in that direction.
All of these neat little tweaks add up to a reason to play more “Pokémon Go.” Now, I have a shot at defending a gym, whether or not I have the most powerful of the powerful Pokémon, which I don’t. And by teaming up with other players, I can take down powerful bosses, which also gives me a better chance to catch ’em all.
There are lots of little, niggling things that I wish they would fix. The new system, for instance, is still a nightmare outside of urban areas like San Francisco, where I live. Too few gyms means that it’s still trivially easy for a handful of players to take one over with their most powerful monsters.
But more than ever, it feels like the first step into something bigger, as Niantic takes the template that we’ve had for a year and really builds on it. Those legendaries are an obvious place to start; there’s room for so much more.
Ultimately, all I know is my partner and I have ran out of the house at least once to complete a Raid. That’s something that we haven’t done with “Pokémon Go” since it first came out. If Niantic’s goal is to reinvigorate the fires under its most dedicated players, and reel new ones in, this is a very encouraging sign.