Last weekend a group of "stratters" raided a local neighborhood and quickly took over almost a dozen Gyms. I joined a large group of legitimate players and had a tremendously fun afternoon trying to get the Gyms back. Until we got to the fifth Gym and saw the first two being taken again — by "spoofers". It made several of the legitimate players question whether or not they should stay legitimate, quit, or become stratters or spoofers themselves. And therein lies the problem with Pokémon Go's current Gym system and the reason it's being redone.
It's no secret that Pokémon Go is working on a new system for Gyms — the virtual towers layered over real-world locations that teams battle over for control, rewards, and renown.
John Hanke, CEO of Pokémon Go developer, Niantic, said as much to Vice:
Hopes for that are high among the still-massive player base, because many players seem to find the current system not only broken but deeply frustrating.
With that in mind, over the course of a month, I joined up with some locals on the same team, met some other teams both online and in real life, and competed in dozens of Gym raids and reclamations. After scores of discussions and hours of observations, a few things became clear — not just about what was currently broken, but why.
In the beginning
When Pokémon Go first launched, it was wild, heady fun. Everyone was playing, having a good time, and a wide variety of Pokémon at all different power levels could be seen on Gyms.
Those Gyms would also change teams frequently and you could often count on walking by, seeing a freshly turned over Gym, and adding your own Pokémon — or turning it back.
Pokémon Go incentivized Gyms by offering 10 PokéCoins and 500 Stardust, both valuable in-game resources, as a reward to any player in a Gym, up to a maximum of 100 coins and 5000 Stardust for 10 Gyms, once every 21 hours. It also positions Pokémon in Gyms based on their power level. So, the higher the level, the higher the position, and the harder the Pokémon is to remove from the Gym.
That led to everyone racing to get and power up the Pokémon with the highest potential, so they could last in Gyms longer and have a better chance at being in multiple Gyms, hopefully maximum Gyms, when they chose to claim their reward.
It eventually led to some monotony, but overall it remained fun and sometimes frenetic. Then, the spoofers came.
Rise of the spoofers
The goal of Pokémon Go was to get people out and about, to explore their neighborhoods, discover local points of interest, and run into neighbors they'd never taken the opportunity to meet before.
Soon, though, people began to discover that they could hack the system to play from home. All they had to do was "spoof" their GPS location and they could play remotely, anywhere, any time. It was easier and faster than going out, and they could get powerful Pokémon, level up, dominate Gyms, and claim the rewards without even having to leave their desks.
While Pokémon Go did ban "botters", or those who ran massive amounts of scripted accounts, despite continuous reports of abuse, most spoofers never seemed to suffer any consequences for breaking the terms of service. So, over time, they grew in number and began to take over and harass more and more Gyms.
Watching Gyms go up and down with no humans around started to frustrate and anger legitimate players. Eventually, those players began to organize in groups to try and beat back and drive away spoofers.
To do that efficiently, they turned to "bubble-strat". That's a strategy designed to game the system where two or more extremely low-powered Pokémon, one less than half the power of the others, are used to quickly bring a Gym up to level 10. Faster than anyone else, including a spoofer, can bring it back down.
It only really worked when the organized teams could show up at a location in numbers, though. When that became difficult to sustain, they began to share account information so only a few of them needed to actually be there. That way, a handful could take the Gym, bubble-strat it up, and then add all their absentee teammates, ensuring a level 10 Gym.
Next, since bubble-strat required at least one or two teammates to leave extremely low powered and vulnerable Pokémon on the Gym, they began to use accounts from alternate teams. That way, when they finished the bubble-strat, they could switch to the alternate team account, take off their low-powered Pokémon, and replace them with high powered ones.
Over time, some of the teammates, family, or friends whose accounts were being used stopped playing, or more accounts were needed, so it ended up being just a few people essentially using multiple accounts all on their own.
Although also a ToS violation, Niantic never seemed to catch or ban anyone for using multiple accounts, so the people who did it took it as de facto acceptable and extremely clever game strategy.
Of course, once the organized teams could easily take a Gym back from spoofers, they could also take start taking Gyms from other legitimate players and teams as well.
The sudden presence of both spoofers and organized teams knocking down and building up level 10 Gyms quickly and efficiently effectively froze out lower level and solo players.
So, some of those players began to accumulate alternate team accounts as well. Not to bubble-strat but to "shave" or "cycle". They'd approach a level 10 Gym controlled by their own team, switch to their alternate account, knock off the lowest powered Pokémon already on it, and then switch back to their real account and put one of their own Pokémon in its place.
The people getting shaved/cycled off then got frustrated and angry, and some started to shave/cycle themselves back on.
Eventually, even though a Gym continued to be controlled by the same team, the actual Pokémon on that Gym began to change regularly. And, as time went on, and more and more people joined in, the speed of the changes got faster and faster.
Spoofers, being human as well, also became frustrated and angry by the bubble-stratters who took away their Gyms and the shavers/cyclers who took away their spots. So, they began to create more accounts. With 10, 20, or more accounts, a spoofer could bubble-strat with the best of them and do it faster as well. That let them take back Gyms from the organized teams. They also started shaving/cycling as well, so they could take or take back spots on Gyms the same team already controlled.
Of course, that further frustrated and enraged the organized teams, which led to escalation. Instead of just putting any high-powered Pokémon on the Gyms, the teams started using maps to hunt down and catch Blissey and Snorlax, the two toughest Gym defenders in the game.
With a plentiful supply of those, the bubble-stratters could stack a Gym with a pink or blue wall that was more time- and resource-intensive to take down. That, they hoped, would encourage spoofers to look elsewhere. (And other teams too, as a bonus.)
Spoofers, then, began doing the same. And with the benefit of GPS-based "sniping" — the ability to "teleport" to any location, grab the most powerful Blissey and Snorlax, and teleport back, all instantaneously.
(Pokémon Go has recently made a change to the catch mechanics that allows them to soft-ban GPS snipers, though many spoofers already have their collections well-stocked.)
With great efficiency comes great boredom
Spoofing and bubble-stratting had a side-effect: As Gyms became trivially easy to take down and replace, the spoofers and stratters began to get bored.
To keep themselves interested, some spoofers and stratters started racking up absurdly high numbers of Gyms.
Although Pokémon Go only allows you to collect rewards from 10 Gyms every 21 hours, maximum, there's nothing in the game that stops any player from being on 20, 30, or even more. And since spoofers and stratters tend to have large numbers of high-powered Pokémon, they can easily hold that many Gyms at one time.
That effectively froze casual players out of Gyms, leading some to start shaving/cycling to get on existing Gyms, others to start spoofing or joining a bubble-strat team, and yet others to simply quit.
Worse, some turned to griefing as a way to retaliate or simply amuse themselves. They'd hunt other players instead of Pokémon, singling out their targets, and trying to make them miserable so they'd quit the game.
The end of the beginning
Over time, all of this makes it harder and less enjoyable for legitimate players. Those that don't quit or give in and become a spoofer or stratter soldier on, hoping Niantic will eventually address all the exploits in the system and those that exploit them.
And that creates a lot of ill-will in the community.
Anyone who's less successful at exploiting the system, or simply chooses not to, is called a whiner or complainer. Anyone who's more successful at exploiting the system is called a cheater. Yet each individual tells themself they're simply competing better, smarter, with more nobility, or more legitimately than anyone else.
It's what can happen to any system that's poorly incentivized and left to its own devices, absent moderation, consequences, and proper behavioral modeling.
And it's very much hoped Pokémon Go's new Gym system will fix it. Not just with tweaks but with mechanics designed from the start to promote the kind of gameplay and community Niantic says it wants.
Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.
I have lost intest in gyms. I play fairly regularly, but can't find any decent Pokémon. My best Pokémon is a Vaporeon with an excellent IV and maxed out CP, but I'm a level 29 in a 30+ gym world. I'm actually higher than a lot of friends because of better lucky use during double XP pidgy partys. Most of the gyms are our teams color and maxed out. Every time we go to a gym near us, there is nothing to do. We would need alts to "shave" down a gym just to be bumped off soon after. That's stagnating.
Bingo. I don't even remember the last time I actually looked at a gym, let alone attacked one. I'm a daily player (level 28) and focus on catching, hatching and spinning pokestops. That's about it.
Not to mention If you are good at dodging a low level pokemon can easily defeat a high level one. I took over a high powered lvl 10 gym here recently with 3K+ pokemons with nothing higher then a 1500cp pokemon. Gyms at least in my area seem to fluctuate very heavily and don't seem to be very fun doing them.
In my game play experience, and I am good at dodging, I am unable to solo take down a powerful level 10 gym with 3K Pokemon with only 1500 CP Pokemon. When using Pokemon more than 1500 CP, it takes an hour to defeat such a gym. And, I've yet to find or see a YouTube video demonstrating this seemingly impossible feat you describe. If it's possible, please point me to the YouTube video demonstrating this, so the rest of us can learn. Thanks.
Furthermore, even if there were to be no cheaters/spoofers, GYMS ARE NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE for players below level 27. GYMS ARE SO DIFFICULT that lower level players can not play in the gym portion game at all. Even for a dodged charge attack, the 25% damage deducts all the remaining health from the attacking Pokemon. Little kids in the parks can't have any fun at the gyms. They have no means to see what it is like to play with Pokemon in battle.
I lost interest in gyms a long time ago. I don't place all the blame on Niantic although at times I think their priority is to run Events where they can cash in on folks buying incubators, incense and lucky eggs. But much of the blame should go to Google and the crapola Android phone system which allow for GPS spoofing. It's a broken OS that caused all of this to begin with.
I hear that there are Windows programs too. Never looked into it.
There is bot software that can take down level 10 gym in 5 mins or less and level up to level 10 even faster.
This article misses another important point. The cheating has lead to an accusatory social environment where some honest players, correctly playing, are wrongly accused in facebook group mass reporting campaigns (sometimes used as a game play strategy to remove competition) and unfairly banned. Given over 10,000 support tickets Niantic must process each day, Niantic's appeal process does not help honest players to recover their precious Pokemon collection that took more than a half of year of work to acquire, thus now a fear of placing Pokemon in even 5-10 gyms during the course of honest correct game play.
****. I didn't know about any of this. I guess I'm glad I quit the game a few months after it came out. This sounds like all the fun has been sucked out of the game. Sad, b/c the game is a great idea(with plenty of poor/rushed implementation) that got a lot of people outside and socializing more.
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