By now, most Pokémon Go players have heard about Niantic's rollback of pandemic bonuses and the resulting boycott. However, Niantic seems to have missed the memo as it pushes on with live events across the U.S. despite the surge in COVID cases. This move is grossly irresponsible, and I, for one, believe Niantic owes its community a sincere apology, as well as significant changes. Pokémon Go has been one of the best iPhone games out there, but it won't be for long if Niantic continues in this direction.
Pokémon Go boycott and Niantic's response
On Aug. 5, 2021, tens of thousands of Pokémon Go players participated in a boycott and social media campaign, protesting Niantic's rollback of pandemic bonuses like an increased radius around Pokéstops and Gyms in the U.S. and New Zealand. That evening, Niantic responded by delaying any decisions until Sept. 1 but promised to involve "community leaders" in the discussions.
"We are assembling an internal cross-functional team to develop proposals designed to preserve our mission of inspiring people to explore the world together, while also addressing specific concerns that have been raised regarding interaction distance. We will share the findings of this task force by the next in-game season change (September 1). As part of this process, we will also be reaching out to community leaders in the coming days to join us in this dialogue."
Although many remain skeptical about this response, YouTuber and Pokémon Go player ZoëTwoDots has confirmed that Niantic reached out to her as one of the community members who will provide feedback to its task force. For those unaware, ZoëTwoDots was featured in the lead up to Pokémon Go Fest 2021. She was also responsible for the community letter that was shared by many players during the initial boycott and was one of the first to call out Niantic for its weak response.
Many players are continuing to boycott Pokémon Go or play only for free at least until September, and though the upset has seemed to die down a bit, each time Niantic has posted since, including on unrelated Ingress accounts, players have flooded the comments. Many have suggested that Niantic is delaying addressing the issues in hopes that the community will have calmed down enough by September that the whole issue can be swept under the rug.
Heracross goes missing and NZ locks down
Right on the heels of the boycott, Niantic made a significant change to the Ultra Unlock part two event that only further upset the community. The regional exclusive Heracross was one of the Pokémon featured in this event, and for the first time, its Shiny variant was available.
However, unlike in past events where new Shiny variants were introduced, Heracross was removed from wild spawns entirely. Even in areas where players could normally encounter Heracross, the only chance of catching one was locked behind Raids.
This meant players who wanted a reasonable chance of catching a Shiny Heracross would need to buy a lot of Raid Passes. While Niantic insists that removing pandemic bonuses was to encourage players to exercise, explore, and connect with real places worth exploring, quite a few players pointed out that Remote Raid Passes mean players can pay to play from home.
Niantic has repeatedly claimed to have the players' safety as its top priority.
To make matters worse, on Aug. 17, Niantic reinstated pandemic bonuses in New Zealand in response to a new lockdown. While this was absolutely the right decision, it highlights that this was never about moving forward in areas where it was safe to do so. Niantic has repeatedly claimed to have the players' safety as its top priority, but it seems to be far from the truth.
The U.S., which accounts for less than 5% of the world's population, currently has more than 20% of all COVID cases, yet it remains the only region where pandemic bonuses are no longer available. There is absolutely no justifying Niantic's decision to leave U.S. players without these bonuses, but Niantic continues to do something much worse through its marketing.
Niantic continues to pretend COVID is over
Beyond the rollback of pandemic bonuses, Niantic seems to be carrying on like the pandemic is over. What is especially concerning is a pair of hashtags Niantic has been pushing: #MeetYouOutThere and #TogetherWeRaid. This started in the lead-up to Pokémon Go Fest 2021, during which Niantic hosted several live events on top of the global virtual event, but has only gotten worse since.
Niantic has tweeted images like these many, many times from its various accounts, featuring mostly unmasked players gathering for Pokémon Go, Ingress, and Harry Potter Wizards Unite. Over the past weekend, Niantic hosted seven Niantic Explorer Community Meet-Ups in cities across the U.S., including D.C. and New York City. As if getting players to meet up in these crowded cities wasn't bad enough, Niantic encourages participants to gather inside small local businesses.
Were we not in the midst of a global pandemic, this would be a fun way to spend the afternoon with like-minded players. It'd be a nice boost for small businesses, as well as an excuse to spend the weekend playing Pokémon Go. Instead, it sends a mixed message about how Niantic views the pandemic. This behavior is grossly irresponsible and inexcusable.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of all of this is that Pokémon's target demo is children ages 6-11. There has been a lot of talk over the course of the pandemic about children being less likely to contract COVID, but the reality is children are being hit with Delta and U.S. pediatric hospitals are already beginning to struggle with these cases. Moreover, while adults can choose to get vaccinated, there is no vaccine approved for children under 12.
Can Niantic recover?
When the pandemic first began, Niantic made drastic changes to Pokémon Go that made it possible to keep playing from virtually anywhere. These changes were praised and held up as an example of how to handle the pandemic. It has been so sad to watch Niantic destroy that reputation over the past month, but even more demoralizing has been how Niantic has continued promoting large, unmasked gatherings like nothing was wrong.
There were nearly 160,000 new cases of COVID in the US yesterday and 1,734 deaths
When I last wrote about this subject, I had suggested Niantic take cues from another game developer, miHoYo. There is a lot that Niantic could do to repair the broken trust with its playerbase. The company could provide tools for every player to give feedback. It could take into account disabled players, players in rural areas, and those who are still at risk from COVID. It could be upfront and transparent in communicating changes.
However, step one should be a public apology. There were nearly 160,000 new cases of COVID in the U.S. yesterday and 1,734 deaths, and Niantic is continuing to push players to leave their homes, gather in crowded cities, and risk adding themselves to that case count. Hospitals across the nation are struggling to keep up and turning away patients as the ICUs fill up. This isn't something that can just be swept under the rug or ignored. If Niantic is going to stand a chance at recovering its reputation, it needs to publicly acknowledge its mistake and apologize to the players.