The summer Pokémon Go went viral was one of the few bright spots of 2016. A beloved franchise, the ubiquity of smartphones, and a game developer that had spent years testing the concept all collided to create a game about going outside and socializing instead of grinding for experience points on the couch with the shades drawn.
Even as the game's viral moment has passed, millions of loyal players stuck with it, proving that the daring ideas developer Niantic first introduced with its earlier augmented reality game Ingress are not just a novelty, but a real and new kind of play that's here to stay. Then COVID-19 changed everything, forcing people to stay apart and stay inside. Now Pokémon Go, which became a global phenomenon by sending its players out into the real world, has to evolve to survive.
To do that, Niantic turned Pokémon Go into a game that can be more comfortably played from home, which has the added bonus of making it far more accessible to a portion of its audience that’s long felt ignored: rural players and people with disabilities.
On April 15, Niantic promised Pokémon Go would get a lot easier to play while quarantined. The April 15 update (some of the changes hit later, but were part of the April 15 announcement) helps players hit PokéStops, hatch eggs, and complete raids without getting too close to other people and without traveling to locations blocked off during the quarantine. They’re also changes that Pokémon Go players who live in rural areas or who have mobility-related disabilities have been asking for for years.
According to Pokémon Go developer Niantic’s CEO John Hanke, the pandemic is challenging the company to shift its perception of itself.
“We based our whole company around these three principles: we want our games to encourage people to exercise, to explore new places, and to play together in real life,” Hanke told VICE on the phone. “So all three of those things are challenged in a coronavirus world. We’ve tried really hard to find solutions that adapt the game to the current environment but don’t undermine the core essence of the game.”
Hanke said he wanted to make sure the game will still be there for people when the coronavirus recedes and life returns to some kind of normalcy.
“But there will be this other at home component that’s complementary to that that will be stronger than it was before,” he said. “It’s more about adding new play at home features to the game and making some changes around the edges but not paving over the original core part of the game.”
For disabled players, the recent update has been a long-overdue godsend.
“It's definitely more accessible for a few different reasons,” disabled Twitch streamer “Sthomde” told me via Twitter DMs.
Pokémon Go uses maps of the real world to generate Pokémon, Gyms, raid battles, and PokéStops for local players to gather. Before Covid-19, players had to physically travel to the locations of these objects to interact with them. According to Hanke, Niantic knew it had a problem early on in the pandemic and started tweaking Pokémon Go to the new reality in March, even before the April update.
According to Hanke, Niantic quickly expanded the radius at which people could participate in a raid out to 500 meters. On March 12, Niantic announced the cancellation of its community events, halved the distance players needed to travel to hatch eggs, made PokéStops drop gifts more frequently, and increased the amount of Pokémon appearing in the wild.
A month later Niantic went even further and announced the remote raid system, and made it easier for players to hit PokéStops for gifts and perform other activities while remaining sheltered in place. Now, players can participate in any raid visible on their map from any distance by purchasing remote raid passes using the in-game currency for about $0.99 per pass or about $2.50 for three.
“The new functions being introduced such as a Remote Raid pass is something I have been desperate for since the game launched,” Pokémon Go player and Twitch Streamer “MissRogueFlame,” who has a disability, told me in an email. “This opens up accessibility for so many people and encourages them to check out raiding from the comfort of their home.”
For Sthomde, the April 15 changes are a good start, but they don’t go far enough.
“Maintaining the distance passes works for only one facet of the game,” he said. “If you're someone who physically CAN'T leave your home at all, the game is practically unplayable unless you're lucky to live in a populous area. Spinning stops, getting rewards, that aspect of the game is still foreign to too many.”
Sthomde said the changes to the game made during the pandemic should stay, and be expanded upon. “They are good changes. But they are still lagging behind with PoGo even compared to their other games in terms of aiding the disabled.”
Both Hanke and Sthomde mentioned the Knight Bus in Harry Potter Wizards Unite, a Niantic game similar to Pokémon Go but set in the Harry Potter universe. The Knight Bus, which is a post-COVID-19 feature, allows players to teleport to distant locations and engage in a variety of activities they’d otherwise have to travel to on foot.
“While that is only limited to a short period of time a day, it's still a positive for the disabled. [ Pokémon Go] doesn't really have that,” Sthomde said.
Hanke said the Knight Bus is here to stay and that he wants to use it and other features like it to enhance Niantic’s games.
“Our games have always been about going outside, but we’ve always had a portion of our games, say 30 percent, that’s designed to be something that you can play from your office or home,” Hanke said. “So we’ve taken all the creative energies of the team and we focused it on this 30% of the product that we hadn’t really given as much attention to in the past.”
Niantic’s pivot to bolstering shelter-in-place friendly content seems to have helped the company stave off a dip. Early estimates show Pokémon Go’s revenue doing well despite a dip at the start of the year. Hanke said that he expects the changes to “make [the game] more accessible and enjoyable to people who may have different preferences or may have restrictions on their lifestyle.” However, he wouldn’t commit to making those changes permanent.
“Some of these things will be permanent, some of them will be adjusted when the situation changes,” he said. “The way that we stretched the outdoor part and buffed the indoor part will continue to be something that makes the game more accessible for people that have a disability or have challenges accessing the game.”
MissRogueFlame said that she believes Niantic has taken the right approach to ensuring players can continue to enjoy the game. “Yes it has taken a global pandemic for a company to stop and think ‘wait, what can we do better here?’ and accessibility for the disabled was probably not the focus sadly but the benefits to this demographic is most welcomed!”
Sthomde was less hopeful.
“If I have to absolutely get out, I can, struggle as I might,” he said. “This is not a luxury all people with ailments, disabilities, and deformities have though. And especially with my generation, millennials, we grew up on Nintendo and Pokémon so the game makes for a great release from whatever physical confines we may have. In that respect, I think they can do a bit more.”