Over the weekend, Pokémon Go developers Niantic updated the game to make some changes—and fans are mad.
The tweak raising the most ire from smartphone-wielding pokémon trainers isn't a change in the game per se but the clamping down on related apps that mapped out where players could find different pokémon. Niantic CEO John Hanke had previously suggested in an interview with Forbes that using such services amounted to cheating.
Don't be a fun sponge, John. It's not really cheating, is it? Against the terms of service, possibly. But finding out where an item in a game is and then playing the game in order to find it? That's not cheating.
Apps such as the popular Pokévision used data from Pokémon Go to locate the spawn locations of the different critters in real-time. On Sunday, the Pokévision site displayed a message stating it was unavailable, and its creators explained in a tweet that they were "respecting Niantic and Nintendo's wishes." Other similar apps also stopped working.
Why do people care? The apps allowed players to see where to go to collect rare pokémon in their quest to catch 'em all. As Hanke pointed out, a lot of the fun of Pokémon Go is not knowing which pokémon will spawn near you. In that respect, these mapping apps affected the gameplay insofar as they give players a little more information than the game's own interface and offered a glimmer of hope beyond the Rattata-infested monotony.
But they don't provide a "cheat" to actually obtain the pokémon; players still have to get out and go to the relevant real-world location to make their catch (unless you're spoofing your GPS location, in which case yes, you're a filthy cheat). Letting trainers know that there are actually good pokémon out there surely only incentivises them to put in more effort.
The developers must surely understand this, because they originally included a feature that played pretty much the same function as these unofficial apps. When the game first launched, "nearby" pokémon would show up with a marker of one, two, or three footprints next to them indicating how far the player had to walk to find them at any moment. But this feature soon fell victim to a bug and continuously showed three footprints for every pokémon, making it pretty impossible to use as a tracking aid.
A large part of Pokémon Go fans' anger at Niantic—and the anger is strong, based on the 6,000+ replies to a "Rage megathread" on the biggest Pokémon Go subreddit—comes from the fact that these third party apps were seen by many as a useful stand-in for the game's own buggy tracking feature, rather than any additional "cheat." To make matters worse, the footprint feature was entirely removed in the recent game update; the app now shows no footprints next to nearby pokémon.
To me, the Pokémon mapping services weren't cheating by virtue of the fact they were easily available to everyone (Pokévision, for instance, was free). They also didn't really offer an edge in the main multiplayer aspect of the game—gym battles—so it's not like you could use the services against anyone.
Notably, that's not the case for other shortcuts that are accepted as part of the game, most notably the advantage offered by in-game purchases. Buying "incense" or "lures," which attract pokémon to a location, is one easy way of catching more different species. By comparison, a shared treasure map of pokémon hotspots seems like a pretty democratic "cheat."
As a result, it's also clear that the trend for sharing information on rare pokémon locations won't be killed with this clampdown, though it'll be less convenient to build tools to do this. Threads in regional Pokémon Go subreddits share locations of recent catches and known "nests" of specific species through word of mouth; one enterprising London player has made a new map based on crowdsourced reports of regular spawns (Russell Square for Rhyhorn, Lincoln's Inn Fields for Machop, and so on) rather than tapping into app data.
As for whether Niantic will bring its own tracking feature back, who knows? If there's one thing Pokémon Go fans are complaining about more than the update itself, it's the lack of communication from Niantic. I reached out to Niantic's press team and the PR company it uses for this article, but have not yet received a response.