After Niantic announced yesterday a rollback of socially distanced changes to Pokémon Go, fans have been reacting with surprise and disappointment. The changes appear to be designed for a post-pandemic world, and many players don’t feel as if we’re anywhere near ready for that.
As the pandemic began, Niantic reacted to the world’s inability to go outdoors by making some clever changes to its AR monster hunter. Items like incense were boosted to allow players to attract Pokémon to where they were based, while buddy Pokémon would bring in more gifts of their own accord, so players didn’t have to spin PokéStops to find them. Various other quality-of-pandemic-life changes were made, with one of the most popular being the increased distance at which players could interact with PokéStops and Gyms, to prevent crowding in public. A change so popular at the time that Niantic indicated it would be permanent. About which they now appear to have changed their mind.
In yesterday’s blog post, Niantic explained that these changes would now start to be rolled back, beginning at the end of July in New Zealand and the US. New Zealand because it was close to Covid-free throughout, and the US because… Because… Yeah, it’s not entirely clear.
While many believe that once they’re fully vaccinated they can return to life as normal, there are many others who recognise that vaccination is not total immunity from Covid-19, nor indeed does it necessarily prevent the spreading of the virus to others who might not be vaccinated. As legally enforced restrictions begin to ease, a great number of people are choosing—based on good science and prudence—to maintain social distancing, and to continue to reduce unnecessary trips. Especially with the global rise of the Delta variant, and the lack of clear guidance of how well the vaccines protect against it. However, Niantic’s decision to begin its rollbacks in the United States suggests they believe it’s all over, and everyone’s breezy.
As “Niantic” trends on Twitter, POGO players are letting their feelings be known. Many are disappointed that if they continue to maintain good pandemic practices, the game is going to penalize them. “It’s not just because the pandemic is still going on,” says one player on Twitter. “But also how [increasing] the distance to pokestops/gyms was a positive step in recognizing the lack of accessibility for those with disabilities.” “What makes me even more angry is they specifically said they were going to keep it,” adds another. While many raise concerns over the implications it has during the pandemic, many others point out it just flat-out improved things. As one player puts it, “The expanded interaction radius has made the game better irrelevant of the pandemic!”
The lack of buddy gifts will greatly reduce the numbers of Pokéballs, potions and berries coming in, and the nerfing of incense meaning it’ll be harder to catch Pokémon without leaving the house. More bitter for many is the news that PokéStop/Gym ranges are to revert to pre-pandemic distances, when Niantic had previously suggested they’d remain, simply because they were perfectly reasonable and improved how the game played for everyone.
While these distances may seem arbitrary, they have a real effect on how the game is played. In some analysis by one poster to The Silph Road Reddit, the changes could see a 500% drop in access to Stops and Gyms.
A change.org petition launched yesterday calling for the interaction distances to remain has already accrued close to 20,000 signatures at the time of writing (although that number is going up very fast at this point).
It’s worth noting that Niantic has recognized that some of the changes made last year are worth keeping. Incense will continue to last 60 minutes, the GO Battle League will still require no walking to take part, and you will still be able to battle remotely with ‘Good Friends’ on your Friends list. The 3x bonus for XP and Stardust on your first catch of the day stays in. They’re also keeping the maximum number of gifts in your inventory at 20, and keeping the “open 1.5x gifts” bonus to mean you can open 30 gifts a day, forever. Since all of these make the game feel far less naggy when it comes to its free-to-play aspects, they’re sensible things to keep.
Unfortunately they’re far more ambiguous when it comes to Remote Raids, essentially saying they haven’t made their minds up. It would be a pretty devastating change to remove the ease with which these can be accessed at this point, not least when it comes to raiding for region-specific Legendaries via apps like PokeRaid.
As someone who lives in the UK, where vaccine roll-out has been extremely successful (if somewhat behind the US across all ages, due to a focus on vaccinating the elderly first), I will be extremely disappointed if Niantic brings the rollbacks here next. While I will be double-vaccinated by the end of this month, with the rise in cases of the Delta variant, and the very real risk of a third wave arriving here, I want to do my part to maintain the health of the nation and observe good social distancing. If that means choosing between Pokémon Go and common sense, the app doesn’t stand a chance.