We don’t often hear from the team behind Pokémon Go. The developers of Niantic like to play their cards close to their chest, for better or for worse. Either way, we recently got the opportunity to speak with the director of Pokémon Go at Niantic, Michael Steranka, and he spoke about the future plans for the game, Niantic’s relationship with the community, and the most important matter of all – Kecleon.
Speaking about Pokémon Go’s space in gaming, Steranka said, “It adds a little extra fun and magic to your day. That’s always been an intentional design choice for us. It’s kind of like a companion app to your daily life.” However, many games have popped up in the years since aping its style, Steranka talked about these other geo-games. “I think it’s great to see other developers get into the geo-gaming space. But they find it isn’t as easy as it seems on paper. We don’t think that Pokémon Go needs to be the only VR real-world game. There’s plenty of space in that category.”
The game has evolved a lot since its 2016 launch. Although it was a phenomenon, it has only recently developed into something worthy of being featured at the Pokémon World Championships, which took place in London this past August. “It was a dream come true for us,” Steranka said. “We’re part of the tournament season for next year as well.”
Balancing competitive play with casual gamers is no easy feat though. “To be honest, that’s the most challenging aspect of developing a game like Pokémon Go. We think we’ve done a pretty solid job up until now, of creating that layer of depth that hardcore players are looking for, and making it super accessible to new players. Every system has an impact on another; we have to think about the game holistically and make sure that changes don’t have an effect on something unintended.”
The game changed significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing trainers to play while stuck at home. These changes have now been reversed, to the disappointment of many in the community, but Steranka stands by the decision. “We know that was a painful thing for a lot of the players,” he explains. “There are great games that are designed to be played at home, but that’s not Pokémon Go. That will never be Pokémon Go. Ash would never have beaten the championship if he never left his home.”
This raises an issue for players in rural areas, where activities like raids require a lot of players to be successful. Niantic is working on combatting this though, with an app called Campfire that’s currently being trialed. We think it’s really important for players to meet others in person. We’ve launched a companion app to Pokémon Go called Campfire, where you coordinate with other people. You can send up a flare and communicate with everyone in your community that you plan to go there.”
The system will be put to its first true test this weekend, as an event will launch allowing players to catch all the Ultra Beasts for the first time. “For many people, it’s their first chance to be able to catch all of these Ultra Beasts. There will also be some fun stuff happening only in London, so you’ll want to make your way out there over the course of the weekend. It’s one of the few times that you’ll be able to catch them at under 1.5k CP.”
Pokémon GO players have never been afraid to voice their opinions about the game, and Niantic are often accused of ignoring the fans, however, Steranka claims it’s more about bringing the core pillars of the game to life.
“We have a passionate playerbase, and that’s what makes this community so fun and vibrant. Everyone has strong opinions on what they want to see. Ultimately, we always go back to the core pillars of the game: exercise, exploration and social interactions, that’s our guiding north star for any decisions we make. We know that not every decision we make is the perfect one, and we want to adjust the game over time. But there will always be a core tension, with what many people want and what we envision as the mission of the game.”
‘#JusticeForKecleon’ has been a rallying cry of the fanbase for a long time, as the beloved Generation 2 Pokémon is yet to be added to the game, despite those from Generation 7 now being added. We asked Steranka if there was any hope for Kecleon fans. “In the main series games Kecleon has a very unique ability. There are certain Pokémon that we want to make sure we want to do right. Before we introduce Kecleon to the world, we want to make sure that the way we introduce it is special. Justice to how that Pokémon works.”
Kecleon’s ability to change type depending on what it is attacked by is one of its biggest appeals, so introducing that in a way that wouldn’t wreck the current battle system is important.
The main series of Pokémon games, developed by Game Freak, have slowly been including more connectivity with Pokémon Go over the years. Players can transfer their Pokémon caught on mobile in Pokémon HOME now, setting them into the main series titles. On top of that, the Let’s Go! games featured more direct connectivity with the app.
We asked Steranka about how much communication the team at Niantic had with the console development team. “We work very closely with The Pokémon Company in Tokyo, and we’re always looking for crossovers when they make sense. We’re always open to that, and we’re always having active conversations, and players can definitely expect to see more in future generations.”
Could a new set of Let’s Go! games be in the works? Perhaps taking place in Johto? We observed that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet featured and developed Generation 2 Pokémon quite heavily. “Right. They do.” was all Steranka had to say about that, with a little smile on his face. Maybe he knows something we don’t.
Written by Georgina Young and Ryan Woodrow on behalf of GLHF.
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