What’s for sale?
The shop in the game uses a currency called Poké Coins. Once every 21 hours, you can hit the defender button in the store, and earn 10 Poké Coins for each Pokémon you currently have assigned to defend a gym. If you manage to do this when your Pokémon are in 10 different gyms, you can get up to 100 coins per day this way, but that requires covering a huge geographic area, and other trainers are likely to come buy and kick your Pokémon out. So it’s pretty hard to maintain a steady income of Poké Coins by playing the game.
On the other hand, if you swipe your credit card, you can be swimming in coins like Scrooge McDuck! You can buy bundles of Poké Coins in increments up to $99.99, and the larger the bundle of coins you buy, the more currency you get per dollar: For $1, you get 100 coins, but if you spend $20, you get 2500 coins, or 125 per dollar, and for $100, you get 14,500 coins or 145 coins per dollar. This should be relatively familiar to players of other free-to-play games.
Here’s what those coins can get you:
1) More Poké Balls. 100 coins buy 20 balls, at a cost of 5 coins per ball. 460 coins buys 100 Poké Balls, at a price of 4.6 coins per ball. 800 coins buy 200 Poké Balls at 4 coins per ball.
2) Incense, which causes extra Pokémon to spawn near your location for 30 minutes. You can buy this for 80 coins, or in a bundle 8 for 500 coins, which is 62 coins each, or in a bundle of 25 for 1250 coins, which is 50 coins each.
3) Lucky Eggs, which double all the experience you earn for 30 minutes. Bundle pricing for these is the same as for Incense.
4) Lure Modules, which you can attach to a Poké Stop. This will cause pink confetti to rain on the Poké Stop for half an hour, and it will also cause Pokémon to steadily spawn at the stop during that time. These spawns are global; other players can see the lure on their map, and they can come to get Pokémon as well. When those players show up at your lure, you can rob them to get money to buy more Poké Coins! Lure modules cost 100 coins each, or you can get a bundle of 8 for 680, which is 85 coins each.
5) Egg Incubators, which allow you to hatch more eggs simultaneously. These cost 150 each and can be used 3 times before they break.
6) Backpack and Pokémon Storage upgrades, which allow you to carry more items and more Pokémon, respectively. Every 200 coins you spend increases your carrying capacity by 50 items or Pokémon.
But do you really need any of this this stuff? Enough to spend money on? Let’s break it down, item by item.
You don’t need to buy Poké Balls
You get some Poké Balls every time you swipe a Poké Stop, and the balls are the only items sold for real money at the shop that are also available for free in large quantities. As you level up, swiping stops will also get you better Poké Balls than these basic ones, so try to build up your supply of Poké Balls by swiping rather than paying.
You probably don’t need to buy Incense or Lucky Eggs
If you play free-to-play games, you’ve seen buffs like Incense and Lucky Eggs before; these are your basic pay-to-win buffs. They essentially smooth out the friction that free players have to deal with.
If you have a lot of money and a little time, using these items makes your play more efficient. And $20 buys you the largest, most efficient bundle of each. Basically, if you want to pay $2 per hour, you can just have these buffs up all the time. But it’s not really necessary.
If you’re the kind of player who wants to catch Pokémon, but doesn’t want to go anywhere to find them, Incense will make that happen, for a small fee. But you don’t need to buy it to keep up with other players, because there is a better, free way to get a ton of Pokémon spawns in a short amount of time, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
You also don’t need Lucky Eggs because Pokémon Go has a "soft cap" on leveling progress. Here’s what that means:
All activities that award experience have a flat experience point value. Hitting a stop gives you 50 points. Catching a Pokémon gives you 100. Adding a new Pokémon to your Pokédex gives you 500. Evolving a Pokémon gives you 500. This is always true, no matter what your level is.
However, the experience required to gain a level starts increasing dramatically once you hit level 20. Getting to level 22 requires you to earn a total of 335,000 experience points, and getting to level 25 requires you to earn 710,000, which means that getting from 22 to 25 takes more points than getting from 1-22.
That means you’re going to hit a progression wall where ordinary play stops producing appreciable leveling progress whether you use Lucky Eggs or not.
If you are trying to grind those highest levels, you will need to resort to strategies like mass-evolving a bunch of Pidgeys to abuse the high experience rewards for evolving Pokémon, and you might want to use a Lucky Egg at that point. But you only need one egg to double the benefit of mass-evolving a whole bunch of Pokémon. So if you’re an advanced player suing specialized leveling strategies, you can probably get 80 coins for an egg without spending money, if you want to.
4. Lure Modules
These are the social component of Pokémon Go, since everyone can share them. But since everyone can share them, you don’t need to buy your own; you can just leech off of other people’s.
You can see lures on your map from a pretty good distance, so you can just go reap the bounty when you see someone drop them.
The real bonanza happens when there is a cluster of Poké Stops close together, and people have dropped lures on all of them. When this happens, the spawns will be so plentiful that you can catch Pokémon almost constantly.
This usually happens in places like public parks. This is likely what’s going on when you hear stories about huge crowds of Pokémon players convening in one place. When there’s a large crowd, players will start replacing lures as they expire, so you can pretty much keep catching Pokémon until you run out of Poké Balls or the battery on your phone dies.
Visiting a place where a lot of people are congregating around a bunch of lures is the best way to make rapid progress in Pokémon Go. You can help keep lures up if you want to be generous, but it’s rarely necessary.
5. Egg Incubators
This is the game’s most blatant pay to win mechanism. You will sometimes find a Pokémon egg when you swipe a stop. When an egg is in an incubator, it will make progress toward hatching as you walk around while playing. Eggs have different hatching distances; some will hatch after you walk 2 km, some require a 5 km walk, and some require 10 km. Longer distance eggs usually reward better Pokémon. Eggs can give you rare Pokémon, lots of candy, and lots of experience.
You get one free incubator that never breaks, and 150 gold buys additional incubators that allow you to progress toward hatching multiple eggs simultaneously, but they can only be used three times. The designers of the game clearly want you to keep buying them.
Hatching more eggs is unambiguously better than hatching fewer eggs, but even players who spend on these will catch a lot more Pokémon than they hatch. These are nice to have, but you can progress and build a collection of powerful Pokémon without buying them.
6. Bag Upgrades
Of all the things you can buy, these confer the least obvious gameplay benefit, but might actually be the best value.
Let’s say you want to go spend some time catching Pokémon at a nearby park where you can expect to find four Poké Stops close together with lures on all of them. Those stops will give you one to three Poké Balls each every five minutes, but you’re going to be using Poké Balls at a much faster rate in order to harvest the frequent spawns. If you have a default-size inventory, you’re likely to run out of Poké Balls pretty quickly.
Similarly, if you want to raid all the gyms in your neighborhood, a larger bag will help you amass the sizable stash of potions and revives you’ll need for such an undertaking.
Similarly, if you want to maintain a living Pokédex, the default amount of Pokémon storage will not leave you much extra room for duplicates and new catches.
If you’re a player who is considering a small spend of about $10 into Pokémon Go, I’d actually suggest that you put all those resources into increasing your storage. More room for stuff makes everything much easier. It’s an efficient way to remove friction.
And getting that stuff leads us to the last point:
Do you really want to pay to win Pokémon Go? Buy a house near a PokéStop
The biggest and most unfair advantage a Pokémon Go player can get isn’t Incense, or Lucky Eggs or extra Incubators; it’s a home or office within swiping range of one or more Poké Stops. I live in a New York apartment building that is across the street from a small park, which has two stops I can swipe from my bedroom.
The stops refresh every five minutes, so I can hit them frequently when I am hanging around in my apartment, and replenish my supplies of Poké Balls and other consumables and get a trickle of experience points while I am doing other things at home. This confers a huge advantage that feels pretty unfair.
Earlier today when I went to check out a lure I spotted on my minimap, I met another player who lives nearby, and he complained that his apartment was between two stops and just out of swiping range of both of them. He said he was always running out of Poké Balls.
So, if you want to pay to win this game, spend your money on moving.
You probably don’t need to spend money on this game
Pokémon Go’s popularity is due in large part to its simplicity, but there’s not a lot of depth to it. So while it’s massively popular right now, players might get bored of the game quickly. There’s probably not enough to this game to support long-term engagement, so it may not be a good idea to invest much cash into Pokémon Go, unless you’re okay spending that money with the knowledge that you’re likely to be done with the game by September.
If you do spend money though, increase your inventory. The rest is convenient, but ultimately unnecessary if you don’t mind moving around.
If you don’t want to spend, you’ll have fewer eggs, and you’ll have to manage with less inventory space, but you can still progress very quickly if you’re willing to travel to your area’s best Pokémon hunting grounds.