By design, Pokémon Go requires players to get outdoors to actually discover Pokémon and take on gyms in the real world. That’s how Niantic differentiates the mobile game from its handheld role-playing game brethren. It’s also why some players have devised other ways to play the game, ones that wouldn’t require any physical activity whatsoever.
Enter bots, programs designed by coders that, in essence, play Pokémon Go for you. There’s an array of bot programs and GPS spoofs that have found popularity with players in more isolated areas who can’t find too many Pokémon to catch. Others use bots for another reason, though: to be the very best with very little effort.
Top players — like the first to hit the game’s level cap — have admitted to using these programs to level up their trainers and Pokémon as fast as possible. After that, they've taken over Pokémon gyms with their overpowered teams that people who play the game the way it was designed to be played can’t reasonably defeat. (Using these programs, it should be said, is also against the game's Terms of Service.)
"Bots flood the in-game economy and out-compete real players," Matthew Ford, a former game designer who now works on the security system FunCaptcha, told Polygon. He has followed the uprising of Pokémon Go bots since the game’s launch last month, blogging about the damage he thinks that cheaters have wrought on the game, and reached out to us about what he calls a security problem as much as one with gameplay.
"Real players get no chance to win at competitive Pokemon ‘gyms,’ so the game's main goal is ruined by the cheaters. [Pokémon Go] players complain that all their gyms are impossible to beat, and they know that bots can build up accounts that dominate gyms, so the perception is going sour."
One could argue against the idea that gyms are Pokémon Go’s primary objective, but community members have voiced similar concerns as Ford. Forums are littered with posts decrying cheaters. Others complain of gyms with Pokémon possessing thousands of combat power, or CP, even in places that haven’t had the game for so long.
These are obvious signs of a bot-using trainer, players say, and it’s making it hard for them to even want to test their skills in Pokémon Go’s more competitive mode. Gyms are the only way for players to test themselves against each other in the single-player game, but the proliferation of "cheaters" make it hard for anyone else to prove their legitimate battle prowess.
"I do not mind harsh progression curves," wrote Redditor DeadlyMel0dy in a popular thread about how the prevalence of GPS spoofs is having deleterious effects on the game for average players. "I can live with harder catch rates even though making a CP15 Pidgey more difficult to catch when you’re level 22 than when you’re level 5 is beyond stupid indeed. What I do mind however is equality of rules."
The developers of bot programs see it differently. Noor Farhani is the creator of NecroBot, one of the better known systems enabling Pokémon Go players who dare go against the Terms of Service to level up quickly. Farhani said the free program — which he said he created "for educational use only" — averages 100,000 downloads a day, and he doesn’t expect things to change.
"I don't mind harsh progression curves. What I do mind however is equality"
"I think [bots] might have a little impact," Farhani told Polygon. "Around 200-300,000 users won’t really destroy the multiplayer side. Maybe you will have better [Pokémon] but normal players are going to catch up pretty fast."
That’s despite the fact that it takes thousands of experience points to level up, with each subsequent level requiring exponentially greater numbers of experience to progress. Leveling up the normal way in Pokémon Go can take hours of dedicated play, if not days; for people in towns where every PokéStop is a mile apart, they may be stuck for even longer.
That’s part of what makes Pokémon Go inherently unfair to all players, Farhani said. To him, using a bot is a way to circumvent the real world limitations of the game without spending any money or giving up on it for good.
"If you live in a rural area you [can’t even experience] the same game as in big city," he said. "People want to be included, they use a bot so they can even reach something."
That may be true, but Farhani recognizes that bots break Niantic’s rules and could end up getting players banned. That’s why NecroBot is marketed as "educational." It’s fair to say that the majority of the millions playing Pokémon Go don’t want to tempt fate, though. For them, and for Ford, bots are killing the game.
"There is literally nothing you can do with all the Pokémon and items you collect if you can't ever win a single gym battle," Ford said. "This breaks what we game devs call ‘the loop’ which keeps you playing. No gym fights means no reason to spend potions, and really no reason to think about which one of your creatures to level up in order to be fighting fit."
Ford said Niantic can fix the problem of bots by using a CAPTCHA system to enhance security, but some players bristle at the thought of having to unscramble and input letters before logging in or use some variation of the popular security encryption.
With Ingress, Niantic issued widespread bans to those it suspected of cheating, although others who claimed otherwise were caught in the crossfire. Yesterday, however, many Pokémon Go bot developers were working to make their programs functional again after the developer issued an update that affected the API data used to run the bots. Farhani told us NecroBot and others are either back online or will return by the end of the day.
There’s no conclusive answer to whether Pokémon Go’s cheating problem could put an end to the game, although it’s likely that it won’t; 300,000 NecroBot users are just a minority of the overall playerbase. But for the most motivated, law-abiding trainers, it’s a sticking point. For them and others who follow the rules, the sooner that bots go away, the better.