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How Pokémon Go has changed ahead of Go Fest 2020

Niantic adapts to the coronavirus pandemic to focus on social play (with social distancing)

A group of Weedle hang out by a pond in a photo illustration for Pokémon Go Image: Niantic/The Pokémon Company
Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Pokémon Go players, and the development team that makes the game, have had to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic in ways that have drastically changed the experience. Originally built on a structure that encouraged venturing outdoors, grouping up with friends, and catching Pokémon, Pokémon Go has become a much more solitary (and sedentary) experience.

This weekend, the fourth Pokémon Go Fest will take place in-game. Unlike in years past, where the event was held in person in Chicago, Go Fest 2020 will take place entirely online. Meetups and in-person trading simply won’t be possible at the scale of past Go Fests, and developer Niantic is giving players ways of experiencing the event solo and socially distanced.

According to Pokémon Go game designers Laura Warner and Matt Ein, Niantic started adapting the game back in March, and quickly pivoted its plans for Go Fest, after stay-at-home orders went into effect in many territories. Niantic scrapped some in-game events and started giving players more freebies so they wouldn’t have to venture outdoors. Over the past several months, Niantic has introduced the option to join raids remotely and invite friends from far away to join your raids.

According to Warner, Niantic tuned Pokémon Go to focus on its social aspects above everything else.

“For Pokémon Go […] we’ve always really had three major pillars: exploration, exercise, and social,” Warner told Polygon in an interview. “Through this entire journey, the one we really wanted to focus on is the social connection. Because even just for ourselves working from home, we saw how isolating this could be — when you can’t leave your apartment and you can’t see your friends and family. So one of the things we focused on most was, ‘How can we make players feel socially connected to each other and still feel like, even if you can’t leave home today, there’s a world outside there?’”

Niantic added more social distancing in-game. It became easier to spin PokéStops and battle in gyms from farther away. Walking distances to hatch eggs or recharge your Pokémon Go Battle League stamina were halved or eliminated altogether. Recently, a new feature — stickers that players can send each other alongside gifts — was added. It’s a small change, but an important one to Niantic. While the team’s focus was on daily social interaction features like raids and gift-giving, stickers are a quick way to send a short message to a friend, letting them know you’re OK, Ein said.

Many players want Pokémon Go’s current concessions, like daily free gifts and a guaranteed nearby spawn, to continue, even in a post-COVID world. Ein said Niantic doesn’t have a defined plan yet for when certain in-game bonuses might be rolled back, but noted that Niantic will “adjust and account for a lot of these changes to the game that players do enjoy.”

“It’s also important for us that players do get out there [and play],” Ein said. “There’s going to be a day where it’s safe to walk outside and be with your friends and go do your normal Pokémon Go activities, like going to raids and catching Pokémon and going to various activities, like raid hour. So I think that that’s so important to our mission.”

Players who do go outside to play Pokémon Go — particularly during Go Fest — should exercise caution. According to current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, players should maintain a 6-foot distance from others, avoid crowded public areas, and wear cloth masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

I’ve played Pokémon Go every day during the pandemic, mostly on nightly walks in my neighborhood. A handful of times, I’ve met up — socially distanced, of course — with a raid group in a nearby park that’s rarely crowded. Many of my raids have been done from my apartment, using a remote raid pass. While my weekly kilometer count is way, way down — from 50-plus km each week to around 10 km — recent changes to Pokémon Go have made the game more than playable.

“We’re really adopting this philosophy of ‘play where you are,’” Warner said. “So it’s our hope that if it’s safe and local guidelines say it’s OK for you to go outside, [go for a] walk and get some fresh air — do some social distancing with your friends. We highly encourage it. We want the game to work and we want people to know, Pokémon is going to be out there waiting for you. But we also know ... there’s going to be quite a bit of flux, probably for the rest of the year. So we want to make sure that in any situation, the game still shows up for you in some way, shape, or form long-term.

“The hope is we get back to more of the world where everyone’s in a situation where it’s safe for them to go outside and walk and be with their friends, but we’re really trying to navigate and figure out what this new world looks like moving forward,” Warner added.

Pokémon Go Fest 2020 takes place this weekend, July 25-26, in-game, so you can stay at home and play.

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