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I played Pokémon Go for 365 days… And it's still only Niantic’s second-best game…

PG.biz's Aaron Astle goes in deep on Pokémon Go to mark its eighth birthday, and finds a game that still has plenty of room for improvement
I played Pokémon Go for 365 days… And it's still only Niantic’s second-best game…
  • Pokémon Go has come a long way since 2016
  • Go may be Niantic's biggest game, but it could still learn a thing or two from Monster Hunter Now

Augmented reality phenomenon and geolocation giant Pokémon Go first graced mobile phones everywhere eight years ago in that fateful (and lucrative) summer of 2016. July 6th, 2016, to be exact.

And while everyone was out catching the 151 Kanto classics, consumed in 90s nostalgia or learning what a Bulbasaur was for the first time, I remained staunchly uninvolved.

Instead, I preferred to stick to "real" Pokémon games on the 3DS with 721 creatures to collect at the time, and that’s how it stayed for many years to follow. As technology evolved, my Pokémon play shifted to Switch with new games and new creatures to collect, meanwhile Go slowly played catchup introducing "new" Pokémon from 2010, 2006, and even 2002.

For a main series fan who wasn’t interested in catching ‘em all again, I simply didn’t see the appeal.

Then came Pokémon Home, an official app from The Pokémon Company that allows the slightly more obsessive among its fans to track their captured creature collection across games - with Pokémon Go included.

So when Home added compatibility with the latest main series games - Scarlet and Violet in 2023 - I began importing Pokémon into the app to check my progress across Switch games, and lo and behold there were incomplete entries in my PokéDex. Yup. Creatures that couldn’t be caught on Switch…

That was when I found the solution staring me in the face: It was time to pick up Pokémon Go.

Something about statistics

I first installed Pokémon Go just in time for the game’s seventh anniversary, which provided an ideal opportunity to catch some old favourites of mine wheeled out around the celebration. This included the fire cat Litten, who I soon learned couldn’t be evolved into the big bad Incineroar without catching even more Litten first - to earn enough Candy to evolve the statistically strongest one.

This served as a quick and simple introduction to Go’s gameplay loop: You go outside, catch Pokémon, catch the same Pokémon again, and again, until you make that species the strongest it can be.

And in the beginning, the excitement of seeing Pokémon who'd been absent from the main series since the 3DS was enough to keep this interesting: "Pikipek? I haven’t seen you since 2017!"

By the time of Go’s seventh anniversary, I’d caught and transferred a dozen or so Switch-excluded Pokémon over to Home, and had registered a total of 603 different species in the PokéDex. A year later and of my 2,807 captures in Go (including many, many repeats), 281 led to new entries in my PokéDex. That's almost exactly 10%.

Comparing this to my catches in Switch Pokémon games, I’ve registered 262 species from Violet, 242 from Legends: Arceus, and fewer from elsewhere, to a total of 952 different species. This makes Go accountable for the largest share of entries of any Pokémon game I’ve played.

And even if Go doesn’t feature all 1025 Pokémon species currently in existence, it still has more than any other single game and its contribution to my PokéDex embodies its core appeal for me - filling in over a quarter of all possible entries without paying a premium for another console game or the latest batch of DLC.

Best of all, most Pokémon caught in Go can be transferred to the Switch games via Home, suddenly making that pocket-sized pal you found in the park size up on the big screen. I suppose that makes me more of a Go collector than player, treating the title as more of a companion app than its own game.

365 days and counting

Jumping into Pokémon Go seven years after the fact certainly imposed some self-afflicted difficulty when it came to battling, especially in a rural area - a complaint shared by many players that Niantic seems to have overlooked throughout the years.

Raids are Go’s main source of rare, powerful Pokémon, but starting as a Level 1 trainer in 2023 left a lot to be desired when facing off against five-star Legendary Pokémon. Plainly, they just weren’t possible to beat, effectively locking me and many novice players out of what’s often Go’s most exciting new content - unless you’ve got a local friend who's already invested years into the game.

Providing those long-term players with more gameplay and fiercer battles is a smart reward on Niantic’s part, but it does demotivate a newcomer like myself from getting too invested; that mountain is just too high. Even one year later, at Level 33, I rarely attempt Raids and instead stick to catching the regular wild Pokémon, effectively missing out on a key part of the game.

Ultimately, my playtime quickly dwindled. I now oftentimes log in to catch a few Pokémon once per day and then close the game again - hardly an ideal form of player retention by anyone’s metric.

I have, at least, been able to experience the various events Go has held this past year, successfully boosting my playtime for short periods. Chief among them was the Paldean Adventure event, showcasing new species from Scarlet and Violet and more than making my old qualms with the game - that Go lacked modern Pokémon - a thing of the past.

Later in 2023 the Timeless Travels event got underway debuting some personal favourites of mine like Hisuian Decidueye, though as a Raid exclusive, I couldn’t actually catch one… Fortunately, in early 2024 I did get my hands on a shiny Alolan Decidueye through a Community Day - an event with high spawn rates for a specific species and boosted shiny odds to boot (shiny meaning a rare colouration).

The Community Days are certainly one element Niantic has got right, still encouraging me to go outside hunting for shinies even a full year later. Charmander, Squirtle, Goomy, Rowlet, Paldean Wooper… I’ve found plenty of rare variants this way.

And captures in Go now serve as something of a time capsule too - tokens of places I’ve been and events I’ve attended. My one successful Legendary Raid led to my catching an Yveltal in Dublin, and serves as a frequent reminder of my time there; a shiny Throh at PGC London reminds me of all the fascinating talks I sat in on from the future of artificial intelligence to the power of Candy Crush’s actionable microcopy.

Lessons to be learned

All in all, Pokémon Go is a great game if collectables are your cup of tea, and it must be the perfect blend for many as one of the most downloaded games of all time. But from the perspective of a newer player who needs more incentive to keep on playing, there’s quite simply room to improve.

This is especially true when comparing Pokémon Go to Niantic’s newer geolocation game Monster Hunter Now, leveraging another Japanese IP - this time from Capcom - and creating what I would argue is a much stronger title.

Now’s prime advantage is its vastly superior multiplayer mode, allowing isolated players to join distant strangers in team-based Hunt-a-thons. This is made possible through a linked system where certain hunting points are mirrored in many locations, meaning players who join from any of those points can be matched together to take down more challenging monsters. These can also be joined for free every three hours, or more frequently in exchange for an Ultra Hunting Ticket.

Pokémon Go’s closest equivalent to such features is its Remote Raid system, allowing players to join a Raid from outside its vicinity but only up to five times per day, and each entry costs a special pass unlocked through premium currency, making the system severely limited.

Even on the single-player side, Monster Hunter Now reigns supreme with set spawn times encouraging players to log in hourly and delivering an unlimited number of hunts until every monster is scourged from the vicinity. The map shows all spawns in the local area too, empowering players to choose where to walk to encounter specific creatures.

The only limitations are a player’s time and ability - since a hunter’s health needs to remain at 30% or higher to tackle the next beast. This restores over time in a soft stamina system or can be replenished with potions, but doesn’t come into play for those who avoid getting hit.

Again, Pokémon Go is more limited. Spawns are fixed to set times here too, but most are invisible outside of a player’s current vicinity, meaning that walking is necessary to find out if there’s anything rare out there. It could be argued that this makes Go more successful as a walking game, encouraging exercise to uncover the mysteries of what Pokémon are out there, but that uncertainty can be equally off-putting.

Meanwhile the guaranteed finds that Monster Hunter Now offers are a clearer incentive to go out and head towards specific locations.

Gotta manage them all

One aspect that the games do share however, is some over-the-top micromanagement. In Go, that means keeping track of not only different species, but individual Pokémon sizes within that species, their stat spreads, CP and more. There’s only room for so many, after all, so players have to decide who to keep and who to part ways with. The same applies to items.

In Monster Hunter Now, meanwhile, players can only collect so many resources and monster parts, so frequent hunters like myself will often end up throwing away the rewards from recent hunts when something better comes along.

Item management in Pokémon Go/Monster Hunter Now
Item management in Pokémon Go/Monster Hunter Now

In a roundabout way this is a testament to Now’s gameplay - oftentimes the thrill of the hunt is the reward, especially when having to discard any material gain from it.

Pokémon Go does take the win in the storage department though, with Coins rewarded from Gyms being exchangeable for more space, creating another gameplay loop. In Monster Hunter Now, the only storage expansions come from the occasional gift from Niantic or in exchange for hard cash.

Lastly, Monster Hunter Now gets much faster updates based on player feedback - something Go could certainly learn from. Now’s spawn times were advanced from every three hours to every one, and the Hunt-a-thons shifted from local co-op to a linked online system - two major improvements to the gameplay experience benefiting players and Niantic both.

Conversely, Go’s limitations upon rural players are of no benefit to anyone, gamers or Niantic, yet they still haven’t been fully addressed.

For these reasons I’ve enjoyed playing Monster Hunter Now much more as its own game than Pokémon Go, even as a bigger Pokémon fan. This is clearly reflected in my playtimes, as my hours in Go are only 20% of those in Now. I've reached a much higher rank in Now, too.

Let’s Go!

So what to conclude as Pokémon go reaches its eighth birthday?

Well, Pokémon Go is the place to be for collecting beloved creatures, filling out the PokéDex, and hunting shinies. It’s a game that’s more than advanced to the current age of Pokémon, overcoming my initial complaints of pandering to 90s fans, and has a strong enough gameplay loop to have kept me playing for 365 days - albeit briefly at times.

But there are certainly lessons to be learned from Monster Hunter Now, with the potential to improve the gameplay experience and thereby encourage players to spend more time playing, as is reflected in player retention.

But with over 600 billion Pokémon caught and almost $8 billion in revenue perhaps this industry goliath simply doesn’t see any need to improve?

And whether these changes come or not, I know that one year into this eight-year-old game, I’ll continue to keep a watchful eye on any new updates, waiting for those delightful days when new species arrive and inspire me to get outdoors and - yes - one day, catch ‘em all…