GDC 2020: how Niantic adapted Pokémon Go for Covid-19

Virtual Pokémon Go Fest 2020, changes to features to suit individual settings, and more

How do you adapt a game that relies on the three pillars of: exploration, exercise, and social activity during a global lockdown? Well, that’s exactly what Niantic had to do with Pokémon Go back in March, when the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic struck. We know now that Niantic’s changes and additions proved to be a roaring success, but back then there was a lot of uncertainty.

During GDC 2020, Niantic’s Matt Slemon, product lead, and Laura Warner, senior game designer, took to the virtual stage to discuss the challenges faced during this hectic period in great detail, and it was intriguing stuff. We know many of the changes that Niantic took at this point, as we’ve covered them extensively in our guide series (Check out our Pokémon Go news, Pokémon Go event, Pokémon Go update, and Pokémon Go raids guides for further information), though, until now, we didn’t know the story behind them.

Until now. We know that Niantic immediately assessed the situation: what features of Pokémon Go had been most affected by the global event? Well, it should surprise nobody but any that involved walking or leaving the house were the first to suffer.

So Niantic decided to start there. The first phase of its master plan was to cancel and postpone live events that required walking or group participation, as these were the features being most affected at this point. Of course, player safety was equally important when it came to making these decisions.

But that wasn’t quite enough, as there weren’t any new features to replace those that were changed or removed. So, Niantic decided to address this by changing numerous features so that players could start participating in them again. These included removing walking and Pokécoin requirements for PvP, the friendship level requirement for trainer battles, triple stardust and XP for the first catch of the day, and increased the number of gifts you could open per day. The popular 1 Pokécoin bundle was also introduced at this point.

This brings us to late March, when the community had started to stabilise due to reactions across the world to Covid-19. At this point, Niantic decided to start focusing on creating all-new features that players could participate in while remaining indoors. More importantly though, Niantic wanted to bring back social features to the game as these had largely disappeared due to the pandemic.

At this point we started to see a 100% drop rate for gifts from Pokéstops, the ability to add a message with a sticker when sending gifts to friends, removing QR code and walking requirements for Go Battle League and PvP, and the remote raid pass, which allows you to raid from a distance. You could also invite friends from across the globe to help you with raids, too.

There were plenty of new features that weren’t social, too. These included adventure sync tracking indoor steps, buddy Pokémon visiting near Pokéstops to bring you supplies, bonus field research tasks per day, which involved tasks you could perform in individual settings, flavoured incense, which allowed you to attract specific Pokémon during live events, and the Team Go Rocket Balloons event, which allowed Team Go Rocket to come to you, rather than you having to visit a Pokéstop to battle them.

Of course, the biggest challenge was to deliver Pokémon Go Fest 2020 during a global pandemic. In March, Niantic was already deep in the planning phases for the physical event, which was cancelled in favour of a global virtual event that turned out to be a roaring success thanks to its partnership with TikTok and the global challenge arena feature, which allowed trainers to work together to complete challenges in exchange for extra rewards.

The pandemic is far from behind us, but Niantic has successfully rode the storm, adapting Pokémon Go for a different environment. The team now looks ahead to the future, reverting back to the features that were planned before Covid-19. Here’s to an exciting future for Pokémon Go, which you can grab right now from the App Store or Google Play.

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