The developer of Pokémon Go is facing a player revolt after rolling back safety measures implemented at the onset of the pandemic last year.
Niantic, the Google subsidiary which released the smash hit mobile game in 2016, had reacted to the onset of the pandemic by tweaking how its games work. The introduction of social distancing and stay-at-home orders around the world made it hard to play the company’s augmented reality (AR) games as intended, since they task players with leaving their homes and visiting local landmarks to catch Pokémon, gather items, and fight for regional dominance.
The company doubled the distance required to interact with key landmarks in the game, which enabled players to access them in-game without needing to physically cluster around the same spot in the real world. It also handed out free items to players, including “incense”, which makes Pokémon show up without needing to leave your house.
In June, the company announced plans to reverse those changes. “We’re committed to doing this in a staggered way, when it makes sense for each place in the world, to help people play safely,” Niantic said. “As we return to the outside world again, these changes are aimed at restoring the focus of Pokémon Go on movement and exploration in the real world. These changes will be introduced slowly and carefully to make it more exciting to explore the world around you.”
The news prompted dismay among the player base, particularly for American users, for whom a new wave of the pandemic is starting as the Delta variant establishes itself in the US. A petition on Change.org has gained almost 150,000 signatures from users calling on the company to keep the changes.
“Increased interaction distance was one of the best changes they have ever made,” the petition reads, “making the game safer to play and more accessible for all.” As well as pandemic safety, the changes had been praised for making the game more available for disabled players: increased interaction distance meant that pokestops that were once physically inaccessible for wheelchair users, for instance, were suddenly available.
The decision also caused consternation among fans who have become accustomed to – or even prefer – the new method of playing. The tweaks made the game “more enjoyable and less stressful”, according to Ryan Broderick, a freelance journalist. “Basically, they made the game easier to play from your couch. You could battle and catch Pokémon without having to wander around your neighbourhood in a face mask. It’s now become one of my main time-wasters.”
One Pokémon Go influencer, ZoëTwoDots, even called for a boycott of the game. “I know for myself personally, I’m just straight up not spending money in the game going forward until they address it publicly,” she said in a YouTube post.