I may spend my days writing about Nintendo and related topics, but I've had a fairly limited engagement with the global phenomenon of Pokémon GO, in comparison to its biggest enthusiasts in any case. I've probably expended more energy looking at download statistics and the ups and downs of Nintendo's share value in relation to the app than actually catching Pokémon. I've downloaded it, played it a bit, and spoken about it a lot.
Interestingly, when playing it and watching others play it I thought the gameplay loop was pretty simple. You go for walks, maybe travel a little, always keeping an eye on the app for Pokémon to catch or Pokéstops to visit. You level up, gradually fill out your Pokédex and curse at yet another duplicate popping up on the screen. If you're really keen you may meet with friends or join groups organised by Facebook; I've seen GO walks setup by friends on social media that have attracted more than 100 participants.
I admire that side of it, the social possibilities and the exploration it can encourage; though hopefully sensible exploration from the majority. That was the gameplay loop in my eyes - elements of chance that encourage more exercise and travel than normal.
Tellingly I, probably like many of the tens of millions that have downloaded the app, am not a big player of the franchise. I've made this confession in the past, and my name will never be on a main-series Pokémon review as a result, but in any case that makes my attachment to the IP's games likely similar to a majority - or large part, at least - of the GO audience. Perhaps that's where my interpretation of the gameplay loop comes from: I see an AR-driven game and consider it an addition to my routine, a continuous activity to dip into occasionally.
Yet for those that are big fans of the franchise I understand it's more than that - it's a real-world interpretation of adventures they've been enjoying for years. GO isn't a fun little game to mess about with while out and about, it's a full-on video game, with objectives, levelling and a win-state - filling the Pokédex. The fact that exercise and exploration are part of the process is welcome, but certainly plenty of players will be treating it as another full Pokémon experience, a game to be played properly.
That, it seems to me, is at the core of the current debate swirling around the app since a weekend update and separate shutdowns that were potentially initiated by Niantic and Nintendo (primarily the former, but Nintendo has also been cited). Pokévision was a 'mapping' site that used the app's API to mine its data and show what Pokémon could be found in a given area and for how long. It was effectively mining the app's internal data to share with the world, allowing players to easily look up which 'mon could be found at a location of their choosing. That service, and some others that were doing similar things such as showing details of Pokémon's strengths and so on, was been closed over the weekend; takedowns are the logical reason this has happened, and were strongly implied by Pokévision itself.
Even if formal legal means weren't used, it seems Niantic has also been cracking down on usage of the API and choking off access. In Niantic's defence, doing that may be a means of stopping unofficial apps from sucking the life out of servers by excessively grabbing data, contributing to the stresses of keeping the game running smoothly for millions of players.
Moving on, those closures have also aligned with the major official weekend update that disabled the battery saver mode on iOS (ouch) and also took off the 'footprints' feature that hadn't worked properly, an in-app tool supposed to make finding 'mon easier. Combine that update with the shutdowns, and you get threads like this on NeoGAF and elsewhere.
Whether the likes of Pokévision were formally shut down through legal means or merely threatened with consequences for staying online, sizeable and vocal online communities have expressed plenty of frustration. Apps like these, enabling players to target and track Pokémon they want to catch, had become an inherent part of the experience for some. As highlighted above, one interpretation of how GO is meant to be played made these tools a necessity.
Niantic, though, evidently doesn't agree - company CEO John Hanke said the following to Forbes not long before these unofficial apps and services went offline.
Yeah, I don't really like that. Not a fan.
We have priorities right now but they might find in the future that those things may not work. People are only hurting themselves because it takes some fun out of the game. People are hacking around trying to take data out of our system and that's against our terms of service.
There are two key points out of that. Hanke, on the one hand, interprets the 'fun' of the game rather like the gameplay loop I see when I play the app, as an occasional player who's not a big Pokémon gamer. He also references Terms of Service, which are undoubtedly broken by unofficial apps that use GO's data without permission.
On the latter point Niantic has the right to enforce its Terms of Service, and that appears to be what's happening. Yet as I've argued in past cases, such as with Nintendo's over-zealous policing of monetised YouTube content, what's legally justified isn't always 'right' in the broader sense. Because you can do something and the law backs you up isn't always the same as the correct business move.
In taking away tools like this - or being perceived to have done so - Niantic has angered what is, to be blunt, a vocal minority. But, that group is important, as they likely represent part of the most solid and reliable userbase the app can have for the long-term. Long after fly-by-night dabblers like me have deleted the app and moved on, dedicated fans and enthusiasts will still be coming back for more. A majority of 'casual' players are unlikely to know or care about unofficial Pokémon GO trackers and so on, but they're also less likely to still be playing in a year's time when there are 600 'mon to catch and the app has evolved further.
Keeping a core of players engaged is the long-term challenge for GO, and shutdowns of popular unofficial apps - combined with ongoing shortcomings in the game itself - will turn some off. A hugely popular Reddit post concisely lays out the depreciating interest apps like GO suffer if they lack key features or close down useful workarounds.
Pokemon Go went from a game that I go out to play, to a game I play when I'm out, to a game I never play.
Niantic, like Nintendo and some other companies and developers, seems to want consumers to play the game its way, and appears willing to rigorously enforce its Terms of Service to make that happen. Yet it should beware embracing the viral nature of GO's success in the one hand and pushing against it with the other. GO is so popular because tens of millions of gamers are enjoying it in different ways. By evidently alienating and frustrating a portion of players committed to completing their Pokédex and mastering the game, Niantic is - in part - going against the inclusive principles that allowed GO to take off in the first place.
Ultimately, Niantic has the legal right and ability to target and shutdown unofficial apps, and manage how we play Pokémon GO. Yet it should use that authority with a light touch - a mass audience embraced the app and made it one of the biggest (perhaps the biggest) mobile sensations of all time. That same audience can also walk away if told it's having fun or playing the game 'wrong'. After all, apps get deleted as quickly as they're installed in the throwaway economies of iOS and Android.