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Niantic had a checklist of goals it wanted to accomplish with the real-time player versus player combat it added to its mobile phenomenon Pokemon Go, some that almost seem lofty at first brush.
But, as explained by Niantic’s Rob Giusti at the Game Developers Conference this week, the decision to forgo the series’ typical turn-based combat in favor of Pokemon Go’s real-time player showdowns seemed to check off every objective the team had in mind.
Player versus player combat had been a feature long requested of Pokemon Go, thanks in no small part to the fact that Pokemon trainer showdowns have been a series stable since Game Freak’s first Pokemon games launched on the Game Boy way back when. But, even with that established groundwork to follow, Giusti says that Niantic strived to make sure that their spin on battling didn’t lose the distinctive flavor of Pokemon Go.
“Pokemon Go’s always been about real-world social connections,” says Giusti, and it was important that the team kept forming and strengthening those social connections at the forefront of the feature. “We looked to this as a way to compliment our gameplay of players walking around and catching Pokemon together.”
But at the same time, Niantic knew it had a significant number of players that had stepped away from Pokemon Go for one reason or another, and wanted to use PvP battles as a way to get them to give the game another try.
“What we’re really looking for most of all was to increase our number of players,” says Giusti. “We really wanted to reacquire the lapsed players that hadn’t launched the game in the while;” So real-time battles emerged as a feature to grab the attention of new players and existing ones alike.
Because of that, it was important to avoid punishing players that were returning to the game after potentially years of inactivity. Lapsed players, casual players, and hardcore players each had to have their own ways to enjoy battling, and those ways couldn’t be at odds with each other.
That led to combat that was “easy to learn, hard to master,” and that built on a lot of concepts that players had already experienced in the game. The tap-to-attack mechanic already established through raid battles was brought into PvP battles and Pokemon would still use the same attacks that they already have. But, to make sure the mode still felt new for those that had spent some time with the game, Niantic introduced an unlockable third move slot for existing pokemon and introduced a new strategic element to the game called a Protect Shield.
Protect Shields were something that came out of a focus group, explains Giusti. “This feature changed a lot pretty late in development because we got feedback from people playing our game that the mechanic we had before just wasn’t satisfying enough. So we put something in that would give a strategic trade-off.”
While Raid Battles had a swipe-to-dodge mechanic, avoiding damage takes a more calculated turn in PvP. For every battle, players have two tap-to-activate shields they can use throughout the entire showdown, something that gave players something more to think about in each match-up versus just the usual rock-paper-scissors-styled type advantages of typical Pokemon battling.
For almost every element of the new mode, Niantic had some consideration in place to make sure existing and new players could find some level of appeal, from the structure of competitive leagues for battles to letting winners and losers draw from the same loot pool at the end of a battle.
Adding this to Pokemon Go two years into the game’s lifespan proved to be a beneficial move as well, and a decision that Giusti says he'd probably make again if given the chance.
“You already know a lot about who’s playing your game,” says Giusti. “And you learn a lot about why people stopped playing the game” and that’s something that helped the team nail down exactly how they’d accomplish their goals. And it worked! Giusti says that the end result was a sustained bump in both daily and monthly active users (for both returning and new players), positive effects on retention, extended play sessions, and positive social media chatter.