Indie Shortieland: Babbling About Pokémon GO

Hey readers! No full Indie Wonderland this week, due to several reasons: I couldn’t stop myself from playing more Phantom Doctrine, because it’s fun and I wanted to see where the story ends; I had a bunch of nerd shit to do; I wanted to make time to visit a timed Winnie-the-Pooh exhibit at a local museum; and against all hope I found an option to say hi to one of my all-time favorite writers. What even are video games? I don’t even know.

Seriously though: I do have a review lined up next week, but I want to give that game a little more time before I start singing its praises. In the meantime, I’ll use this space to write out some thoughts about that most topical game that’s surely still on everyone’s minds: Pokémon GO. I recently got back into it after a lengthy (2-year-or-so) absence, and there have been some changes. Some good, some bad, and some that have been percolating in my brain after the first time I encountered them. I’m not actually going to review Pokémon GO here, so if you’re not familiar with it, you probably won’t get much out of this article — that’s fair, I hope to see you next week! But if you are familiar with Pokémon GO / play it yourself, there’s a nonzero chance you might enjoy the following piece:

Why the changes to Pokémon GO‘s gym system have turned your own team into your worst enemy

Before I start, and before anyone asks: Here’s my trainer code.

So, Pokémon GO. I played this game fairly intensively when it came out in July 2016, up to and including ‘getting a new (‘new’) phone capable of running it’ and ‘racking up extra data charges because my old subscription plan wasn’t prepared’. I stopped playing around September 2016, for a bunch of reasons that include ‘getting tired of catching Pidgeys’ and ‘my commute changed to an area that wasn’t as conducive to daily Pokémon catching’. I half-kept up with the changes over the years, but nothing individually made me want to come back; it wasn’t until a friend asked if I could add her as a friend in-game, for quest-related reasons, that I first opened it up again. And very quickly fell back in. We both knew this would happen.

There’s been some changes, mostly unambiguously for the better. The new Pokémon tracker makes it possible to actually look for Pokémon of interest, Field Research adds a much-appreciated meta layer of direction, I dig the ‘tactical’ depth added by berries, and obviously more Pokémon to catch is more better. It’s a better game than it was.

And then there are the gyms.

Unrelated to my main point: I really dig how the gym height visually represents whether the gym is at full power or not.

Gyms have changed significantly since I left. The old gyms were… interesting beasts. I’m writing this from memory, so forgive any small inaccuracies, but the way they used to work was like this: Every gym that was owned by one of the three teams had a ‘prestige’ level, from 1-10 or so. The most immediate factor of that level was determining how many Pokémon could be placed in that gym, with levels 1-6 allowing that many Pokémon (I honestly thought there were only six levels, but quick research suggests there were more; this may have been added in my play interbellum). To attack and take over a gym held by opposing teams, players would have to battle the Pokémon staged in the gym. Every victory reduced the gym’s prestige by a little bit. Lower it to levels below 6, and enemy Pokémon would start dropping out; lower it below 1, and the gym would empty, allowing the attacker to place a Pokémon of their own in it and turn it into a level 1 gym of their colour. Similarly, improving gyms of your own team (with the goals of opening more Pokémon slots and/or making it harder to take over) required… battling the Pokémon stationed in the gym, with each victory gaining a little prestige.

The main feature of having Pokémon in gyms, apart from the prestige, was the daily cash reward of Pokécoins, the otherwise microtransaction-only in-game currency used to buy all sorts of useful stuff. This worked in a frankly terrible way: Once every 24 hours, you could manually go into a menu of a menu and hit a small button, upon which you’d get paid (I think like) 10 coins for each gym you had a Pokémon in. The 24-hour timer would start ticking at that time: It wasn’t ‘once per day’, but literally ’24 hours or more after your last claim’. If you forgot and messed up your schedule, that was on you. If your timer refreshed, but your Pokémon got kicked out of the gym before you hit the button, that was on you. And if you didn’t even know that the option existed… Well, you get the point.

The old gyms were a weird system, and heavily skewed towards rewarding the stronger players who could afford to hold and reinforce gyms for longer periods of time, so I understand that changes were necessary. Still, I see what they were going for. The system was heavily geared to incentivize keeping gyms: The more effort you put in, the longer you could hold on, the more cash you’d get. Other players from your team who donated strong Pokémon and helped reinforce the gym were your friends; players from other teams were your enemies. As was, I assume, the intent.

Fast-forward to the modern day, which I’m given to understand started not all that long ago. Gyms are entirely different now.

I didn’t even know what I was looking at.

The entire concept of gym prestige level and assorted elements is gone. Gyms always have room for six Pokémon now: If six people work together to conquer a gym, they can fill it to capacity immediately. Enemy gyms are still slowly ground down through combat, but that takes a different form now. Each Pokémon in a gym has a special ‘gym health’ meter, visualized as a big heart, which goes from 0 to the Pokémon’s Combat Power (CP) value.

Like this.

You still fight enemy gyms by taking a team of six Pokémon and fighting the stationed Pokémon in order (I assume the order they were added). Victories no longer affect the gym as a whole, but only the individual Pokémon you’re fighting: If you manage to take down the Pokémon within the 60-second time limit, they lose a portion (I want to say a third) of their maximum CP, and you move on to the next Pokémon (if any). If that leaves them with any CP left, they’re still in the gym, and you have to fight them again if you attack the gym again; if it drops them to 0 CP, they’re out of the gym. Kick out all enemy Pokémon, and the gym is yours.

Rewards are different too. Instead of the arbitrary time you remember to push a button, rewards are now based on the amount of time a Pokémon spends defending the gym. They earn 1 Pokécoin for every 10 minutes in the gym, up to a maximum of 50 coins a day, which works out to a little over 8 hours of gym-guarding. The limit is per day, not per Pokémon per day or per gym per day, so if you have multiple Pokémon stationed you can reach it fairly quickly. And it refreshes at midnight, local time zone. Which might sound like a pretty good deal, except for one small detail:

You only actually get your money once your Pokémon is kicked out of the gym by players from competing teams.

‘Your Pokémon returns home! It was defeated in combat and is thus unconscious, but this bag of coins was taped to its body!’

Note that this is literally the only way to get your Pokémon back. There is no way to manually recall your own Pokémon, time of writing, and I don’t think one is likely to get added. And players of your team can’t fight or kick out your Pokémon. You’re totally at the whims of strangers, which makes any kind of clever planning impossible. Sometimes you’ll get two Pokémon back one minute before midnight, netting you 50 coins; sometimes you’ll get one back before midnight and one just after, netting you 100 coins. Sometimes you’ll get your Pokémon back before walking out of scanning range of the gym you just fought. Sometimes it can take literal days.

That Crobat from the previous screenshot? They’d been gone for so long I was starting to forget what they looked like.

That’s weird, right? If you live in an area with an active Pokémon GO community, you’d expect gyms to flip hands fairly often. Even in the case of serious team inbalances, all it takes is one player with strong enough Pokémon, plenty of healing items, and enough time on their hands to knock over any gym. And even if they don’t fully manage, damage inflicted doesn’t just go away: Any battle you win is a battle some other player doesn’t have to win. It’s almost an interesting example of broken windows theory: If I see a local enemy gym with six full-health Pokémon, I’ll probably ignore it, but if I see a heavily damaged gym, I might just decide to go in for the kill. Add to this the fact that many Field Research quests revolve around fighting in gym battles (not even winning, per se, just fighting), and you’d expect a lot of battle damage.

And there is, in general! It’s fairly rare to see a gym that’s entirely pristine. But gym Pokémon health doesn’t just go down. It turns out there’s one thing players of your team can do to gyms of your colour: They can feed the Pokémon inside berries from their inventory, restoring a percentage of their maximum health.

All Pokémon love berries. Carnivorous Pokémon don’t exist.

There’s a few reasons for doing this. Maybe a player has Pokémon of their own in the gym, that they want to stick around for longer, so by boosting the gym overall they hope to enforce that. Players get a small Stardust reward for every berry fed to a Pokémon, and while you can do this to a full-health Pokémon, it feels weird to do so. There are also meta rewards to your team owning a gym: Gyms now also count as Pokéstops, but spinning a gym owned by your team grants you some bonus items. And raid battles held at gyms of your colour grant you extra ‘raid balls’ if you win.

See the items in the top right? The regular-coloured items are the ones I’d always get. The item with a blue background is a bonus item I only get because this gym is blue.

On an even more meta layer, players slowly accumulate different ‘gym badge’ levels for gyms they visit. You gain a gym badge the first time you interact with a gym, and it slowly levels up from normal, to bronze, to silver, to gold, gaining some experience every time you interact; ‘interacting’ here can mean attacking the gym when it belongs to an enemy, having a Pokémon successfully defend the gym, spinning the gym sign… and feeding defending Pokémon berries. Gym badges are partially cosmetic, but a key element is that (again) you gain bonus items if you spin a gym you have a high-level badge of.

That’s what the yellow-background item in the above screenshot is. If I spun the sign at a gym I had a silver-level badge at, like this one, I would actually get *two* bonus items.

Or maybe it’s none of this! Maybe the player is just feeling nice. The core of so much Pokémon material is working together, being good to your Pokémon and your fellow man, and leaving the world a better place than you found it. If I walk by a gym with some hurt Pokémon, and my bag is bulging with berries to the point of me almost throwing them out, why wouldn’t I help those Pokémon?

Yeah, by selecting the Pokémon I can clearly see it’s been in this gym for almost two whole days now. And its owner probably really wants it to come home. But why wouldn’t I feed them berries? I’m OnLy TrYiNg To HeLp


I play it off as a joke, but this does happen. I do it. I’m aware of the issue, and I still thoughtlessly feed Pokémon berries. Or thoughtfully feed them berries, if I have too many berries and my gym badge level / Stardust gain matters more than some anonymous player yelling at the screen. Even though I’ve been that player, too. Pokémon GO pops up little warnings when your gym-bound Pokémon are getting weak, like ‘such and such Pokémon really wants a berry’. THEY REALLY DON’T WANT A BERRY. THEY WANT TO COME HOME AND GIVE ME MY MONEY. But sure enough, I check five minutes later and they’re back to full health, somehow.

There are small safeguards in place: You have to be near a gym to feed it berries, unless you actively have a Pokémon in it, and if you use distance feeding the effect is strongly reduced. Any player can only feed ten unique Pokémon per day; other Pokémon will refuse their berries. And the healing effect of multiple berries in a ‘short’ amount of time (which I think is like an hour or so) is reduced rapidly — unless players use rare golden berries, which immediately heal any Pokémon to full health. But all the same…

It’s a weird system. The old system had its issues, particularly with how grind-heavy it was and how much it rewarded the strongest players, and moving away from that was a good move. But for all its warts, it did convey the intended core dynamic: Your team versus their teams. As it stands, Pokémon GO‘s current gym system emphasizes the opposite. You don’t want to hold gyms as much as you want to trade gyms, ideally on something like a triple-8-hour schedule. Or weirder still: You want to trade gyms that you have easy access to, but hold gyms that you only pass briefly, like on your commute — the former are good for trading, while the latter give you slightly better bonuses. But if it doesn’t happen, that’s still not a big deal! There are plenty of gyms and Pokéstops, and the bonuses from higher-level gym badges (which you’ll earn over time almost regardless of what you do) quickly become a bigger deal the one-item bonus from your team holding the gym anyway.

The current system is better than the previous one, but I wouldn’t call it good. Still, I’m at least glad they did change it over time, and I’m interested in seeing what Niantic comes up with in the future. What would a system look like that conveys the ideal of holding gyms and opposing the other teams without getting stuck in power-player quagmires? I have no idea, but let’s hope that they can figure it out.

In closing, yes, almost all of my Pokémon are named some variant of ‘Steve’.

Jarenth is looking forward to catching just a ton of Beldang next weekend. Share your own accomplishments on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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