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Pokémon Go director discusses avatar backlash, and a "course correct" needed on the slowdown of new species

Plus: Gen 8! Level 60? Gigantamax?!

Pokémon Go Fest 2024 photo showing sunglight shining through a PokéStop model.
Image credit: Niantic

Eight years into Pokémon Go's life, and the game's annual summer Go Fest events remain a firm fixture in the app's event calendar. More than a dozen of these meetups have now taken place around the world, with the most recent this weekend in Madrid, where tens of thousands of Pokéfans braved the heat to catch an enticing array of species ahead of other players.

Go Fest's Global version, a Covid-era invention that remains a lucrative ongoing addition, offers similar rewards next month, but without that same experience of potentially travelling somewhere new, to be among crowds of fellow players. And in both Madrid's Juan Carlos I Park and within the city's narrow streets, there were Pokéfans everywhere. Not since its days back in Dortmund has a city felt so dominated by people playing - from the parade of fans wearing merch or even full Pokémon costumes despite the high temperatures, to the in-game experience where lured PokéStops and full raid lobbies stretched out as far as the eye could see. London, last year, had felt just too big a city for the Pokémon crowds to have made it theirs. Not so here.

It was also an oppurtunity for me to catch up again with Pokémon Go director Michael Steranka, after what has been another busy period for the game. The past few months have seen a number of useful quality-of-life features land in the app, while the recent Go Tour Sinnoh event clearly moved the needle in terms of player engagement. But, as ever, there have been criticisms too - not least around the game's avatar update, which despite its good intentions felt decidedly rushed - and of a general slowdown in the number of Pokémon species being added. I discuss these issues and much more with Steranka below.

Pokémon Go has slowed its release of new species into the game, which is something I've noticed and have seen pointed out on reddit as well. How intentional is this, as the game works within the finite number of Pokémon available generally?

"It's definitely something we want to course correct there, I would say."

Steranka: Even before I read that on reddit, I was doing the analysis. New Pokémon releases over time, even before that [thread] came out, was something very top of mind for us - we felt like, actually, yeah, it seems we slowed down a little bit on this stuff and we don't want to operate the game in that way. We want to constantly provide players something fun and exciting to chase. It just sort of naturally happened that way with the cadence of events and whatnot that we were putting together, but it's definitely something we want to course correct there, I would say. Players will start to see, in the upcoming seasons, more new Pokémon coming out that they know and love in the game.

We also know there's a finite amount of Pokémon, at least released in the main series games. And so [we're] really trying to think about what's next there. How do we keep things exciting without needing to rely solely on a brand new release of Pokémon? That it is top of line for us. But you know what you're saying isn't news to me. It's definitely something the team is putting a lot of serious consideration around and I'm pretty excited with a lot of the discussions we've been having on that.

There's only been one Mega Pokémon release since November last year, for Heracross, which is a definite slowdown there. Do you feel the need to let players complete their Mega Dex before going into something else? Or will Megas be something players are going to be chasing still for a while to come?

Steranka: Yeah, and one of my favorites, or two of my favorites I should say, are Mega Mewtwo... We try to approach things on an individual Pokémon basis, so it's not necessarily that we want to finish off this chunk before moving on to the next thing. It's more like trying to think about what's the right moment and opportunity to feature something like a Mega Mewtwo. What will do that Pokémon justice for how epic you know they are? That's where, when I mentioned earlier, the release of new Pokémon just naturally went that way in the first half of this year - it's because we've tried to consider 'hey, when is the natural best opportunity to release a specific Pokémon in Pokémon go?'

With the few remaining Megas that we have left, we really want to make sure that they release in a meaningful way.

Pokémon Go Fest 2024 photo showing crowds of players walking a path in the park.
Image credit: Niantic

Pokémon Go is missing much of Gen 8 - and I suppose after Megas, I'd be expecting either Z-Moves or Gigantamax to appear next. Would it make sense to launch Gen 8 and Gigantamax around the same time?

Steranka: We've definitely been thinking a lot about Gen 8 for a while in Pokémon Go. Nothing to share right now in terms of the timing or launch strategy there, but something we're always trying to do is play homage to the source material and do right by that source material.

Know that as the team is thinking about Gen 8 Pokémon, they're thinking about Galar, they're thinking about what makes those Pokémon special, and when it's time for them to make their debut in Pokémon Go, it will make sense.

As time goes on, more players hit Pokémon Go's current Level 50 cap. Is your thinking around expanding that cap changing over time, as more people get there?

Steranka: As someone who's been at 50 myself for a couple of years now, I personally feel I'm missing that chase, right? Of continuing the grind, going after an accomplishment. It's definitely something we've talked about a good amount. For me personally, something I want to resolve before we take the next step, if we decide to increase levels again, is bringing more of our player base up to certain thresholds. You don't ever want to be in a position where your long-term franchise players are at level 60 but then new players feel like they'll have to play for 10 years to catch up. Fixing that that root challenge is something that will have to go hand-in-hand.

If we ever do some type of level cap increase, you might recall when we first increased to Level 50 we completely changed the source of XP gains. It's hard to remember, but previous to that update, XP was much, much harder to come by. And now, you can reasonably get to Level 30 if you're playing regularly in a month or a couple of months time, depending on how hardcore you're playing. Now, if we take things to 60, hypothetically, we'd want to make sure players also have a great opportunity to catch up if they're coming new to the game.

How would you do that?

Steranka: It's a great question, and one I probably can't answer without getting into some conversations we've had internally. But you can imagine when we first increased things to Level 50 we also didn't do so from a raw XP standpoint, right? We tried to create some experiential moments or hurdles that players would have to overcome to go from 40 to 50. And so, similarly, if we ever were to increase the level cap, we'd want to make sure that that is the experience that players have. That's it's not just about grinding.

I remember the days of evolving Pidgeys.

Steranka: It was interesting, it was brutal.

Feedback to the character creator update this year was mixed. Are there still changes you'd like to make there?

Steranka: Absolutely. We knew that that was going to be a challenging one for us. Players have grown to love their avatars for the past seven-and-a-half years and anytime you change something like that, there's a lot of risk involved - some people might not be happy with that, whereas others might appreciate us responding to the feedback over the years from players who felt our avatar system was outdated and that they didn't feel like they could represent themselves like they can in other games.

"I would say it's just the start."

We definitely saw a lot of feedback that players felt like it still didn't match what they were hoping for. The team has been hard at work at looking at that feedback and we've already made some updates and adjustments, things like improving the different body proportions that you can have and different skin tones. But I would say it's just the start, we want to continue adding more to the feature, making it more diverse. My goal is for every single player in the world to really feel they can be represented in Pokémon Go.

The other thing I would just share on this front is just how technically challenging that feature was for us to bring out into the market because we have this backlog of different avatar items and articles and clothing and poses, and those were all designed for two very specific form factors. Taking those dozens and hundreds of avatar items and applying it to much more customisable characters was very, very tricky for us. But we have seen the feedback and have already been making some adjustments and and we have more to come.

A couple of years ago, Mateo made his debut in artwork that teased the addition of Routes to the game. There was a lady on that piece of artwork as well who's still to debut. Any news on where she's at?

Steranka: The artwork you're referring to - they always become my computer backgrounds for a year - sometimes in that there's a bit of a peer into the future beyond that year and sometimes it might be a little bit more aspirational than we're ready to go for. So I wouldn't look to that as a definitive roadmap of any given year in Pokémon Go. Instead, it's something we're excited about and almost like a creative vision for where we would generally like the game to go in the future, but not as a one-to-one of what's to come.

Pokémon Go's sixth anniversary artwork, featuring Mateo and a mystery lady.
Pokémon Go's sixth anniversary artwork, featuring Mateo and a still-mysterious lady. | Image credit: Niantic

When Mateo did pop up, he mentioned something about being interested in XXS Pokémon. Is that something that he might still be interested in, in the future, or can I delete all of the XXS Pokémon from my storage?

Steranka: We want players to find value in all different types of Pokémon, and XXS is not just visually fun to see. We always want to make sure players can find value in the different Pokémon they have in their inventory.

Something I've mentioned to you before is the limit to tracking gym badges you've collected - that after 1000 the oldest just disappear from your profile - and there have been a few threads on reddit recently too where people are mentioning it as a bugbear. Upping the limit would encourage them to go explore further, and also keep mementos from places they visited years ago. Is that something that you'd like to see changed?

Steranka: I remember the conversation we had and following that I did chat with our engineering team about this. We don't want [the way it works now] to be the the player experience and player behaviour. We want you to go out and explore places and not feel like you can't spin new gyms. So this is a great reminder for me, I'll make sure to go back and chat about it some more, because yeah, that doesn't match the experience we want to offer to players.

I would love it for Gold badges to just stick in your collection - or for a profile badge like with Collection Challenges that tracks them all, if the app has a limited amount of storage.

Steranka: Yeah, and I think that's the biggest technical challenge there, making sure that if we do increase something like that, it doesn't lead to a more bogged down overall experience because there's only so much we can do in terms of client asset downloads to keep the gameplay as smooth as possible. There probably is some flexibility, technology has improved since we first launched and phone capacities and capabilities have also improved over time.

I spoke with [Pokémon Go senior vice president] Ed Wu earlier this year who mentioned a focus back on developing blockbuster features for the game. Where are you at with that, and how do you also accomodate new players without saturating what they have to do?

"You might be surprised to hear that millions of new players are coming into Pokémon Go every month.

Steranka: That feature saturation point can be really tricky. A lot of players who have been playing for a long time are looking for something new all the time. But the more we add without thinking about ways to improve the onboarding experience for newer players, the more daunting the game can become - and then you see the worst possible situation where the game stops growing. But you might be surprised to hear that millions of new players are coming into Pokémon Go every month, and with that amount of new people coming in and experiencing in the game, we want to make sure the experience is just as good for them as it is for the players that have been playing for many, many years at this point.

We still have an exciting set of feature features on our roadmap, not just for the remainder of this year, but we're already talking about 2025 and we're also talking about 2026. There's some really ambitious stuff that we have in mind and you can always expect Pokémon Go to evolve over time.

Something that has been really interesting for me to think about recently, as I had my first son a year ago, is the fact that if you were born the day Pokémon Go came out, you'd be eight years old now, right? We're about to see a completely new generation of players potentially coming into the game. I was just talking to a friend of mine's 13-year-old twins and Pokémon Go is their first experience with Pokémon. They never played any of the main series games and never watched the anime. They discovered Pokémon through Pokémon Go and that was a really enlightening moment for me. It illustrates the care we need to put around that experience of someone coming into this franchise for the first time.

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