Pokémon GO’s New Social Features Lacks Social Fortitude

Setting boundaries that left an otherwise exciting addition a bit pointless.

Pokémon GO recently released a big update to its popular app. After being asked for and promised for years, players can finally add fellow trainers as friends, and play together while they hunt for more pocket creatures. However, there are some annoying caveats to this new feature–besides some of the more important features of the Friend system being local only (no trading internationally here), players must hit level 10 before they can start adding Friends. Given all of the other limitations that is placed on the system, it leaves me with one question… why?

A wide variety of mobile games allow you to add other people to a friend list, partly for actual social features, and partly (in the case of gatcha titles) to make you jealous of your friends’ rare drops and encourage you to spend more money. Usually, the ability to find and add friends unlocks after you finish the tutorial–once you learn the ropes of the game, you can go ahead and be social with friends near and far. While most of these games do impose friend limits for various reasons, there’s really not much getting in the way to taking advantage of social features, and many mobile titles even let you add strangers if none of your friends are interested in your mobile game of choice.

Niantic, as par for the course, has to do things differently, and does so to the detriment of the player. Reaching level 10 to add friends isn’t a particularly gargantuan feat, but it still feels as though it’s an arbitrary requirement for a social feature most other popular mobile titles on the market offer immediately.

There could be some reasons for this, but they feel weak coming from the developer of the mobile title of one of Nintendo’s most successful franchises. Getting to level 10 can help prevent a lot of bot or troll friend requests… but given that you can’t add strangers unless you track down their 12 digit friend code, it seems like a needless concern. Perhaps making sure that a player gets to a higher level before adding friends may ease the load on the (seemingly always overheating) servers, but at this point, the game has been out for two years. Anyone that would care about a social feature 2 years after initial release are already going to be far beyond that level and be the majority of the server load in the first place. All that does is discourage new players from picking up the game, as you’re forced to grind up some levels before being able to play with friends.

There’s more than just the level requirement that mar Pokémon GO’s social features, though. Most of the features require that your friends be both available to you locally and willing to meet up to play GO with you. This makes sense for a few things–you can’t jump around the world taking over gyms–but with other features this seems bafflingly strict. Being unable to trade with anyone on your friends list unless they are nearby seems a bit backwards, in particular. Why would Niantic make some Pokémon specific to certain parts of the world if you cannot trade Pokémon around the planet? All faraway friends can do is send gifts to one another, which is nice as you can get special eggs and the experience when you eventually level up, but your item bag and egg slots fill up in no time, making all of this feel a bit… pointless.

Finally, I was hoping that maybe the Friend system would help alleviate some of the troubles with Raids. Raids are a nice idea–a bunch of people ganging up on a very high CP Pokémon, and a slew of great rewards if you beat it–but there are a number of issues with the feature currently. Namely, it’s very difficult to get a few people together to even try and take on the raid in the first place, and coupled with a time limit most raids come and go untouched. Friends that take on raids do get certain bonuses, but how are they supposed to know to gather at the random gym 5 miles away?

My ideal solution is probably a bit too much to ask for (the ability to summon friends within 5-10 kilometers to join in on the raid without being there directly), but even a system that allows you to notify friends that you’re about to do something (“John is getting ready to fight Dragonite on at the Main Street Gym!”) may have been helpful in making Raids easier to tackle.

It’s really a shame. Pokémon GO’s Friend system and being able to trade with others have been long awaited, and after two years it’s a pretty underwhelming update. The game has gotten a lot better than launch in a variety of ways, and it’s likely future tweaks to the Friends system will make this a more worthwhile feature for trainers to use, but as it is there’s really not much encouraging you to be social unless you have a bunch of local friends as obsessed with the game as you.

By Elizabeth Henges

I'm actually an accountant, but I like being a multifaceted nerd. I enjoy writing about nearly anything, but I'm partial to video games, cats, and trying to find neat little doodads.

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