Silence is killing Pokemon Go

Commentary: Niantic has a certified hit on its hands, but it isn't communicating with players. That needs to change.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
4 min read
Pokemon Go

Transparent (adj.): Free from pretense or deceit, easily detected or seen through, readily understood. Characterized by visibility or accessibility of information especially concerning business practices.

Late on a Friday night, when no one was looking, Niantic changed the game.

The developer behind Pokemon Go didn't warn anyone that the ways we used to hunt the games' mythical pocket monsters weren't working anymore. Before, Pokemon Go had a built-in tracking system to help find the monsters closest to us, and third-party apps to locate them even more precisely.

Now we have to stumble across them at random.

Enlarge Image

Pokemon Go's tracking feature: before and after

GIF by Jason Parker/CNET

It may seem like no big deal, but for some it's changed the game completely. It's now harder and, some would argue, far less fun to hunt monsters. Pikachu, where are you? Don't expect Pokemon Go to tell you.

The only hint that Niantic was changing the rules was a single bullet point in an update for the Pokemon Go app: "Removed footprints of nearby Pokemon." And the only communication that the game was even being updated was a single after-the-fact tweet on the official Pokemon Go Twitter account.

It didn't take long, though, for word to spread among disgruntled players. And that's the problem. The developer behind one of the world's biggest games isn't talking to its millions of fans.

To make a game this big succeed, its creators have to communicate. They need to tell players when the game is changing, and they need to do it days, weeks or even months before they do.

Giving players a heads up isn't just a courtesy, it's common practice. Activision Blizzard tells World of Warcraft and Hearthstone players about changes months in advance. Riot Games, makers of League of Legends, gives weeks of notice.

They fill blogs and social media channels full of their intentions, and often show the community they're listening to feedback by explaining how players' ideas have been incorporated. There's even a job title for such a thing: Community Manager.

But not at Niantic, apparently. Not yet.

The company isn't even talking to journalists. Over the past few weeks, I've repeatedly reached out to Niantic and The Pokemon Company about how the game works, server issues and much, much more. When it's about the game, they decline to comment or don't bother to reply.

That isn't standard practice, either.

So it's no surprise that when news spread Niantic was cracking down on popular third-party apps that also help players find Pokemon, everyone just believed it to be true -- with or without Niantic's comment. For the record, we still don't know if it's true because, surprise, Niantic won't tell us.

Maybe you could argue that a lack of communication has actually helped Pokemon Go attain its current popularity. That's what CNET's Luke Westaway argues in this video:

Watch this: Why Pokemon Go is so popular

And honestly, I have to agree that swapping Pokemon-collecting strategies with my colleagues and friends adds to the fun.

Maybe you could also argue that Niantic is too busy fixing its strained servers and launching the game in new countries to communicate with its community. But Niantic didn't tell us that, either.

So, instead of adding requested gameplay features like the ability to trade Pokemon, battle other players' Pokemon and keep players from crashing cars while playing Pokemon, the game's first major update will be remembered for removing features players actually liked, and without any warning. It's no wonder Pokemon Go players are furious.

What can Niantic do to fix this mess?

Well, talking would be a good start. The company could say that, perhaps, it's fixing some bugs and the beloved feature will be back eventually.

Or, hey, Niantic could just tell us why it changed the game so we're not all guessing what's going on or worrying which feature it might remove next.

For fun, I reached out to Niantic and got no comment.

Then I reached out to The Pokemon Company and Nintendo (an investor and partner on the Pokemon Go Plus wearable) to see if one of them might have a comment on why they don't comment on the game.

The Pokemon Company declined to comment. I'm still waiting to hear back from Nintendo.

I didn't really expect anything different.

Update, August 2 at 8:05 a.m. PT: Late on Monday night, after this story was filed, the game's creators broke their silence at the official Pokemon Go Facebook page. According to the post, the three-step tracking feature was removed "in order to improve upon the underlying design," which suggests that it may return. Creators also now admit to limiting "access by third-party services" because they were "interfering with our ability to maintain quality of service for our users."

If only Niantic had said so ahead of time.