A bustling Starbucks, a wooded trail, a food festival, a popular park two miles from Nintendo of America itself; these are a handful of the diverse locations I’ve attempted Pokémon GO‘s raids, released as part of the game’s one year anniversary celebration. One of the most highly anticipated elements to the game, the raids came alongside a large update to the gym system which saw more gyms added, a PokéStop at every gym, a new badge or level system to increase the rewards doled out by those PokéStops, a new motivation system to replace the previous prestige system, increased Pokémon-type effectiveness, and some helpful limitations placed on the gyms to prevent teams from laying claim to them for too long and to rekindle the competition. These positive changes have had an immediate impact, reigniting interest in the game and improving one of the game’s most forlorn pieces. Unfortunately, the raids, the most enticing and exciting portion of the update, are, in proper Pokémon GO tradition, brilliant in concept but lackluster in application. Raids may give players a reason to pick the game back up again, but, for some, raids are liable to encourage laying the game down for good. Raids bring a long awaited social element to Pokémon GO, now if only there were anyone to play with.
GO‘s raids work much the same as the game’s gym system. Every so often the game will inform players that a raid is beginning soon at a nearby gym. A giant egg will appear over the gym with a countdown timer. Once the timer hits zero, regular gym functionality ceases as a giant version of a rare Pokémon hatches from the egg and takes over the gym for the next hour. Then, rather than tackling the boss solo, like the typical gym experience where a player gradually whittles down the gym’s motivation in the hopes of eventually claiming it and leaving one of their own Pokémon there to defend it, players from all teams from around the area are encouraged to band together with up to nineteen other players to defeat the monstrous Pokémon within the allotted time, all in the hopes of reaping some exclusive rewards and potentially catch a weaker version of the raid boss. The only things necessary to participate are a character level exceeding five and a raid pass, which players can receive for free once a day by spinning the PokéStop wheel at a gym.
Mechanically, raid battles operate the exact same as gym battles, only fought alongside other players present against one large adversary. Tapping the screen results in a player’s Pokémon performing a fast attack, which gradually fills a meter. Once full, player’s can hold down on the screen to perform a charged attack. Swiping results in the Pokémon dodging, allowing incoming attacks to be evaded, making for an engaging enough timing game involving adeptly timed attacks and well timed reads on incoming assaults. Also new is the three minute window which players are given to attack the boss. At different levels, one through four, the monsters encountered vary as do health quantities. Tier one to two bosses can be handled solo by a competent player, and a tier three encounter, though recommended for thirteen players, can typically be tackled by three fairly regular players or even by one strong player, though the true challenge then is the time limit.
Succeeding in defeating the boss nets players a handful of new, exclusive items such as Golden Razz Berries, which fully restore motivation or make a wild Pokémon much easier to catch on the next attempt, Rare Candies, or TMs which alter a Pokémon’s move set. It also grants players a certain allotment of premiere balls dependent upon team involvement and which faction controls the gym amongst a few other things, giving players a set number of attempts to catch that particular Pokémon. These being some of the rarest, most elusive Pokémon in the game, including Charizard, Lapras, Alakazam, and Tyranitar to name a few, Pokémon GO gives players more than enough incentive to participate. Unfortunately it doesn’t give players equal opportunity to succeed.
For whatever reason (money), developer Niantic saw fit to put a cap on the number of regular raid passes a player can hold at a time: one. Assuming a player hasn’t gotten a pass that day and they’re already sitting on another, the game does allow players to receive another after they’ve used their original pass. Players can also purchase an unlimited quantity of “premium raid passes” for 100 Pokécoins, the equivalent of one U.S. dollar. Since players can earn upwards of fifty Pokécoins a day in game, essentially earning a premium raid pass every other day, that’s not all that egregious a cash grab and does allow players the option of buying in in a pinch. However, that does discourage participation to an extent, actively countering the social intentions of the addition. For example, I might pass up a particular raid because I already have the featured Pokémon, am holding on to my daily raid pass in case something bigger and better comes round, or have already used it. In any of these cases, I’m essentially abandoning fellow players who might not have had the opportunity to catch said Pokémon and leaving them one less ally in what is potentially a challenging fight. This might not make an impact in tier one and tier two fights, but three, four and, eventually, tier five fights, which are predicted to be legendary Pokémon, tend to require more players. What’s worse, it’s impossible to tell if anyone is in a raid and joinable, compounding the issue and making me far more hesitant to burn a pass.
The largest flaw with Pokémon GO‘s raids is that it’s simply too challenging to find other players, and the game provides absolutely no tools to assist players in the social arena. Once the raid begins in earnest and the raid boss appears, players have one hour to challenge the boss. That’s a large window of time in which countless players will come and go, and with no way to sync schedules, there’s no guarantee players will encounter one another during their attempts, even in densely populated, urban areas. I tackled two raids back to back in downtown Seattle surrounded by throngs of potential players. Both ended up being solo raids. Again, in a massive park, one of the most popular in the immediate Seattle area, one swimming with people and positively brimming with lured PokéStops, gyms, and my pick of raids, I had no way of telling which raids were being attempted by other players, and, despite picking one with one of the most desirable Pokémon, my attempt was miserable and lonely. With matchmaking times of two minutes and battles lasting no more than three, it’s really no surprise that the true struggle with every raid is merely encountering other players.
The word “raid” brings games like World of Warcraft and Destiny to mind. Raids in those titles are truly endgame material and some of the most riveting, challenging things players can tackle cooperatively. That’s kinda the opposite with Pokémon GO. The recommended player number is way overblown, and typically if the player count matches the tier level, players will have no problem toppling the boss. In fact, bosses often fall faster than a baby taking their first steps. Players in suburban and rural areas might be thankful for easier wins, but when tier one and two raids don’t typically require more than one Pokémon, even when soloed, it’s a little questionable. Perhaps a solution to all of these issues, both social and in terms of difficulty, is raids scaling depending on the player count. That would allow players in suburban and rural areas to actually succeed in some of the tier three and four raids. Or perhaps Niantic could introduce some form of online matchmaking system which partners players fighting the same Pokémon in different places together. The best solution, the one that would actually give the app a true, genuine social element, would be to give players the option to be seen on screen by other players and perhaps allow them to indicate that they’re in route to a particular raid (not while driving, of course!) In conjunction with extending the range of the “Nearby” indicator for raids, players would have a better selection of raids and could prioritize the teamwork required ones more simply, making GO‘s raids the social experience they were always intended to be.
Pokémon GO is the best it’s ever been, and with raids now live, there’s an even wider variety of things to do and experience out on the go than ever before. In true Pokémon GO fashion, the latest update is conceptually promising while the actual product is pretty severely flawed. Raids are a great new addition, giving players even more reason to play than before. Unfortunately, they’re all too dependent on being able to find other players to play alongside. With virtually no way to connect with other players in app, the burden once more falls on the players to either find help externally or just not bother. What should have been a fun, social experience no matter where you are feels a bit too much like another slap in the face of suburban and rural players. There’s an immense amount of promise here, but without continued improvements and care on Niantic’s end, raids are liable to fizzle out leaving Pokémon GO much the same as it was before, popular, sure, but so far from what it could be.