With the advent of PvP, Pokemon GO resembles a “complete” game. It was the last core feature to be implemented, and it should’ve been in the game to begin with, had Nintendo not forced Niantic into an early Summer 2016 release. Yet the feature has not met expectations. Just a small fraction of the player base partakes in PvP battles seriously, and if not for the chances at Sinnoh Stones, many say that they wouldn’t do PvP at all. This article aims to address the core problems plaguing PvP from a dedicated player’s perspective.
I’ve played Pokemon GO since July 2016, amassing 116k catches in the interim. I’ve also played the main series Pokemon games since 1998, dabbling in online simulators such as Netbattle and Showdown. By no means does this article reflect the opinion of a casual player.
Or rather, the lack thereof. Full disclosure: I have a second device and a second account that I win trade with to get the PvP rewards. This beats posting a message to my local Discord and waiting for a response, if I even get one. The most basic entry barrier of all is finding someone else to fight.
PvP in Pokemon GO has a steep entry barrier for players interested in building serious teams. Despite its simple mechanics, PvP has metagames that revolve around specific Pokemon, and building a team requires at least 3 iterations of the following process:
Finding the desired species. This is time and resource intensive if you care about IVs.
Powering up, maybe evolving, and teaching a second Charged Move to the Pokemon.
For formats like the Silph Arena monthly cups, this whole process can cost upwards of 300k stardust per month (plus candy and Charged TMs) to build a team of 6 Pokemon. This is unsustainable for me, a reflection of the dedicated side of Pokemon GO’s player base. Good team building is inaccessible to most players. Those who can afford to pay for extra Charged Moves have a huge advantage.
Though some are satisfied with being the very best, most players are driven by incentives. The best incentive of all is fun, though the jury is still out on whether that describes PvP. It depends on whom you ask.
Beyond enjoyment and victory, there is no incentive to take PvP seriously. There is no way to show off your PvP prowess (aside from bragging in your local community, which I’m sure goes over well). There is no benefit to winning; you get the same Sinnoh Stone, Rare Candy or 500 stardust no matter what you do.
Niantic has shown in its first balance patch that it can change move parameters or give Pokemon new moves on a whim, which creates a dynamic metagame. This is good, but it also means that Pokemon can be instantly invalidated with a move nerf or a metagame shift. Not only would one be spending a lot of resources for little incentive, but that investment could turn out to be completely useless anyway.
It’s worth pointing out that stat changes, CP calculation changes, and league rule changes could all have a similar effect of invalidating Pokemon optimized for use in the Great or Ultra Leagues. One such example is Mantine, whose HP has not been increased in accordance with a Gen 7 stat change.
PvP has been heavily criticized since its inception by casual and dedicated players alike. A common complaint is a lack of depth, especially in contrast to main series Pokemon. Many players opine that if only PvP were a bit more complex (with say, status effects, stat changes, and abilities), then it would be more appealing.
I argue that complexity is not PvP’s core problem, though stronger mechanics would help. Its greater shortcomings are a lack of accessibility and incentives. Finding a match is tedious, building a team is expensive, winning is pointless, and investments might become worthless. In its current state, PvP is a means to grind out stardust and Sinnoh Stones.
Pokemon GO can look to the main series for inspiration. There’s a matchmaking system to facilitate wi-fi battles. Building a team is relatively easy with breeding mechanics and Hyper Training. You can climb the wi-fi leaderboard with rated battles. Because team building is easy, you don’t lose much if a Pokemon falls out of favor. And for those of us who want a quick fight with no strings attached, there’s Pokemon Showdown, a battle simulator with essentially zero entry barrier.