Now that the generalized Pokémon Go craze has subsided, the more captivating effort to catch ‘em all may be game developer Niantic’s ongoing battle against cheaters. Its latest evolution: Not banning bad actors, but banishing them to poké-purgatory.
As detailed by Pokémon Go enthusiast subreddit The Silph Road, a recent Pokémon Go update targets players who use bots to trawl the globe for valuable Pokémon. In case you forgot how Pokémon Go works, a quick refresher is that it’s an artificial reality game that forces players to move around in the actual real physical world to find Pokémon and train them to fight. People who let a bot automate that process are not just cheating, but sucking the fun out of the game. As of last week, many of those lazybones found popular spawning spots populated not by high-value monsters, but by boring Pidgeys and such. In practice, it’s like hunting for lions and finding nothing but squirrels.
In a broader sense, the escalation speaks to the difficult balance developers like Niantic have to strike between controlling their games and becoming overly draconian. It probably also says something interesting about what really constitutes cheating in the digital age. But honestly, it’s mostly just hilarious.
Cat and Mews
Niantic had already taken several steps to stop the scourge of cheating on the game, including a mass ban of accounts last August. The apparent target at the time? Players who used third-party software to send spoofed GPS locations to Pokémon Go servers, giving the appearance of walking around in the real world without actually having to get off the La-Z-Boy recliner.
That purge appears to have been effective. Popular bot services like Necrobot and MyGoBot have since shut down. So, too, have popular scanner apps, like PokeSensor, which build maps of where to find nearby monsters to make acquisitions even easier.
By contrast, this latest ban doesn’t boot pokéculprits altogether, opting instead to drown them in a sea of Rattatas. The enforcement appears so far to be sporadic, but has still prompted several bot operators to log off until they figure out a way around the punitive purgatory.
“As bot accounts (which power ‘scanners’) are being flagged, some scanners are only able to show common species,” writes Silph Road moderator dronpes in a thread outlining the changes. “Others have shut down temporarily, pending a workaround to the anti-botting measures, to preserve their accounts from being shadowbanned.”
It’s not clear why Niantic has downgraded its response, though the company certainly gets kudos for trolling its misbehavers. It did, though, confirm the technique in a statement.
“People who violate the Pokémon GO Terms of Service (including by using third-party software and other cheats) may have their gameplay affected and may not be able to see all the Pokémon around them,” the company writes, declining to specify the techniques it deployed to catch cheaters. Which makes sense; as soon as the bot-runners know what triggers the shadowban, they can adjust their tactics accordingly.
As Silph Road’s dronpes notes, though, the ratcheted up security adds another wrinkle to the constant back-and-forth Niantic engages in with Pokémon Go’s dedicated ne’er-d-wells. The shadowbans appear to be administered on a rolling basis, rather than in one giant swoop, indicating that the process may be automated and, given that Niantic’s been hiring machine-learning engineers, capable of evolving along with the threats.
And though yes, it’s mostly just silly fun that Niantic has started feeding its Pokémon Go gluttons a strict sawdust diet, it’s also a reminder that while the game has faded from its initial frenzy, it’s still a very big business.
Catch ‘Em All
The decline in Pokémon Go interest became a punchline last summer, as the game’s user numbers fell off a very steep cliff. (Between August and September of last year, according to analytics company Apptopia, Pokémon Go shed nearly 20 million monthly active users.)
But the number of people overall playing Pokémon Go doesn’t matter nearly as much as the number of hardcore people who spend big money on coins and leveling up. These kind of people have kept Pokémon Go revenue remarkably high over the last several months. According to Apptopia, the game took in over $6 million in April alone. App analytics company App Annie pegs Pokémon Go‘s first-quarter haul at $40 million, and that’s after Apple and Google take their cut. It was also good enough for the sixth-highest revenue app across Google Play and the iOS App Store.
The scourge of bot-based cheaters threatens to upend those economics. Players who don’t leave the house, and in fact don’t even necessarily play the game, but let a bot do the finding and capturing for them, don’t need to make in-game purchases. They can level up without purchasing as many coins. And by artificially inflating their Pokémon stats, they can make it impossible for honest Poképlayers to compete.
Pokémon Go’s cheat problems extend beyond bots. There’s a whole world of exploitative activity that plagues the game’s dedicated fanbase, and potentially discourages new players.
Despite the adage, cheaters sometimes prosper. In the ongoing battle over Pokémon Go, though, they’re at least now stuck sorting through the pocket-monster equivalent of pennies. Hopefully that gives by-the-book players a chance, before lazy sharks bring Pokémon Go to a full stop.