'Pokémon Go' Prepares For Its Next Evolution with Battle League Season 1

What? Pokémon Go is evolving?!

What began as a simple AR experience to simulate the feeling of catching Pokémon in the "real world" has become so much more. Now players can trade, battle Team Rocket and even capture Legendary Pokémon in Raids.

This week, Niantic is ready to unleash the Pokémon Go Battle League, a competitive PVP mode that lets trainers from around the world fight one another in real-time battles to move up in rank and earn prizes.

Starting March 13, the first Season of the Pokémon Go Battle League runs just short of two months and offers players of various skill levels a chance to compete.

"We're proud of the way the game has gone. Fundamentally, we treat Pokémon Go as a sort of AR fantasy," Matthew Slemon, Product Manager for Pokémon Go told Newsweek. "We made [good on] the promise of 'what if Pokémon were in the real world alongside us?' Battles, Team Rocket, Snapshot... All this stuff is intended to further that AR world. And there are more options for players, whether they are interested in battle or not. We're happy with the way the game has evolved over time."

pokemon go battle league season 1 interview
Niantic

THE EVOLUTION OF POKEMON GO BATTLING

Real-time battling has been a highly-requested feature since Pokémon Go launched four years ago, but, as Slemon points out, PVP was always in the cards. It was just a matter of timing and getting the feature "right."

"I can actually point people towards the original announcement for Pokémon Go. I think that's a good illustration of what the team envisioned Pokémon Go could include, and PVP was in there. So I think from the outset we always thought we'd do something with PVP. We had to figure out what's the right way to make it feel right and [create] a system that still rewards that outdoor aspect of Pokémon Go that makes people want to interact."

The Pokémon Go team now feels they have that system, but it took some time and its own steady evolution process.

Battling in Pokémon Go began exclusively in Gyms where trainers could fight AI-controlled Pokémon of other trainers. By tapping the screen, Pokémon would attack using a Quick attack to build up energy to unleash a more powerful Charged attack. Trainers could also swipe their fingers to have their Pokémon avoid attacks. This feature would migrate to Raids, where a group of players would fight one "boss" Pokémon in real-time.

This system became the base for battling in Pokémon Go, as developers looked for ways to improve it. They made it a more cerebral game with the implementation of a set number of shields to block charged attacks and added mini-games to strengthen moves and keep players engaged throughout the battle.

"I've always been a fan of PVP and competitive games in general, so I think it's really cool for us to evolve the basic gym system to where combat is now, where you're playing-mini games and using the protective shields," Matthew Ein, Senior Game Designer said. "To say, 'oh I think those guys can use a super effective attack on me I should probably block it;' all these mind games."

The Pokémon Go team also adjusted how certain attacks function in the game, adding effects and changing the amount of damage they deal. The implementation of a second charged attack has given Pokémon more offensive options and plays into the mind game ingrained in the real-time battles.

To Ein and the rest of the team, making sure the Go Battle League is still accessible is a top priority, but he didn't rule out that more mechanical changes to PVP could come down the line.

"What we knew we wanted to do is build a form of Pokémon battles that was really accessible," Slemon explained. "So one of the reasons we steered away from doing something like a turn-based system is the number of decisions that you can make is sometimes fairly small. And understanding why one choice that plays out over 30 seconds is the correct or incorrect choice [can be difficult]. Sometimes it's hard for players to understand or frustrating, and so we wanted to bring a little bit more of the intuitiveness of real-time to our battle system.

"I think we tried to keep a lot of what makes Pokémon, Pokémon - being very focused on type matchups. But we wanted to make it also feel somewhat intuitive. So if it feels right when you tap your Pokémon attacks or making it so the charge games feel like there's something dynamic and engaging, as opposed to waiting for your opponent to make a decision. So I think that's a lot of the philosophy that went into it. We wanted to feel like the battle system itself was engaging and always sort of asked you to be thinking about the battle."

POKEMON GO PVP LAUNCHES

First introduced in December 2018, real-time battles in Pokémon Go let trainers take on nearby opponents or approved friends. Players were also able to take on the leaders of the three Pokémon Go teams to practice their skills and earn items.

The real-time battles were taking off enough that an invitational was a part of the 2019 Pokémon World Championships.

Ein, who was at the three-day event last August, was happy with the response to the invitational.

"It was really eye-opening, but there's so much passion behind this, and it was really heartwarming to see that the people who were there for the trading card game and for the main series game were so welcoming to us," Ein said.

With the Pokémon Go Invitational behind them, it was time to look toward launching the Battle League.

A preseason began at the start of February to test a variety of aspects like connectivity and balancing before the Go Battle League would start. For weeks, trainers battled with others around the world to gain experience and provide insight to developers.

"There's lots of feedback that we got, and we've been trying to figure out what we want to address immediately [and what] we can address a little bit later," Slemon said. "The first set of things we're looking to address are technical issues, trying to keep a handle on why things aren't working and trying to get fixes out for those as soon as we can."

From a gameplay perspective, Slemon says they hope to respond to feedback on the ratings system. The team wants to make it more clear why a player ends up at a certain rank, and they hope to address the feeling of it being too "hard" to rank up.

Currently, participating increases your Pokémon Go Battle League Rank, starting with Rank 1 and ending with Rank 10. Each Rank has different requirements to progress based on the number of battles and victories.

POKEMON GO IS STILL A WALKING GAME

The main feature set of Pokémon Go involves players going outside and walking, and that philosophy is still evident in PVP. Players will have five "free" battles each day, but can unlock five more by walking three kilometers - down from five kilometers when the preseason first began. This number continues to grow even if players haven't used up their five battles previously. In other words, they are always working, or walking, toward their next set.

"We're fairly happy with three. That three to five range still feels right fundamentally," Slemon explained. "The important part for us is that people can't sit at home and battle all day. That's what we wanted to avoid, because that's not really in line with what the value of our game is."

With Pokémon Go being a game so focused on real-world interaction, the current coronavirus global pandemic has changed the mobile game in some areas. Countries like Japan, Italy and South Korea have had certain in-game events changed, but Slemon doesn't see the Go Battle League being affected by the illness.

"For now we see this as a unique situation. We don't see the coronavirus affecting the launch," Slemon said. "But if we feel the situation gets important enough, we hope players don't feel the need to risk their personal health, because Pokémon Go is a game about being healthy. For now, the countries that are most affected have special settings set up so that they feel they have things to do without feeling the risk."

GO BATTLE LEAGUE LAUNCH & FUTURE

With weeks of preseason play data, the Pokémon Go Battle League is ready to launch.

Players who have tried it out from the beginning or are jumping in now can enjoy this feature in a variety of ways. The first implementation is the League's three-tiered system through which Pokémon can fight. Separated into Great, Ultra and Master Ball League, each division boasts a different pool of Pokémon to viably choose from based on a Pokémon's Combat Points (CP). While there are Pokémon that have emerged as favorites in some Leagues, the meta will remain fluid.

"[The meta] is something we're constantly keeping an eye on. The way we set up leagues is pretty good for having a diverse cast of Pokémon," Ein explained. "I can use some legendary Pokemon like Dialga or Kyogre in Master League, but then only see Swampert or Whiscash or something like that. If you have a favorite Pokemon, you can at least try and fit it in somewhere in one of these Leagues."

Slemon reiterates that type matchups are key in Pokémon Go PVP. Rayquaza, a powerful Legendary Pokémon, can still be taken out by a non-Legendary Ice-type because of its weaknesses. It's those interactions that teach players how type matchups sometimes supersede raw power.

Pokémon Go also helps players with certain in-game events like Community Days. These timed events offer certain Pokémon exclusive attacks that are fast and powerful. Players have already seen the effects of it, with many fully evolved Starter Pokémon like Swampert being used frequently.

Ein himself uses a Swampert, Skarmory and Meganium team and ranked in Great Ball League during the preseason - no Legendary required.

As for the future of the Pokémon Go Battle League, don't expect a team preview or selection feature like the one seen in VGC.

"For Battle League we actually deliberately didn't choose a system like that. We believe the battles are quick enough that if we increase the battling by 50 percent with a system like that, it would actually end up slowing down the feature and being less fun overall," Slemon said. "That's the balance we are trying to strike, making sure Go Battle League is accessible, fun and quick and easy to play is the top priority. I think for tournament play in the future, we might revisit systems that are a little bit more competitive instead."

So what can you do to get started? Well, just playing helps.

"Try it out. [Playing] doesn't cost anything to get started. You're already walking to play Pokémon Go, so you're already there," Slemon said. "Just trying it out and using a bunch of different Pokémon, getting through those first few ranks, which only requires you to play matches. It doesn't even require you to win, so [keep] playing around, getting a feel for it and even getting some rewards as you go. It's the best way for people to get started."