Home / Featured / The struggles with updates – Pokemon GO

The struggles with updates – Pokemon GO

I work for a small-to-mid sized software company. We make donor management systems for large religious non-profits. So when I say that I understand development, defect resolution, support ticket creation and response, it is coming from a place with a decade worth of experience.

Defects happen. We all want perfection. I wish that was an achievable goal. But let’s be honest, it isn’t. Programs are developed by fallible, imperfect people. Things break despite our best intentions. This should be expected.

And with expectation comes a plan. Our software isn’t going to be perfect. So what do we do when it isn’t? What steps have we put in place in advance of the defect being reported so that, when it is made known, we can address the defect in a timely manner?

The rest of this post is going to focus on those (expected) defects that have surfaced in an app that many of us have come to play and love. We’ll cover what they were, how they impacted us, and what their current status is. With that in mind, I believe that there have been five primary defects that I’d say were pretty universal with Pokemon GO at launch:

1. Game freeze upon Pokemon “capture”

This was probably the most frustrating error for me throughout the first few weeks of playing the game. You found that awesome Pokemon that you’d tracked (back when steps worked, more on this later). You threw one, or two, or three, or more Pokeballs at the little critter, and then this. In the upper-left hand corner of the screen you’d sometimes see a spinning icon…other times nothing at all. But no matter how long you left the app open, you were stuck on a screen simply depicting a sealed Pokeball with your Pokemon inside.

Schrodinger's Pokeball

To make matters worse, that did not always signify an actual capture. Sometimes the capture was successful and you could find the prized Pokemon sitting in your inventory. Other times, though, no dice. No Pokemon caught, no Pokemon in the wild. Better luck next time.

As frustrating as this defect was, I believe it has successfully been squashed. My wife wanted a low-key date night Wednesday evening. My parents over to babysit our kiddos, Wife and I went first to Paradise Bakery for sandwiches, and then to one of the local outdoor malls. You see, there is a spot that you can park and find yourself precisely in the center of four overlapping radii from the nearby Pokestops. We parked the car, fired up our Pokemon GO apps and had a fantastic time chatting with each other and catching Pokemon. 119 captures and just over an hour later we called it, headed home, and relieved the tired grandparents. How many times did my app crash while catching those 119 Pokemon? None. Zero. Nil. Not once.

Status: Defect resolved and bug squashed. Well done, Niantic.

2. Game freezes

I separated this out from the above as it functioned different in form and outcome. Occasionally the app, for whatever reason, would simply lock up and become unresponsive. You could still see your avatar move on the map, but you couldn’t interact with the map in any way, shape, or form. Sometimes, but not always, the rest of your icons would also disappear. Want to check how far you have remaining on your Eggs? Tough luck, you either can’t click on the Pokeball icon at the bottom of the screen despite it being there, or the icon itself simply wouldn’t be present. This seemed to happen to me most commonly on longer walks. Walks to hatch those Eggs. I really wanted to know my progress, as it is stinking hot in Texas this time of the year.

When found out, the only recourse I found was killing the application and relaunching it. This proved problematic the first few weeks after launch, when overwhelming demand on the servers caused logging in to be hit or miss. Kill the app, try to login, failure. Try again, failure. Try again, failure. Meh, whatever, I’ll try again later.

Thankfully this no longer appears to be an issue. Since re-starting play again about a week ago I have not yet had the application freeze and/or become unresponsive a single time.

Status: Defect resolved and bug squashed. Well done, Niantic.

3. The three step bug/tracker update

Wow. What an issue. To be clear, there has been more than one issue that people are commonly lumping together under the “tracker bug.” For those of you reading that played at launch, you’ll remember how the tracker used to work. Pokemon super close by that hadn’t yet appeared on your radar but should showed no steps underneath their image. Those just a tiny bit further away had a single step, scaling all the way out to three steps for those Pokemon that were theoretically in your overall tracking range. That’s what you see happening in the furthest left potion of the image below.

But before diving into the differences, let’s talk about the truly “first” three step bug. Reference the image below, furthest left portion. Note all of those three steps. Those Pokemon, at the time, may or may not actually still be three steps from you. They definitely were three steps from you when they first appeared in your “Nearby” list. However, let’s say you’ve continued moving. At launch, if you moved out of range of a Pokemon and there were no other Pokemon to take their place, that Pokemon stayed on your list.

On more than one occasion I’d launch Pokemon GO before leaving for work and note the Pokemon in the area. Cool, there’s an X Pokemon that I didn’t yet have…but if I spend the time hunting it down I’d instead be late for work. Leaving the app open (but in the passenger seat, out of sight), I’d drive to work and check again there. Unless I closed my app and relaunched it, that very same X Pokemon would still be in my nearby list. Imagine trying to hunt that down. No chance.

Unfortunately, with the way that the “Nearby” list currently functions, I have no way of noting whether or not this particular bug has been fixed. I’d call it a solid “Inconclusive” for the time being.

Pokemon Go steps

That defect may or may not still be around, but Niantic has compounded their problem as time has gone on. I don’t think we will ever know the real reason why they decided to change the “Nearby” feature, but they have. Twice. The first to show all Pokemon regardless of proximity as three steps from you. The second to simply remove the step icon entirely.

Let’s tackle that second change first. I completely understand why Niantic did it. Why show three steps underneath all of the Pokemon when that is not accurate information? Why not simply remove the already faulty display until such time as the “Nearby” feature works again? They have my complete support behind that move. I don’t label that an issue.

However, they need to talk to us. Here is the extent of their announcement as it pertained to the steps:

We have removed the ‘3-step’ display in order to improve upon the underlying design. The original feature, although enjoyed by many, was also confusing and did not meet our underlying product goals. We will keep you posted as we strive to improve this feature.

Among other things that I do for our company is write the marketing copy. I understand PR-speak. I understand the intent of the above communication. With that in mind: Their statement was lacking. Let us know what you have intended, even if it is still on the drawing board. A VP of Operations at a religious non-profit that we partner with put it this way, speaking to our own lack of communication at times: “Give us more information. When you don’t tell us, we fill in the story on our own. Would you rather your story be told, or the story that we come up with?” For a practical application to the above statement, I’ve included an underlined blank space below:

We have removed the ‘3-step’ display in order to improve upon the underlying design. The original feature, although enjoyed by many, was also confusing and did not meet our underlying product goals. _______________________________. We will keep you posted as we strive to improve this feature.

The blank is going to be filled in. Who fills it in is entirely up to Niantic. They could have occupied that space with, “We are currently prototyping other, more informational means of tracking nearby Pokemon.” Or, “Given the popularity of 3rd party apps that do X, we’re considering doing something close to that with Y.” Or even, “This is going to take some time, as the Nearby feature simply will not work in its current iteration with the unprecedented scale of use we’ve experienced. As a result, we’re going back to the drawing board to figure out something better. This feature, or its capable replacement, is coming.” Each of these are better than simply leaving it unsaid.

I’ll be honest, this is the issue that caused me to stop playing for a week. A Snorlax somewhere nearby on my work lunch break? Before? LET’S DO THIS. Now? It is capping out at 105 here in Texas right now. I don’t want to wander relatively aimlessly for 10-20 minutes, completely in the dark as to whether or not I’m headed in the right direction, only to have the Snorlax disappear and re-enter work a sopping, sweaty mess. What do I do instead? Open the App, see if anything immediately pops. No? Walk to the Pokestop that is 120 yards away. Any Pokemon? Yes? Catch them. No, but nearby? Meh. Spin the Pokestop, walk back to my office, drive to lunch.

I started playing again about 5 days ago, having learned of tools like Compass for Pokemon GO and the Pokemon GO Live Map for your desktop. That really re-ignited the desire to play, but both applications stopped working sometime around 3PM Wednesday afternoon due to an API change by Niantic. Said change is outside the scope of this article, however, as it is not a defect.

What is a defect/missing feature is the lack of the Nearby/Tracker working. This is a big deal, and will continue to be a big deal until 3rd party tracking programs are embraced by Niantic, or they get whatever their revised plan for the Nearby feature back up and running.

Status: Not resolved.

4. Automatic curve balls

How many times has this happened to you: You do not alter the motion you use to toss the Pokeball, but suddenly they start curving? This seemed to be particularly problematic with Great Balls and the above. My motion, exactly the same every time, would suddenly default to a wildly spinning ball upon release. And, because the motion was the same, the spinning ball would veer far off course as I was doing nothing to correct for/accommodate the spin. Of all the issues that Pokemon GO had, this is the only one that cause me to throw down my phone in disgust (onto the padded couch, thankfully).

If you never experienced this issue you are likely thinking, “Mike, surely something was different about those throws!” There wasn’t. From day one I’ve used a hand-brace technique with the toss. Step 1: Hold the phone in my right hand. Step 2: Tap and hold Pokeball with left thumb. Step 3:Rather than move my thumb or finger to toss the ball, I slide my left hand up the left side of the phone. The result? Perfect center path, every time. No rotation on the stupid ball.

Yet, despite this technique, and usually only when using Great Balls (or Ultra’s), ZOOOOM off to the right. ZOOOOM, ZOOOOM, ZOOOOM. Switch to regular balls. Straight up the middle. /insertpullingofhairhere.

Thankfully this seems to have been resolved. I used Great Balls on 1/5 or 1/6 of the Pokemon that we caught Wednesday evening (119 if you recall the above). No wild curving. Straight up the middle, every time.

Status: Defect resolved and bug squashed. Well done, Niantic.

5. Transfers sometimes not working

This is another week #1, 2, and 3 issue. You just collected your 237th 10 CP Pidgey. You realize that the remaining 13 free Pokemon slots are filled with Rattatas. Whatever are you to do? Transfer those Pokemon away, of course! Make room for non-crap Pokemon! Sure, let’s do it. Click on the Pokemon, scroll to the bottom of the screen, wait for the little map to load showing where you caught it, and then hit the transfer button hoping that you didn’t hit the cancel “X” button instead, causing you to repeat all of the aforementioned steps. Annoying, right?

Pokemon Transfer Error

Not nearly as annoying as when you’d do all of the above, and encounter the above error. Worse, you’d have to click “OK” and then find out whether or not you still had the Pokemon whose transfer errored. Still there? Great, transfer again and hope it doesn’t error. Not there? Hmm…calculate number of candies. Do you have the right amount? Usually, but more than once I appeared to lose both Pokemon and the candy.

I did my first in a while mass “Transfer and Evolve” Wednesday evening. Not once did I encounter an error in the transfer process, with roughly 100-115 transferred. Very encouraging.

Status: Defect resolved and bug squashed. Well done, Niantic.


I’m not sure if you were keeping score throughout the article, but Niantic is up 4-1 on my “Big 5” list of issues. Random freezes? Fixed. Pokemon catch freezes? Fixed. Random curveballs? Fixed. Defective transfer option? Fixed. Nearby/Tracker option? Not fixed.

You’ll note that I did not address things like the exponential XP mountain that requires climbing as you advance in level, or the increased capture difficulty, or <insert other item here> that is often brought up. Why? Because those aren’t defects. Those appear to be design decisions. Pokemon GO is a free-to-play game, and I’m proud to say that I haven’t spent a single penny on it. But it is clear that Niantic wants us to do so. This isn’t unique to Niantic. Every maker of free-to-play games desire for their players to spend money on them. Micro transactions are a fact of life for F2P that simply can’t be avoided.

How do you solve the exponential XP mountain? Buy Lucky Eggs. How do you overcome the increased capture difficulty? Buy Pokeballs. Those are the pieces put in place as answers to the intentional design decisions. Do I like the answers? Not necessarily. But remember, I work at a software company. I understand the reasoning. Niantic is a for-profit company. They want to make money. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

It bears repeating: You don’t have to spend money to play the game. I haven’t. My wife hasn’t. My brother hasn’t. My friends haven’t. We’re all able to play the game just fine.

In summary:

The staff at Niantic are probably still in shock at the unprecedented popularity of Pokemon GO. It set records for App downloads and installs that likely will not be duplicated. And, in the same way that World of Warcraft opened the door for gaming to be “okay” and not something “niche”, I feel that Pokemon GO has set the stage for other Augmented Reality Games to become a normal occurrence. Yes, Pokemon GO was not the first ARG out there, not even the first released by Niantic. WoW wasn’t the trailblazer either, with Ultima Online and others released years before.

I can easily imagine a scenario where 5-10 ARGs are released in the next 12-18 months. Some will be better than Pokemon GO. Some will be cheap knockoffs. None of them will rise to the same popularity that PKGO achieved the first month of its release. The phenomenon will simply not be repeatable.

Where does Pokemon GO and Niantic go from here? Without improved, timely communication? The only direction possible is further down, despite the fixes to major issues that Niantic has been diligent at applying. With improved communication and a fix (whatever form that might take) to the Nearby/Tracking feature? I’m honestly not sure. Can they lure a rabid fan base back that have quit in some percentage out of frustration? Can they bring back that compulsion for me to pull out my phone and load the app anytime I move about? Can they publish a roadmap of new features and functionality that is achievable, believable, and realistic? I don’t know.

Niantic? Ball is in your court.

About Mike

Christian. Husband. Father. Writer. Gamer. Sports enthusiast. I have many interests that don't naturally overlap, but love to discuss them all.

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One comment

  1. Quick update on the increased capture difficulty. Niantic’s latest communications imply that this may indeed be a defect. If that’s confirmed, we’ll get that added to the list.