Niantic is updating Pokémon GO and other titles to support indoor gaming

Niantic, the development company behind popular AR mobile games Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, is adapting its titles to support at-home gaming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Typically, Niantic’s games have encouraged people to go outdoors, explore their world and connect with others in real life as they played. But with government lockdowns and home quarantines under way, it’s no longer safe to play these games as originally intended. 

The company says it will now prioritize making changes to its AR titles to allow people to play inside and around their own homes.

For example, Niantic’s Adventure Sync function will now track your indoor steps as you do things like run on a treadmill, clean your house or make other indoor movements and activities. It’s also enhancing the games’ social features to allow friends to stay in touch virtually, and soon take on Raid Battles together while staying at home.

Instead of discouraging virtual movement inside the game, as Niantic has in the past, players will be able to virtually visit and share memories about their favorite real-world places. And this summer, Niantic will re-imagine its plans for live events to allow players to participate without having to leave home.

These updates aren’t just those made for the consideration of players’ needs during this time of crisis — they’re also necessary changes to ensure Niantic continues to operate both during the pandemic and beyond.

Niantic’s live events have driven big business to the cities that hosted them — nearly $250 million in tourism revenue in 2019, it once said. It also served as a mechanism to drive its own revenues and keep players engaged over time. The plan had worked — Pokémon GO has continued to grow, even though it’s not the hyped-up global phenomenon it was at launch. Last year was its highest-grossing year ever, a report from Sensor Tower found, as the game pulled in nearly $900 million in player spending in 2019. Much of the revenue was due to the game’s significant updates and real-world events, the report noted.

These latest updates aren’t the first changes Niantic has made in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. It had already modified gameplay in Pokémon GO to encourage users to stay inside — including by rewarding players who caught their Pokémon while inside, for example. It also just launched a new form of gameplay called the GO Battle League, which can be played from home, with reduced walking requirements and discounted select items so players wouldn’t have to walk as far to catch Pokémon, among other things.

In Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, the company increased the amount of content that’s near players on the map, so they could progress in the game without traveling far. Potions were also tuned to support people playing from home.

And in both titles, gifts were adjusted to include more helpful content throughout each day.

In Niantic’s first game, Ingress, it has made a few changes, too. Ingress Portals are now tuned to encourage at-home play and it has reduced the need to interact with multiple Portals. Several other changes make it easier to play the game without having to walk around as much.

Niantic has not yet gone so far as to fully eliminate the use of outdoor walks as a means of gameplay, however. Instead, it still encourages people to get outside — in areas where it’s permitted by local authorities to go for walks.

Though Niantic had made earlier changes to its games due to the outbreak, today’s announcement represents a more formal strategy for its business. It also lays out a detailed roadmap of what Niantic has in store. Not all its new features are live. Instead, Niantic says they’ll roll out in the “coming days and weeks,” without committing to an exact time frame.

“We created Niantic with a mission to help people get outside, exercise, and explore the world, with the ultimate goal of helping people connect with others. Today we support a global community of hundreds of millions of people who look to our games for regular entertainment and an opportunity to get outside and connect with friends,” said Niantic founder and CEO John Hanke, on the company blog.

“We have always believed that our games can include elements of indoor play that complement the outdoor, exercise and explore DNA of what we build. Now is the time for us to prioritize this work, with the key challenge of making playing indoors as exciting and innovative as our outdoor gameplay,” he added.