One of the stranger things about the rollout of Pokémon GO last year was that the game arrived and there was no PvP or trading in the game, two social components of the handheld series that were absent in the mobile version that also wanted to be a very social game.
It seemed like an odd oversight, and Niantic kept bringing it up as something they wish they’d gotten here sooner. And yet, here we are a year and a half after launch, and while new features continue to arrive, first raids, now weather effects and increased AR capabilities, the basics, PvP and trading, remain absent and seldom talked about.
The last time I can remember Niantic touching on this was when John Hanke commented on it in February of 2017, almost a full year ago now. Here’s what I said in the piece then:
“PvP and Pokémon trading are features that may have already been in the game if not for all the server trouble Niantic had to fix near launch. The truth is many delays of major features may be because of those initial problems, but Niantic believes fixing the fundamentals were important before moving on. But both trading and PvP are "on the way."
Hanke also went on to call the gym battling system “rudimentary” and something he would like to correct in the future. While gyms themselves did get a rework, battling itself has remained largely unchanged even through three generations.
So what’s going on?
Ultimately, I think Niantic may have realized that these items may not be very high on their priority list after all, or the priority list of fans, at least with the game in its current state. And to the point made a year ago, Pokémon GO is still “fixing the fundamentals” and many of the fundamentals are still lacking to support both PvP and trading.
I’m not sure I see the point in PvP for Pokémon GO right now. The battle system is incredibly well, rudimentary, as Hanke said, and I don’t think player versus player matchups would represent an addition of something significant to the game in this form as there’s frankly, very little strategy or skill involved in battling right now, at least compared to other similar games in the genre. The most difficult combat content in GO at the moment are raids, and that’s mostly about getting enough people together to smash down an ultra-high CP boss. I also just don’t know if Niantic is up for live server-side battles, given how much the game can still struggle with even automated fights against AI. Combine technical challenges with the realization that PvP wouldn’t really add all that much to the game in its current state, and I can see why it’s slipped down the priority list.
The same goes for trading, but for different reasons.
Right now, one of the primary problems with Pokémon GO is its lack of an endgame. Well, it has one, but only one, collection. There’s no Elite Four to beat, no Team Rocket to take down. The only goal is to fill up your Pokedex, and catch high IV Pokémon along the way if you’re into that sort of thing.
The problem with introducing trading when collection is the only goal of the game is that it would quickly destroy what little endgame GO does have. If suddenly you do not need to explore the wild to find those final 5 Gen 2s you’re missing, and can just trade with a friend or stranger for them, you’re no longer motivated to keep playing the game once you snag them the easy way. Similarly, why bother traveling abroad or waiting for special events to catch regionals if you can just trade for them? Or why slog through Legendary raids if you can pay $3 for a Zapdos or Groudon on the Poke-Black Market? I’m half-joking, but not really, as if any popular game introduces trading between strangers, something like that will emerge. At this point, trading would likely cause more problems than it would solve for Pokémon GO, even if it was a staple of the handheld game. GO is a totally different experience which right now, has only a singular goal, collection. Create a shortcut for that and the health of the entire game is in jeopardy.
The only way I can see PvP or trading coming to Pokémon GO anytime soon is if a very restricted version of each could be made. Say, you can casually challenge your IRL friend who is standing right next to you to a quick battle (though even that would require a friending/player detection system the game doesn’t have yet). No prizes, nothing complicated, just for fun. And your friend’s Pokémon would probably be AI controlled so the server doesn’t have to handle a live battle. For trading, again, maybe there’s system where you can trade with a friend in close proximity in person, but there’s a list of banned Pokémon including legendaries and regionals you can’t transfer between you.
And if PvP and trading are reduced to that, is there really any point to them at all?
Pokémon GO has bigger challenges on its hands to worry about PvP or trading right now, however “fundamental” they may appear to Pokémon as a series. GO is just not the same game as the handhelds, and until it becomes more similar to them, it has other priorities it needs to work on first.