There’s no question that Niantic is hard at work adding new feature after new feature to Pokémon GO, from Halloween Updates to Daily Quests and they may even be planting the seeds for Gen II Pokémon to arrive in the not-so-distant future.
However, there’s one aspect of the game they keep diminishing, taking things away instead. We are now at the point where it is more or less functionally impossible to play Pokémon GO when moving at a relatively high speed, be it biking, driving or riding public transportation.
At first, the ability to disable certain features at higher speeds made sense. For instance, obviously Niantic wanted to make it so that you couldn’t just drive around and hatch eggs within minutes, so distance calculation wouldn’t tally at those speeds.
But then, Pokémon stopped spawning regularly at driving speed. Then Sightings stopped working most of the time.
Now? Niantic has now made it impossible to interact with PokéStops at a certain speed. There is literally almost nothing you can do with Pokémon GO if you’re going faster than a brisk run. And that’s terrible, particularly as we’re about to head into the winter season in many regions where walking around outdoors to play a phone game is almost impossible.
Obviously it’s a terrible idea to play Pokémon GO while driving, but as a passenger in a car, cab or Uber, or on a train or bus, it was a great game to play, grabbing what Pokémon you could on the fly, and spinning a load of PokéStops as you raced around a city, or rode on a loop to the few that were nearby you. It wasn’t perhaps the ideal way to play, but it worked, and many players got used to it.
This slow decline now ending in the apparent removal of PokéStops is a bridge too far for some, especially as it gets cold and playing while inside toasty transportation would be more appealing than ever.
Still, it’s pretty easy to understand what’s happening here. Niantic is sacrificing this feature entirely to prevent any semblance of liability when it comes to driving-related Pokémon GO accidents. It’s clear that the “I’m a passenger” notifier isn’t enough legalese to cover themselves, so now by disabling all these features, they’re simply able to say “Your honor, no part of our game is designed to function above a certain speed,” and they’d be right.
I have not heard any reports of driving fatalities where the driver was playing Pokémon GO. I have heard of car accidents, so I suppose it was only a matter of time until there was one, so here we are. Niantic has to jump through a lot of legal hoops (I heard Japan is demanding the game disable Pokémon spawns on roads after a pedestrian fatality), but this is clearly its plan to eliminate culpability for any driving-related offenses.
Pokémon GO is a massive hit, so in addition to possible genuine claims against Niantic due to accidents, they might be trying to protect themselves against fraudulent ones in the future. “Oh I was playing your game while driving because it’s more efficient and I crashed and now you owe me $10 million for pain and suffering.” Things like that.
The problem is that Niantic hasn’t talked about any of this opening, leaving fans to simply discover for themselves that these features are gone, and guess at the motivations. I have reached out to Niantic directly to see if they will comment on the exact reasoning behind the now total elimination of “high speed” play, but I haven’t heard back yet. (Update: Here is Niantic’s response to my inquiry, acknowledging they did this purposefully, but not expanding on the reasoning: “We are always looking for ways to improve our products. Among other updates such as daily bonuses, this week we made an adjustment in Pokémon GO that makes Pokéstops inaccessible when a player is at driving speed. We want to once again thank our loyal players for their continued support.” I would argue most would say that does not “improve” things, but there you go).
It’s hard to know what to make of all this without knowing the exact details and the letter of the law when it comes to something like that. Pokémon GO isn’t just any mobile game that could theoretically be played while driving, it uses a specific GPS component to require the player to move around outdoors to PokéStops and spawn locations to play. I don’t know if that sets it apart legally somehow, but Niantic’s lawyers must certainly think so, because there can’t possibly be another reason they’d be doing this.
It’s obviously bad for the players who’d like to continue playing Pokémon GO when they’re traveling in some other way besides walking. There are clearly plenty of ways to do this safely as a passenger, but to eliminate the possibility of playing while driving, all other potential travelling situations have been put in the chopping block as well.
However, given that GPS can be prone to glitches depending on where you are, often the game thinks you’re in high speed mode by jumping around too quickly, and now because of these new rules, it effectively shuts the game down for a short while until it can recover. And that affects everyone, not just those trying to play in a vehicle.
It’s pretty clear that Niantic is aiming to kill non-walking play for good. I don’t know if they’re being overly cautious at the risk of alienating their playerbase, or if this is genuinely something they need to do for legal reasons, but it’s obvious they’ve made their choice. Bundle up, and get to walking, I suppose.