19 Jun 2018 18:22 IST

Pokémon Go Case

Pokémon Go’s dilemma with cheaters

How would you revive user interest in Pokémon Go, that has potential to be a 20-year franchise?

In October 2017, Niantic Labs CEO John Hanke said that Pokémon Go had the potential to become a 20-year franchise. However, by the end of 2017, the developers of Pokémon Go found themselves in an unenviable position. Not only were they struggling to retain and grow their user base, they also had to contend with players who used various cheat apps to complete the game, thereby demotivating other players from continuing with the challenge.

Pokemon Go
Pokémon Go, a location-based mobile game released on July 6, 2016, created a sensation in the mobile gaming industry by earning a total of $1.2 billion in revenues and registering 752 million downloads by June 2017, according to Apptopia, an app intelligence start-up based in Boston. Its total revenues for 2016 were $950 million. The augmented reality-based game was available in 45 countries.

Pokémon Go was a joint venture of The Pokémon Company and Niantic. According to a post from the Pokémon Go website, “On July 8, only two days after the app’s release, it was already installed on 5.16 per cent of all Android devices in the US.” By the first week of August 2016, Pokémon Go had generated about $1.6 million in revenues per day and had crossed 100 million downloads. The game was the also largest grossing game in the history of mobile applications with an estimated value of $36.9 billion by 2016.

Mammoth early success

Its revenues exploded after the game was released in Japan, increasing from around $75 million to $200 million in less than 14 days . Pokémon Go also earned seven times the net revenue in its first month that ‘Candy Crush Soda Saga’ earned in its first month. Pokémon Go used the smartphone’s camera to show Pokémon in the player’s vicinity that had to be collected to cross certain levels of the game.

To collect the different Pokémon, the player had to walk around in the real world. Pokémon Go used computer-generated sensory inputs to display virtual Pokémons in physical, real-world environments. The character in the game moved as the player did in the real world.

The aim for the player was to become a master Pokémon trainer by battling in the gyms and collecting all 151 Pokémon. To play the game, the requirements were a smartphone with a camera, fast internet data connection, and the global positioning system (GPS) enabled.

After tasting mammoth success initially, Pokémon Go started struggling to retain its users in mid-2016. Data from media measurement and analytics company comScore showed that Pokémon Go’s daily active users had dropped significantly from 28 million in July 2016 to 5 million by December 2016 ( see Graphic). Analysts attributed the fall to different reasons, such as server maintenance issues, the game getting increasingly harder as a players went up levels in the game, and so on. Niantic was in the process of resolving these problems.

Bots and spoofing to game the system

Niantic had to tackle the problem of cheaters who used bots and spoofing to finish all levels of the game. Spoofing is a process where someone uses hacks to successfully falsify location or identity. The bots could play the game for a cheater, automatically catching Pokémon and even battling in the gyms, while the cheater sat in the comfort of their home.

If players played Pokémon Go legitimately, they had to invest a lot of time and money on travelling to catch the Pokémon and hit level 40. However, players using bots could quickly level up and race ahead, violating the rules. For instance, a Reddit user _problemz claimed he had hit the maximum level of the game (level 40) in July 2016, to become the first player in the world to do so. Later, he admitted he had used a bot to reach that level.

GPS spoofing was another hack that duped Pokémon Go into thinking a player was moving when they were not. Players could indulge in spoofing by feeding false GPS location data to the Pokémon Go app, either by ‘rooting’ their smartphones or through third-party apps available on Google Play store, such as tracking maps that told people what creatures appeared in a given area.

Rooting is the process of allowing users of smartphones running the Android mobile operating system to attain privileged control over different Android subsystems. Spoofing of Pokémon Go became so common that websites like The Daily Dot explained how to do it, though they did not advise players to spoof.

Anti-cheating measures

Such unsporting behaviour was a matter of concern for other players as they were at a disadvantage and suffered from feelings of loss for not being able to use such apps. These players criticised Niantic for not doing enough to curb the cheaters. Niantic confirmed in the latter part of 2016 that it would ban any account that appeared to be cheating. Niantic said, “After reviewing many reports of in-game cheating, we have started taking action against players taking unfair advantage of and abusing Pokémon Go. Moving forward, we will continue to terminate accounts that show clear signs of cheating,”

Niantic employed anti-cheating measures in 2016, like the ‘soft ban’ that prohibited cheaters from catching Pokémon for a day. However, with the ‘soft ban’ strategy not proving a big deterrent, Niantic revealed in May 2017 that the cheaters would be ‘shadow banned’, which meant they would be able to see only the most common Pokémon as the company would flag cheaters’ accounts.

Niantic also intended to hire bounty hunters who held a Ph.D in Laptop Science with a thesis in machine learning, or thesis grounded in machine learning strategies in different engineering or science fields. Their job was to monitor the massive amount of data that flowed into Pokémon Go every day. Niantic also tried to detect and discourage cheat app developers, but such third-party services soon managed to circumvent the checks the company carried out to detect them.

Thus far, Niantic had warned that the use of cheat apps would lead to a permanent ban or temporary suspension from the game, but had stopped short of taking hard measures at a time when some other game developers had blocked accounts and even taken legal action against cheaters. The company was worried that clamping down on cheaters might further lose it users at a time when Pokémon Go was already losing steam. But if it did not take action, it risked demotivating and alienating other genuine users.

The assignment

Consider yourself a part of a cross-functional team at Niantic Labs tasked with rejuvenating and building up the user base of Pokémon Go.

· What steps would you take to arrest the decline in consumer interest in the Pokémon Go game?

· What measures would you put in place to discourage the cheaters?

· What would you do to leverage Pokémon Go’s potential to become a 20-year franchise?

(Debapratim is Associate Dean & Head, Case Research Centre, ICFAI Business School, Hyderabad, where Vinod Babu is a Research Associate.)