In the ever-shifting landscape of the video game industry, few franchises have managed to remain as consistently popular over the years as Pokemon. More than two decades after its humble debut on the Game Boy, the series is still one of Nintendo’s most beloved and lucrative properties, and that popularity only reached new heights with the release of Pokemon Go. When the game first hit mobile devices in the summer of 2016, it seemed the whole world was once again overtaken by Pokemon fever. Stories of expectant fathers capturing Pokemon while their wives gave birth and athletes referencing the game during competitions dominated news headlines in the weeks and months following its release, and the title itself quickly became one of the most successful mobile applications of all time.
Of course, no game can maintain that remarkable level of popularity forever, and before long, Pokemon Go’s began to wane. Thanks in part to the slow rollout of new content and some controversial design changes, the game’s active user base declined. It still enjoyed a healthy number of active users in 2017. In June of that year, the game had roughly 60 million monthly players–much fewer than the 100 million it had the previous August, but an impressive number in its own right. Still, it was clear the sway it once held over the public had diminished, and gone were the days when you’d see crowds of people stopping traffic just to capture a nearby Vaporeon.
That wasn’t the extent of the problems the game faced in 2017. Its first major live event, Pokemon Go Fest in Chicago, was an unmitigated disaster. The ostensible goal of the event was to encourage players to meet up and capture Pokemon together, but persistent technical issues rendered the game unplayable at the venue. Some attendees even filed a lawsuit against developer Niantic seeking reimbursement for their travel expenses. The entire ordeal prompted the company to postpone several live events that were scheduled to take place across Europe later that summer. Fortunately, future events would go off much more smoothly than the ill-fated Pokemon Go Fest, but it was nonetheless a portentous start for Niantic’s plans.
It’s remarkable, then, just how much Pokemon Go has been able to rebound in the past year. While it would certainly be an exaggeration to say the game was ever running the risk of becoming a flop–even with its decline in active users, Pokemon Go still had millions of players worldwide and was generating millions of dollars in revenue every month–it was no longer the cultural phenomenon that it was the first few weeks after it debuted. Thanks to a regular stream of new content, features, and events, however, Pokemon Go has enjoyed the most success it’s had since launch. This past May, the game had its most active users since summer 2016, and just last month alone, it grossed an estimated $80 million worldwide.
This impressive resurgence can be attributed to the generous slate of updates and new content Niantic has released for the game in 2018. Throughout the year, the developer rolled out new features and hosted numerous events to entice players back to the game. In January, Niantic held the inaugural Pokemon Go Community Day–the first in what would become a series of monthly events that offer players an opportunity to earn in-game bonuses and capture rare Pokemon. Unlike Pokemon Go Fest, Community Days aren’t hosted at a particular location, but rather during a specific window of time, meaning players around the world can go to any nearby park or other gathering place during the designated times and participate. Not only is it easier to take part in Community Days than other live events, each also offers players a chance to encounter a highly sought-after shiny Pokemon and even learn a special event-exclusive move that typically can’t be obtained by other means, providing a compelling incentive to return to the game each time an event rolls around.
In addition to Community Days, Niantic has been introducing new Pokemon to Go much more frequently this year. The first wave of Gen 2 Pokemon–those that originated in Pokemon Gold and Silver–didn’t arrive until February 2017, some seven months after the game launched, while Legendary Pokemon wouldn’t be introduced until later that summer. Since then, however, Niantic has been steadily rolling out Gen 3 and, more recently, Gen 4 Pokemon in Go. This year also saw the arrival of Alolan forms–tropical variants of certain monsters from Pokemon Sun and Moon. On top of that, the developer has been releasing new Legendaries on a near-monthly basis, ensuring there’s always a reason to fire up the app and see what’s new.
Complementing the regular stream of events and Pokemon has been a slew of compelling new features, beginning with a quest system. Now when players spin a Photo Disc at Gyms and PokeStops, they’ll collect Field Research tasks along with the usual assortment of items they’d receive. These tasks can range from catching a certain number or type of Pokemon to making a number of Great throws. Not only do these give players structured goals to aim for as they play Pokemon Go, but completing enough will reward them with a chance to capture a rare or Legendary Pokemon. Alongside Field Research tasks, Niantic also added Special Research to the game this year; these are story-based missions assigned by Professor Willow, and they typically culminate in an encounter with a Mythical Pokemon such as Mew or Celebi.
This year also saw the arrival of some features fans have been clamoring for ever since Pokemon Go first launched. This past summer, Niantic finally implemented friends lists and trading in the game. While there are some restrictions in place for the latter–as of this writing, you can only trade Pokemon with friends in-person–it is still a welcome addition. Most recently, the developer revealed that a PvP system is on the way to the game. Before, players were only able to team up and battle against Raid Bosses at Gyms, but the new Trainer Battle system will allow them to finally compete directly against other players–an option the game has been sorely lacking to this point.
Niantic’s continual improvements to Pokemon Go have helped it stand out as one of the year’s best evolving multiplayer games. But it is its integration into the Pokemon series’ latest mainline installments, Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee for Nintendo Switch, that has truly solidified its importance to the franchise. For the first time, players are able to transfer Pokemon over from Go and use them in a proper Pokemon RPG. Moreover, connecting the two games is the key to unlocking a brand-new Mythical Pokemon named Meltan, which was revealed in Pokemon Go following September’s Community Day, making it the first Pokemon to debut in the mobile title rather than a main game. Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee themselves also take some cues from Go, most notably incorporating its capture mechanics, opening the gameplay up to players who may have been introduced to the series through the mobile game.
Between the release of Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee for Switch and the generous Year of Legendary Pokemon campaign, which saw The Pokemon Company give away a different Legendary Pokemon for Pokemon Sun, Moon, and their Ultra counterparts nearly every month, the past year has been a strong one for Pokemon. But it’s Pokemon Go’s impressive string of updates that have defined 2018 for the franchise. With other new features, such as a PokeStop nomination system, on the way to the game and more generations of Pokemon to be added, it doesn’t appear Pokemon Go will slow down any time soon. Meanwhile, a “core” Pokemon RPG is on the way to Switch next year, ensuring that 2019 will be another big year for the perennial franchise.