Pokémon GO | Feature

Pokémon GO | Mega Diancie Image

In a lot of ways, the PokéDollar in Pokémon GO stops with Michael Steranka. He is the Live Game Director for Pokémon GO over at Niantic, Inc., and he is one of the people in charge of pulling off Pokémon GO Fest each year in multiple cities across the world.

I was able to sit down with him during Pokémon GO Fest 2023 in New York City to talk about everything from the current meta in Pokémon GO‘s PVP, how Pokémon GO Fest locations are selected, the introduction of Vivillon and Meltan into Pokémon GO, the limitations placed on remote raid passes, routes, and more.

You can see my thoughts on this year’s Pokemon GO Fest: New York City here.

You can follow Michael Steranka at his official X account.

You can also find out the latest happenings in Pokémon GO at the official website, on X, on Instagram and Facebook, and on YouTube

Finally, you can follow Niantic Inc. on their official website, on YouTube, on Facebook and Instagram, on X, and on TikTok.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Operation Rainfall: My name is Quentin H. with Operation Rainfall, and you are?

Michael Steranka: I am Michael Steranka, live game director for Pokémon GO.

OR: We are here in Randall’s Island Park in New York City for Pokémon GO Fest 2023. There are a lot of people who are ticketed for this event and there are debuts of new shiny Pokémon. Are the shiny rates boosted for this [in-person] event? Or not?

MS: They definitely are. Players who are here in New York City, both on Randall’s Island and the rest of the city – as long as you have a ticket, you’re definitely going to enjoy some nice shiny Pokémon coming out of this event.

OR: You recently released a new feature called “Ready to Raid.” What have the testing results been like for it? Will it be expanded to one-and-three star raids, so solo players don’t have to wait the full time to run the easily-soloably one-star raid by themselves?

MS: The results have been really positive so far. Obviously, with a feature like this, we really want to monitor the impact that it has on our servers, but we also want to make sure that qualitatively, players really enjoy the feature and it’s not causing some unintended UX challenges for folx. That’s why we soft-launched it in a couple of markets earlier this year.

We also made it available for all of our in-person GO Fests – Osaka, London, and now New York [City] – and we’re happy to say that things have been really, really positively received on this front. So no news to explicitly announce on the global rollout of this, but things are looking good – let’s just put it that way.

“I don’t have anything to share on the Paldean Pokémon specifically, but just know that with a new generation comes new Pokémon, and with new Pokémon comes new shakeups.”

OR: Let’s talk about Pokémon Worlds last weekend. It wrapped up in Yokohama this last weekend, and I’m going to give you some statistics from it. Out of the top 32 competitors: 28 ran Medicham, 21 Lanturn, and 20 Altaria. Each of those top 32 players ran at least one of the three, and 12 players ran all three.

You’re a Legendary [ranked] player yourself in every season, which you [again achieved and] announced on X fairly recently. The meta is pretty well defined right now, and you just saw that at Yokohama. How does Niantic view this type of meta? Is there a desire to shift this meta at all? Should I bother competing in League if I don’t run Medicham with maxed out XL candy?

MS: Yeah, great question.

We take a look at the metagame in PVP as something that is always fluid. We never want it to get stale, we never want it to always boil down to the exact same Pokémon for everybody. So, every season in Pokémon GO, we try to release major move changes – whether that’s adjusting the parameters of existing moves, giving new moves to new Pokémon, or even launching new Pokémon that can shake things up quite considerably. When we look at the breakdown of teams at the World Championships, there definitely was a high concentration of certain Pokémon in a lot of teams – particularly Medicham, which was prevalently used.

I personally don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. When you look at other Pokémon competitive games, like the VGC and whatnot – in years past, you’ve seen things like Landorus being pretty much on every single player’s team. There’s ways that Pokémon can help centralize and solidify metagames, and that often times is what you kind of want when you’re designing these things ‘cause it gives you something to counter, right? The metagame that you can counter.

If a game is waaaaaaay too distributed, that can actually lead to a little more unhealthy team building dynamic, where you have no idea what you’re trying to build against and what you’re trying to build for, versus having a little bit of coalescence around some key strong Pokémon.

That being said, if you look at the top two teams – that placed first and second – there’s actually 12 unique Pokémon that were brought across those two. So, it does allow for quite a bit of diversity and play, even in the current meta. That being said, we are definitely going to have a pretty big shakeup next season, as I alluded to on steam at the World Championships.

Pokémon GO Grand Finals at Pokémon Worlds 2023 in Yokohama, Japan. 

OR: With [Pokémon:] The Trading Card Game, they rotate out expansions, so you’re literally dropping new set of cards [in]. With the video game, The Pokémon Company has been on a yearly release schedule for quite awhile now, and they rotate out the entire game. You really can’t just drop all the Pokémon in Pokémon GO though.

MS: Yeah, you can’t drop all the Pokémon, and we also never wanted [you] to feel like you invested so much of your time and resources into a Pokémon and then it gets completely nerfed out of the metagame. When we make big shifts, we typically are trying to make other Pokémon more relevant, and we never want something to fall from the top three usage to the bottom 100 in the game. But GBL is very different from something like the World Championships.

The World Championships series – you are allowed to bring almost every Pokémon that has been released in the game, but in GBL, we give players a lot more opportunities for creative teambuilding by having condensed metagames. Things like Evolution Cup or Catch Cup – the different Leagues you can participate in as well. So hopefully, across all of those different things, players find that they’re able to come up with really fun, unique teams and still find success in the GO Battle League.

OR: Follow-up: When you’re introducing a new Pokémon, such as Paldeas Pokémon in September, how important is PVP when designing the move and TM pools, spawn rarity and all that? Everything else that goes into releasing a new Pokémon – where is PVP[‘s importance]?

MS: We don’t think that every single Pokémon released needs to be a top performer in PVP, but every time we release a new batch of Pokémon, it is an opportunity for us to take a look at that and determine ‘[d]o we need some sort of shakeup right now?’ I don’t have anything to share on the Paldean Pokémon specifically, but just know that with a new generation comes new Pokémon, and with new Pokémon comes new shakeups. It’s not just going to be the move changes that we make at the start of the next season. You’ll see Pokémon get introduced throughout the season, new moves being introduced through Community Days that will also keep things fresh through the course of the three months.

Paldeas Region Pokémon will be coming to Pokémon GO in September 2023.

OR: When you’re introducing a new generation of Pokémon, what type of access does The Pokémon Company give you? For example, with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, did you have access to that slate of Pokémon to get a jumpstart on them before those games came out? Or are y’all playing catchup?

MS: We have a really tight collaboration with The Pokémon Company out in Tokyo. I can’t really speak to the nitty-gritty about how early or late we get access to upcoming Pokémon, but I am happy to share that nothing is an afterthought, right? We work very, very closely. There’s nothing that goes out in Pokémon GO that The Pokémon Company isn’t aware of. We work very closely with them on all facets of the game. Whether that’s the release cadence of new Pokémon, or how we’re spec’ing out new features in the game, to what kinds of live Ops we’re building on an on-going basis. So it’s much more of a tight-knit collaboration than you might expect.

OR: Meltan, and its evolution [Melmetal], was a Pokémon GO initial release. What was that experience like working with The Pokémon Company for that?

MS: That was, honestly, one of my favorite things I’ve had the pleasure of working on in my entire time with Pokémon GO. It was the special tease that we were able to do during the Chikorita Community Day. At that point, we had never introduced a new Pokémon in Pokémon GO before, and so it was a huge opportunity to surprise players. Many players thought it was actually a glitch at the time – ‘[w]hat the heck is this thing we’ve never seen before, it doesn’t have a name?’

After the Chikorita Community Day wrapped up, Meltan started to appear everywhere before anyone had ever seen it. If you tried to catch it, it would turn into Ditto unfortunately. *laughs* But it was such a fun tease that it was a really delightful moment for players. You know, I hope we can do more [of it] in the future.

Pokémon GO | Meltan and Melmetal
Meltan requires 400 candies in order to evolve into Melmetal, and both debuted as a Pokémon GO exclusive Pokémon. The art above shows multiple Meltan surrounding its evolutionary form. (Image owned by The Pokémon Company).

OR: Was introducing a brand-new Pokémon the Pokémon Company’s idea to bring to the game, or was it y’all approaching them to bring it in?

MS: As I mentioned, we have such a tight collaboration that we’ll do brainstorms that it’s not necessarily one company to the other, but something that we jointly bring to life.

“I hope that even you can agree that when you’re able to meet the community, to come out to a GO Fest like this, these are experiences that no other game can provide.”

OR: Let’s talk routes: How’s that going for you?

MS: Routes has been such a truly Niantic mission-centric feature. It’s one of the hardest features we’ve ever built, because – as you can imagine – there are so many considerations that go into what types of routes get approved to be put into the game. We want to make sure that they’re interesting, that they’re safe, that there’s no abuse going on from player-to-player anytime there’s a UGC component added to things.

So, the rollout has definitely been one that we wanted to not take lightly, and we wanted to make sure that the initial set of routes out in the game are quality ones that we can stand by. And now we’re really starting to ramp up and make sure that there’s a broader set of routes out in the world that anybody can participate in.

OR: What criteria does [Niantic] look at when they reject a route or when they approve a route or later revoke it? What kind of things trigger that?

MS: To be honest with you, that’s probably not one that I can answer with authority. I haven’t been as heavily involved in the production of that feature and the moderation set there. That might be something I have to pass on, I’m sorry.

Pokémon GO | Routes Explained in Pokémon GO
Routes, a new feature in Pokémon GO, allow players to design and set up walking paths for other players to follow throughout the community. (Image owned by Niantic, Inc.).

OR: For those of us who cannot make routes yet, like yours truly, and don’t live in an area where there are routes, have you explored ways for us to get cells?

MS: Zygarde cells?

OR: Yes, Zygarde cells.

MS: As of right now, Zygarde cells will be exclusive to routes. Definitely hear the challenges that players might face if you don’t have access to routes where you currently live. We’re trying to expand the access to be able to create routes. That’s something that’s only going to spread further and further. So [we] definitely ask for some patience as we get the system solidly in place. The rollout is not something we want to take lightly, right? We definitely don’t want there to be bad routes or unsafe routes or routes with descriptions or points that could harass other players or things like that.

I know that it maybe has been rolling out a little more slowly than some players might be hoping for, but just know that’s because we’re taking it very, very slowly and we want it to be a good experience once you do have access to it.

Pokémon GO | Zygarde Cells on Routes
Zygarde Cells (as seen above), which tie into the recent Pokemon GO Special Research “From A to Zygarde”, allows Zygarde to change from one form to another inside Pokemon GO. (Image owned by Niantic, Inc.).

OR: You did an interview back in May 2023 with ZoëTwoDots, and you said: “We believe that by having these experiences that you have to go out to fully enjoy, you’re able to enjoy the game and the world around you so much more than any other video games can provide.”

You addressed the issue that I’m about to bring up on The Battle Catz Podcast last month with remote passes and XL candy, but I want to expand beyond that with the Pokédex and raids: I live in an area where there is not a Pokémon GO community, and I have to travel 40 minutes to raid. This [Pokémon GO Fest] is the first time that I’ve raided in several months. I otherwise have to depend upon Remote passes to participate in raid hour. I’m fairly limited in what I can do when it comes to catching new Legendary Pokémon – and even the Niantic Campfire app is incredibly limited within my area.

Looking at that quote that you gave in that May 2023 interview, how should I be able to fully enjoy the raid aspect of the game and hope that I can get a second shiny Uxie? Because I organized my own raid in September when the [Lake] shinies came out in New Zealand and England – and I cannot do that now. How do you balance your aspirational beliefs against my practical gaming experiences?

MS: That’s what it is, right? It’s a balance at the end of the day. I guess what I would say to that is that we made an explicit decision to not remove remote raid passes from the game, right? You are limited in how many you can do per day, but based upon the raid rotations that we have and how long they are available for, my hope is that players are still able to engage with that aspect of the game.

But yeah, we did make the call to put limitations in place, because what we saw was that ended up being the primary way a lot of players were playing Pokémon GO, and it was just antithetical to what we believe this game is intended to do. We really stand by that. I hope that even you can agree that when you’re able to meet the community, to come out to a GO Fest like this, these are experiences that no other game can provide. And that’s where we really see the strength of Pokémon GO and that’s what we want to continue to lean into as we develop the game further.

OR: A feature that is incredibly useful is that you can ‘lock’ a Pokémon from being traded by pressing the Star icon on the top right. Have you considered a feature to custom lock a Pokémon from being purified, leveled up, traded, etc – so, say, a certain journalist cannot accidentally purify a second shadow Pokémon while playing half-asleep one evening?

MS: *laughs* That’s actually really funny. I did another interview yesterday where the exact same feature was suggested. This is definitely one that I’ll bring back to the team. Everything, unfortunately, is subject to prioritization and what we do in terms of a quality-of-life feature like that takes away from resources that can be used to build a brand-new system in the game, as an example.

So, no promises that that will be specifically addressed, but hearing it twice in two days is something that I want to make sure that I take back to the team.

Continue Onto Page Two To Find Out About Implementing Vivillon, Michael’s PVP Teams, and how Niantic Selects Sites for Pokemon GO Fests! ->

Quentin H.
I have been a journalist for oprainfall since 2015, and I have loved every moment of it.