You’ve seen the photobombs in Pokémon GO Fest Chicago, the hot-air balloon at Pokémon GO Fest Dortmund, and the PokéStop takeover near Herald Square in New York City. Team GO Rocket has invaded Pokémon GO, and the arrival of such an iconic part of the Pokémon franchise required fanfare that matched the excitement of the feature itself. Here’s the behind-the-scenes story of what it’s like to adapt one of the most recognizable fictional villainous organizations from the Pokémon world to ours!
Exploration and battle—with a twist!
The Team GO Rocket feature has the same design philosophy at its core as the rest of Pokémon GO: to encourage players to explore the world around them as they catch Pokémon, which is still a key draw for many players. The added element of coming across a Team GO Rocket Grunt at a PokéStop makes exploration more thrilling.
“We wanted to make PvE and PvP have a lower barrier to entry to players,” Tech Lead Manager Jake Jeffery says. We had a keen interest in making Pokémon GO’s battling system more accessible to Trainers who might not be as familiar with it. The type-based minigame for Charged Attacks rolling out at around the same time is no coincidence—the same team worked on both features! Replacing the tapping mechanic for Charged Attacks with a swiping gesture was also deliberately done to ensure players can more easily experience the battle mechanic.
It was important that battling Team GO Rocket was a unique experience compared to battling team leaders or other Trainers, but it was also an opportunity to help Trainers learn more about Pokémon battling. While you technically don’t know what a Grunt’s team is like until you enter the battle, we did include a hint: the Grunt prebattle text tips you off to what type their entire team will be. This teaches players about type effectiveness, which is an essential part of Pokémon battles.
Adapting from the core series with a Pokémon GO flair
“When the idea of including Shadow Pokémon came up, we realized that we had to do it!” Philip La, the feature lead product manager, enthusiastically expresses.
The introduction of Shadow Pokémon and Purified Pokémon was game changing for several reasons. These Pokémon not only give Trainers who are collectors at heart an appealing new challenge to overcome, but the feature also introduces a new method of obtaining powerful Pokémon worthy of the highest appraisals. The process of rescuing the Shadow Pokémon gives Trainers a new way to connect with their Pokémon, too. Instead of having Shadow Pokémon return to their base state, we decided to have them change into Purified Pokémon. At the core of the mechanic, the Trainer’s kindness and respect for the Shadow Pokémon they save is what makes the Pokémon stronger. According to Feature Lead Evan Moran, “This helps the Trainer remember their Pokémon’s journey!”
Evan enjoyed the quirkiness that we were able to bring to the Grunts via their dialogue. Team GO Rocket's dialogue—which amounts to hundreds of lines of text—combines with their poses, expressions, and overall art style to showcase them not only as a recognizable subsidiary of the original Team Rocket but also distinctively as part of Pokémon GO.
“My favorite part of the feature is having NPCs on the map,” said Matt Ein, the lead game designer on the project. “It’s very rare that we get to have other characters on the map.” Appearing on the map alongside our avatars, the Team GO Rocket Grunts actually feel like they’re in the world with us.
Game development is kind of like Victory Road
Trainers know that no Pokémon journey comes without challenges. The same goes for game development! Some difficulties with developing the feature included game balance and visual hierarchy.
Lots of thought had to go into tweaking Pokémon stats, deciding which Pokémon would appear as Shadow Pokémon in this release, and testing how the Purification process would impact the current meta. It helped that the lead game designer for Trainer Battles also worked on the Team GO Rocket feature! Our goal was to make sure that a competitive player’s experience with strengthening and finding powerful Pokémon is consistent and fair from beginning to end.
A tease—a test—that told a thousand stories
The Team GO Rocket feature was first rolled out with an incredibly low appearance rate on Tuesday, July 23, and then slowly withdrawn the next day. The purpose of this teased rollout process was threefold.
First, it was consistent with the marketing campaign at that point, which was teasing the feature’s release. Our campaign was built around the Grunts advancing and retreating all over the world, and we wanted to let players see the same thing happening in-game to build anticipation.
Second, the brief release was a test to balance how the feature would run in a production environment from a technical standpoint. Up until this point, focus groups and internal testing consisted mainly of a few dozen or so Trainers testing discolored PokéStops within a small radius of one another. We needed to test the feature globally to make sure that when it was fully released, it would work as planned. After this test, we were able to adjust the battle sequence to enhance the overall Team GO Rocket experience.
Finally, it was an opportunity to see how the Team GO Rocket feature would be used by everyday Trainers in a real-life setting. If there were unintended uses for the feature, this test would help us catch and correct them quickly. For example, with this test, we discovered there was an unexpected result when trading Shadow Pokémon.
If the trade resulted in a Lucky Pokémon and the Lucky Shadow Pokémon was then returned to its normal state, there was an incredibly high chance the Purified Pokémon would be a four-star Pokémon, according to the in-game appraisal tool. Since finding four-star Pokémon is supposed to be an impressive feat, we decided to remove the ability to trade Shadow Pokémon in order to maintain the balance of the game and avoid devaluing the hard work the players have put into finding four-star Pokémon.
Now...how will Team GO Rocket unleash their evil schemes next?
Your reaction to the Team GO Rocket feature has blown all of us away. To see something we’ve all worked so hard on bringing so much excitement to our players is what motivates us to continue making awesome experiences for you to enjoy. Trainers can look forward to more Grunts to defeat, more Shadow Pokémon to rescue, and maybe even some showdowns with new Team Rocket higher-ups...including one face that might be familiar...
In the meantime—get out there and defeat Team GO Rocket! The world of Pokémon GO depends on you!
—The Pokémon GO team