Pokémon GO, like any number of games similar to it, can feel like two games at times. There’s the beginning, when the world is fresh and new, and there’s the endgame, where discovery turns to grind and we start to think about what it will be actually like to play this game over months and years. In Pokémon GO, that happens at level 20: it’s a long way from the hard cap, but this is when things slow down. It’s when you can start reasonably competing in gym battles, and it’s when the experience required to level up starts to skyrocket. And while it has got some issues, I’ve got to say I’m loving it.
The endgame has come under a lot of criticism recently. One of the first players to hit level 30 painted a bleak picture of a soulless, dutiful grind. Paul Tassi called it spirit crushing. It’s true, there’s not as much to do, and that is a problem. But I’ve actually started having an even better time with this game now that it’s slowed down. I’m no longer bombarded with new information and systems to learn, and I’m starting to get the hang of the ones I do have. Things are relaxing a bit, and that means opening up.
Most importantly, my Pokémon are starting to mean a little bit more to me. Now that things have slowed down I have a sense that these creatures are going to be with me for a little while, and they no longer have the disposable quality they did when I was constantly finding more powerful versions out in the wild. I’ve finally started giving the little guys nicknames, and I’m starting to think more about actually building out my team.
My Pokédex, too has slowed down quite a bit, and that lends more weight to the new Pokémon I discover. The game throws a whole lot of creatures at you very quickly in the beginning, and it sometimes feels like the Pokémon are devalued a bit as a result: this is not the case when you’ve spent two weeks collecting enough candy for a Poliwrath. It feels like an accomplishment in a way that the early game didn’t.
I should say that I’m a pretty committed free-to-play mobile gamer overall, whether I’m tapping to kill Rancors in Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, tapping to expand my base in Clash of Clans, or tapping to grow crops in Farmville. In all of these games, the endless grind is actually a feature, not a bug. There is something relaxing about making small progress towards a far-off goal that isn’t quite present in this game until it slows down. Pokémon GO‘s real world conceit dovetails perfectly with that idea.
Pokémon GO still needs more endgame activities. We need ways to trade and challenge our friends, we need daily activities to lend a little structure to my morning Pokéwalk and, ideally, we eventually need AI battles to plant some long-off goal posts to work towards. Nearby tracking absolutely needs to work as soon as possible, and the rural game needs a lot of work. But the situation is far less dire than the core set makes it seem. Level 20 is the point at which it looks more like a free-to-play mobile game, and you’re either going to like that or not.