Item enhancers are the bigger issue, and where the “to win” part of the equation comes in. Players can give their Pokémon items that grant persistent and sometimes team-wide boosts to health, attack and defense; these items can be leveled up with enhancers, which are purchasable with real money. YouTube personality MoistCr1TiKaL highlighted the issue last week, spending roughly $100 on item enhancers that he then used to boost three items. The result was a series of lopsided victories.
The business model and MoistCr1TiKaL’s video have reignited a debate around “pay to win,” a common business practice in mobile gaming, but not exactly standard for the MOBA genre, and certainly not for a Nintendo Switch or Pokémon-branded game. The phrase “pay to win” is self-explanatory: Players have the ability to spend real money to give themselves an in-game advantage.
I decided to see how profoundly this system could benefit me and spent $100 to buy item enhancers. I now have a level 30 Scoped Lens (30 is the maximum) that increases my critical attack damage and rate; a level 25 Muscle Band that boosts my attack power and speed; and a level 24 Shell Bell that increases my special attack power and cooldown rates, allowing me to unleash powerful moves more often.
I played about 30 matches with this setup. I didn’t conquer in every one. In fact, there were quite a few games where my team got stomped, even if I hit a bit harder and faster. This showed me that teamwork is still a necessary component for victory, and it told me that despite my advantages, my teams were not playing smart enough to win.
There’s no doubt about it: “Pokémon Unite” has a pay-to-win model. It may not meet the exact spirit of the phrase, because “to win,” you still need a well-balanced team of defenders, attackers and support, with everyone communicating clearly and sticking to their defined roles, adjusting tactics when needed. But a coordinated team of five who paid for stat boosts? They will always have the advantage.
Even if a stat boost gives you only a few more seconds or inches of power than the other player, that matters. In a head-to-head fight between two players of equal levels, the player with the higher percentage boosts will likely always win, barring some smart movement or a dramatic outplay. Even if my team didn’t win the game, I often found myself easily winning smaller battles.
More egregiously, players have a weekly cap on how many Aeos Gems — the digital currency bought with real money — can be earned by playing the game. But players who pay real cash can sail right past this cap to get an early advantage. Diligent players will eventually catch up to me and my level 30 Scoped Lens, but it’ll likely take weeks.
Item enhancement doesn’t seem that expensive — until you get to level 20 of that item. Up to that point, level boosts only required five item enhancers. By level 20, you would’ve already used up more than 600 of them. But the climb from level 21 to 30 requires more than 2,000 item enhancers, requiring players to buy the bigger gem packages that run anywhere from $40 to $100.
The game can easily be rebalanced, either by removing the Aeos Gem earnings cap for players who don’t spend money, or rebalancing the item enhancing requirements so the higher levels are more attainable for free players.
“Pokémon Unite” has other important balance issues to consider. Zapdos, the legendary thunder bird, appears in the middle of the arena during the last two minutes of every match. Defeating Zapdos leaves all of the opponent’s goals defenseless. It also arms the attacking team with a total of 110 points to dunk on those defenseless goals. And in the final two minutes of every match, every goal also counts as double, giving the team that beats Zapdos a near-insurmountable advantage, no matter how badly they might’ve been losing for most of the match. It’s a tide-turning game mechanic.
I demonstrated this on Launcher’s YouTube stream last Friday: The opposing team did most of the work to bring down Zapdos, but I managed to run in and steal the final hit, giving my entire team credit for the kill, turning a losing battle into a win.
Despite these issues, I find it impossible to tear myself away from “Pokémon Unite.” As frustrated as I get with every loss, the 10-minute rounds make it easy to return. “Pokémon Unite” is also immediately easier to understand and play than “League of Legends,” which has a reputation for being complicated. It doesn’t hurt that developer TiMi Studio Group, a Tencent subsidiary, seems to be on a quick schedule to release more of the iconic monsters for players to either pay to own or earn through play.
I’m not holding out hope that the game will become a finely balanced competitive masterpiece. “League of Legends” may be the world’s biggest esport, but Pokémon is the highest-grossing media franchise in the world. It doesn’t need to dominate the competitive scene when it’s already captured the attention and imagination of several generations past and present. The game is scheduled for release on mobile platforms, with an audience already accustomed to pay-to-win mechanics, unlike the console-focused Nintendo Switch player base.
But I do hope that some balancing changes are made, and soon. Healthier competition can only improve the game’s life span.