Where's that Pokémon?

Continuing with the pokémon theme this week we're going into part three of my series on Pokémon Go. Today we'll be discussing how the pokémon locations are determined. If you haven't read my last couple posts on Pokémon Go I recommend checking them out! While they aren't necessary to understand the concepts we will be discussing today, they will help to give a broader picture of the game and how individual functions work. They can be found at:

Part 1 - Basic Pokémon Go

Part 2 - Pokémon Go: Gym Battles

Now, let’s dive into how I believe the pokémon locations are determined. A disclaimer if you will, the only way to 100% find out for sure how it works is to ask Niantic how they did it. What I am presenting here today is based on my observations and discusses how I believe it to work. While their system is much larger, I have attempted to miniaturize it and discuss it in a smaller more manageable version. I hope by doing so the concepts will be more approachable and less daunting. With that out of the way, let’s get to it!

The Grid:

Imagine a grid over Los Angeles, like this:

Within each section of the grid, the player can see up to nine different pokémon. The player can see which pokémon are within their grid space via checking the nearby section of the app.

These pokémon might be in F2 (in the square with Museum of Contemporary Art), while in G2 there is a whole different set of pokémon. When a player moves to a different grid space, different pokémon will populate in their “Nearby” page.

Side note: The pokémon also seem to cycle in and out based on time elapsed. Each pokémon will disappear after a certain amount of time has passed.


But how do they decide which pokémon will be in each grid space?

Enter a random number generator! For simplicity sake, I’m going to use only five pokémon in my example.

Now imagine you have a twenty sided dice. You’re going to roll the dice nine times, and those nine dice rolls will determine the nine pokémon in the K1 grid space. You can try this exercise out using the grid as follows:

Just from looking at this chart you can see a few things:


●      25% chance the pokémon will be a Pidgey

●      25% chance the pokémon will be a Rattata

●      25% chance the pokémon will be a Zubat

●      10% chance the pokémon will be a Growlithe

●      5% chance the pokémon will be a Goldeen

●      10% chance there will be no pokémon

(If you don’t have a D20 lying around, you can check out WIZARD'S DICE TOOL and use their digital dice)

Try it out! Roll the dice nine times. What did you get?

My rolls are:

4, 1, 2, 17, 20, 1, 5, 13, 4

This means that the 9 pokémon in K1 are:

1.     Pidgey

2.     Pidgey

3.     Pidgey

4.     Growlithe

5.     Nothing

6.     Pidgey

7.     Pidgey

8.     Zubat

9.     Pidgey

As you can see the results are random, but there is a higher chance of certain pokémon appearing over others. If we were to check a different space, we’d see different results. Maybe we’d find a space with mostly Zubats instead of Pidgeys.

So how does geography affect pokémon placement?

Let’s say, for example, we go to the pier. Now we’re over water, so there are more water pokémon appearing. How has our chart changed? Let’s take a look:

As you can see from the chart, things have changed. Now we have:

●      15% chance the pokémon will be a Pidgey

●      5% chance the pokémon will be a Rattata

●      15% chance the pokémon will be a Zubat

●      5% chance the pokémon will be a Growlithe

●      50% chance the pokémon will be a Goldeen

●      10% chance there will be no pokémon

Now, if we run our simulation with the updated chart, what do you get? I got:

2, 8, 16, 17, 2, 10, 6, 16, 19

This means that the nine pokémon in the space with water are:

1.     Pidgey

2.     Goldeen

3.     Goldeen

4.     Growlithe

5.     Pidgey

6.     Goldeen

7.     Rattata

8.     Goldeen

9.     Nothing

As you can see, while on land we had more Pidgeys, Rattatas and Zubats, but Goldeen rains supreme by the ocean. This is because there is a higher chance of Goldeen appearing based on the player's proximity to water. It’s safe to say then, if the player were near a volcano for example the number of Growlithes would increase just like the number of Goldeens increased when the player was near the water. Because of the random number generator, it is possible to find an area that has no pokémon, or even only one kind of pokémon. Though this is unlikely because Niantic is working with 150 different pokémon instead of just five.

Is it possible to catch any pokémon at any location?

I believe so. I know it sounds crazy, but at times I’ve found Goldeens and Goldducks in the middle of downtown L.A. miles away from the water. I think the possibility of a Goldeen showing up though is so miniscule that it will almost never happen. While our example used only 20 slots to choose pokémon from, Niantic’s would be using hundreds of slots resulting in some pokémon appearing less than .001% of the time.

Side note: Imagine you lived in the middle of Kansas with your dog Toto. What if a super rare pokémon to the area, like Venasaur, popped up? You’d race towards that Venasaur. This is the kind of effect they’re creating in players by allowing pokémon to appear anywhere just at an incredibly small probability. Players’ excitement will be rekindled again long after the initial excitement has dwindled because of this rare find. Additionally, they may have done it this way to simulate wandering pokémon who maybe got lost.

So, what factors cause the chart to adjust?

Niantic has come out and said that there are a couple of factors which influence pokémon appearing:

●      Location - Geography and location on the planet

●      Time of day - different pokémon come out at night than during the day

●      Pokémon rarity - how rare is the pokémon?

So, your location at midday might cause you to run into more Pidgeys, but at night the chart readjusts and there may be a higher chance of Growlithes.

Now that you understand the basics of how pokémon are distributed, we’re going to add one additional layer, common, uncommon, rare and legendary. This is actually a third factor, which influences which pokémon appear. Common pokémon, like Pidgeys, will appear in greater numbers than an uncommon pokémon. Uncommon pokémon will appear in greater numbers than rare pokémon and rare pokémon will appear in greater numbers than legendary pokémon. To help you visualize the distribution of these kinds of pokémon, check out this chart:

Side note: This is assuming the legendary pokémon are not attached to public events. Though the commercial for Pokémon Go made it seem like they were.

The distribution of pokémon rarity might look like this, with considerable amounts of common pokémon vs. the other types. Then we’ll see a few less uncommon pokémon and even fewer rare pokémon, with the legendries being almost nonexistent.

This affects our chart by adjusting the rarity of pokémon. For example, we know we’ll find more water pokémon near the water, as you can see in the slots listed as Goldeen in our charts above. If we expand to add more pokémon to the mix, you’re still going to see more Goldeens than you would a Blastoise. This is because Blastoise is a rare pokémon and Goldeen is common. There is a greater chance of Blastoise appearing because the player is closer to the water. But due to the rarity of Blastoise there may still be a higher chance of the player encountering a Pidgey instead.

Side note: The best way I can think of to explain it is a little more technical. Each pokémon already has a percentage of appearing based on their rarity. The system checks the location of the grid space. From the environment/geography, the chance of a pokémon appearing adjusts by increasing or reducing the percentage based on if the area is near water, or in a city, near a volcano, etc. The system will then select nine random numbers and select the pokémon for placement in the world. It then selects nine random locations within the single grid space to place the pokémon. This is why three different people can all see the same pokémon at the same space.

For those who like math, a simple algorithm for pokémon chance of spawning might look like:

Pokémon rarity x (D + G) = % Spawn chance

·       D = Day/night cycle modifier

·       G = Geographical modifier

Most of the pokémon would be less than 1% because there are 150 of them.

But what about incense and lures?

Pokémon can’t move independently in the world. They are tethered to the global system. Additionally, when two players are using incense at the same time, which way do the pokémon go? What about ten players?  Because of this, and that pokémon can’t move towards the player who is also moving across grid lines, it causes too much confusion and stress on the system. So incense actually creates a virtual space around the player spawning in additional pokémon. This is why when I activate incense; someone next to me won't always see the same pokémon I do. It is also why sometimes I’ll see rare pokémon that my friends standing right next to me can’t see. Additionally, there is a check to see if the player is moving. When the player is on the move more pokémon will appear for the player. You can tell incense specific pokémon by noticing a slight purple glow when they appear on the map.

Lures on the other hand are stationary. They work similarly to the incense; the space around the lure spawns an additional set of pokémon, acting as it’s own grid space. Because it is tethered to a stationary position and not player specific all players can see these pokémon. Due to this benefit of attracting pokémon for all players, we oftentimes see players congregate around lured pokestops. This helps to bring players together and creates a sense of community.

I hope this post has helped you to think about how Niantic distributes pokémon across the world. Like I mentioned before, this is based on my research I’ve conducted and I may be wrong. The only way to know for sure is to ask the designers at Niantic. Do you agree? Do you think I missed something? Let me know in the comments below and we can discuss it further. Next week we've got one more Pokémon Go post. After that, we'll continue on to other games.

I’ll see you guys next week,


Basic Pokémon GO!

Pokémon Go has a daily player base nearly the size of twitter’s. I think it’s safe to say there has never been a mobile game quite like this. Because I want to talk about the systems in place behind the scenes, I’m going to be splitting this post into two parts. For this week, we’ll talk about the basic functions of how the game works, and we’ll touch on finding the fun. We’re taking it slower because a lot of the information online has been incorrect and I want to set the record straight before proceeding. Next week, we’ll focus on the underlying systems at play; this includes the economy and Pokémon locations being affected by geography as well.

How to Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go is a mobile game, which utilizes your GPS location on the planet earth. As a player travels around the world, they will encounter different Pokémon based on their geography, which I will be exploring in greater detail next week.


As players encounter Pokémon, they can catch them by selecting them in the world map then throwing poke balls.

Players throw poké balls via a flicking motion starting from the poké ball and traveling up the screen.

Upon hitting the Pokémon with the ball, the player will have a percentage chance of catching them based on a few factors, which we’ll get to a little later. If the Pokémon is caught, the light turns off and “Gotcha!” is displayed, otherwise they will burst back onto the screen and players will have another chance to catch them.


How can I improve my chances of catching Pokémon?

There are a few ways. First, you need to understand the circles. If you tap and hold on the poké ball, you’ll notice a ring decreasing in size on the Pokémon. This is how Niantic shows the player’s chances of catching the Pokémon.

This image was pulled from SeriousPokemon’s video on how to throw a nice, great and excellent Poke ball and can be found HERE

The greener the circle is, the better chance the player has of catching them. The redder the circle is, the harder it will be for the player to catch the Pokémon. Players can reduce the redness of the circle via feeding the Pokémon or using more powerful poké balls, like the Master or Great balls, to increase their chances of catching the Pokémon.

The other way players can improve their chances is more skill based. When the circle shrinks, it creates a smaller target. If the player hits the target when it is at it’s largest, it will say “Nice!” and their chance of catching the Pokémon will increase. At about half way to the circle’s smallest point, if the player manages get the ball inside of it, the message “Great!” will appear, and further increase their chances. If the player throws their ball and hits the target at its smallest, it will say “Excellent!” and even further raise their chance of catching the Pokémon. Needless to say, it is best to always try to get it in the circle while it is at its smallest.

Upon capturing a Pokémon, a player is given experience, Pokémon candy, and stardust. Stardust is used to raise a Pokémon’s CP (Combat points, all you need to know is higher is better). Pokémon candy is used to raise a Pokémon’s CP and evolve them. The player’s trainer experience allows the player to level up the Pokémon to higher CP. This is similar to the badges in the original Pokémon games, as you’ll be able to use and attract stronger Pokémon as the trainer’s level rises.

You mentioned attracting Pokémon, is there an easy way to do that?

Well, players can search for them wondering around the world. Another way is to use items. The two major attraction items are incense and lures. Incense will attract Pokémon to you, and only you, as you walk. Thus you’ll have a higher chance of encountering that rare Pokémon you are looking for in the area. You can see some of the Pokémon in the area via the “Nearby” screen.

The feet at the bottom tell the player about how far away a Pokémon is. The less feet there are, the closer a Pokémon is. While this typically does show all the Pokémon in the area, sometimes, while using incense or lures, other Pokémon will appear as well that don’t show up on on the nearby screen. Also, if you notice the order in which the Pokémon are appearing above, the closest one is always in the top left corner, the next furthest in the top middle, etc.


The other way to attract Pokémon is to attach a lure to a poké stop. A lure will attract nearby Pokémon to a poké stop for all Pokémon trainers for 30 minutes. You can tell a poké stop has a lure attached by looking for ones with confetti flying out of them.

This route is good for if you’re not going anywhere for a while and are nearby a poké stop, or if you want to help a friend out catching Pokémon nearby.



So I get how to catch and attract Pokémon but what about all these gyms I keep seeing?

First the player will need to be trainer level 5. Then they'll need to choose team Mystic. (I’m kidding, they can choose any team they like.) Once they’ve chosen a team, it’s time to either support or take over their local gym!

If the gym color matches their team color:

Then they're going to support the gym.

In this kind of gym battle, the player is allowed one Pokémon, which they will use to attempt to defeat all the current Pokémon in the gym. For every Pokémon the player is able to defeat, they will gain trainer experience and they will raise the gym’s prestige.

Notice the Gym’s prestige highlighted.



When a gym’s prestige is high enough, another slot will open in the gym designated by this button:


The player can then add one of their Pokémon to the gym.

Side note: Don’t worry about your Pokémon in the gym when you are battling them. If you defeat them, they will automatically heal, unlike the Pokémon you used to challenge the gym that will only heal when you use potions. Also, you should put a Pokémon into every gym you can because you’ll get bonus rewards such as stardust and coins. We’ll elaborate more on that in the rewards section.



If the gym color does not match the player's team color:

Then the player is going to try and defeat the gym and take it over.

In this case, the player gets to take six Pokémon with them. They will then battle one by one against the Pokémon in the gym.

Pro Tip: You can see the gym’s line up by looking at the Pokémon stationed there. They will appear from weakest to strongest. You can also rearrange your order by tapping on your Pokémon in the pre-fight screen. Plan against their weaknesses!

For each Pokémon in the gym that is defeated, the gym will lose prestige. The player will more than often have to defeat the Pokémon at the gym multiple times to lower the prestige to 0 and make it available to be taken over.

Pro Tip: While it is tempting to put your strongest Pokémon in the gym, it is recommended that you do not because then you won’t be able to defeat the Pokémon and increase the gym’s prestige.

When it is ready to be taken over it will be gray and look like this.


Okay but then what about rewards?

Well, aside from the most obvious reward of Pokémon, players receive a variety of rewards based on their actions.

  • For catching Pokémon: Players are rewarded with stardust, trainer experience and Pokémon candy. If the Pokémon has not been caught before, the player will be rewarded with additional stardust and experience.
  • Transferring a Pokémon will convert the Pokémon into candy. This can be done via selecting a Pokémon and scrolling all the way to the bottom of their stats page, then select transfer. The player will lose this Pokémon so it is advised to make sure they wish to transfer it before they do.
  • For hatching an egg, players are rewarded with a common, uncommon, or rare Pokémon based on if the egg was 2K, 5K, or 10K respectively. Eggs are hatched after being incubated while walking 2K, 5K or 10K. Eggs can be found via navigating to the Pokémon screen and swiping right. Incubators can be equipped by selecting an egg, selecting start incubation and selecting the incubator you wish to use.
  • Evolving Pokémon will net the player trainer experience as well. The player will gain additional experience if the evolved Pokémon is one that has yet to be caught.
  • Holding a gym: Once per every twenty-one hours, players can redeem rewards for holding gyms. For every gym they have a Pokémon in, they will get 500 stardust and 10 coins.

Side note: this is the only way to get coins without spending real world money. It’s important to know that you can redeem your gyms once every 21 hours. You don’t have to hold the gym for 21 hours. I recommend quickly taking over a few gyms then redeeming it because gyms don’t typically last long. This button is located in the shop. To access it select the poke ball on the front main screen then select shop.


Next week, we’ll get into some advanced concepts in Pokémon Go, like tracking Pokémon, evolving Pokémon and other systems.

So, why is this fun?

As I’ve mentioned before, the concept of fun is subjective. Everyone finds different actions fun in different games. From what I can see, there are two primary kinds of fun explored in Pokémon Go.

  1. Catching all 150 Pokémon
  2. The Gym Battle

Catching all 150 Pokémon

Honestly, this is a combination of simple intuitive mechanics built for mobile phones, adorable creatures, and a human desire to collect things. In mobile game design, simplicity is king. The mechanic of tapping Pokémon, and then catching them, takes very little thought to get started. Every mobile user is familiar with tapping and flicking because we use it in functionalities like surfing the net. The concept of “I flick this ball and it will fly the direction I flick” allows older individuals to enjoy it as well. It’s something they would understand in real life unlike the concept of leveling up in Dark Souls. Ultimately, I think it is that incredibly tense moment where the poké ball is shaking and the player is holding their breath waiting to see if they caught the Pokémon that is the most interesting. It’s an excellent balance of tension to keep the player catching Pokémon.

As far as the adorable creatures go, it’s the IP. Pokémon is a juggernaut, which has been around for 20+ years. A similar game would not be nearly this successful if it didn’t have them attached (See Ingress). For my particular generation, Pokémon in the real world has been a dream since we were all kids. Additionally, the mobile phone install base is HUGE! Not to mention the game is free. There is very little stopping people from trying out this game. Hell, they didn’t even have to advertise the game. It stealth released and all the news outlets picked it up. That shows the power of the Pokémon IP.

Then there is the exploration and social media photo sharing. We saw the power of photo sharing in games with Nintendo's previous app, Miitomo. This allows players to share their experiences and draw in additional players on social media. Niantic successfully leverages the outside world as their MMO Pokémon world. (More on that can be found HERE ) It’s actually quite clever because people are so shut in nowadays that using the actual world as their environment to explore just makes sense. This is the same appeal gamers get from exploring World of Warcraft or Destiny. What’s going to be around the next corner? A Lapras? A Dragonite? Nope, just another damn Pidgey.

Finally, there is the collection aspect. Going back to the original 150 Pokémon was an excellent choice because catching them all seems very doable. This is unlike the current version of Pokémon, which no longer advertises “Gotta Catch Em All” for the 3DS games. Had they included all the current Pokémon it would have been too much for players and the tug to collect them all wouldn't be as strong, due to them being overwhelmed.

So how about the gym battles?

The gym battles are part of a larger turf war across the country. Like mentioned before, when a player takes over a gym it changes to their color. Someone who lives nearby might want to hold that gym simply because it is close or a business they enjoy visiting. But Niantic has created a sort of tug-of-war between the three teams. They’ve had years to refine this style of battling across the world due to their previous game Ingress.

I would say the actual battles are fun, but outside of the actual preparation, they just involve the player tapping on the screen as quickly as possible until they win. It’s nearly impossible for a player to hold down a gym for more than a few minutes due to how simple the combat system is. Making it nearly impossible to actually obtain a decent amount of coins from them. The other issue is that there is no end to the fight. There is no winning in Pokémon GO. There is no credits rolling or goal for the player outside of catching all of them. Which, as of right now is impossible because we don’t know how to get Mew-two or the legendary birds. It just kinda goes on until we burn out. While they advertised the game to have trading and public events none of that is in the game. It doesn’t even quite qualify as a beta because it’s not feature complete. The experience as a whole feels incredibly shallow. With that said, I plan on continuing to attempt to catch them all when the servers are actually working. In my free time enjoy the simple mechanics, nostalgia, and catching the old Pokémon I grew up with.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s look into the basics of Pokémon Go. Next week, we’ll be diving deep into the advanced mechanics of the game. We’ll also be getting really technical about leveling up, Pokémon hunting, and we’ll talk about how the app brings people together.

I’ll see you guys next week,


P.S. GO TEAM MYSTIC! (Sorry, couldn’t resist)