The Disastrous Pokemon Trading Card Game Live Beta

I was cautiously optimistic when The Pokemon Company revealed Pokemon Trading Card Game Live. Meant to be a replacement to the aging Pokemon Trading Card Game Online, this new game promised a few major upgrades over the original, such as mobile play and a crafting system that allowed players to get any card they wanted with in-game credits.

Flash forward to today. The beta has been available for Canadian users for about two months now. Even giving the game the benefit of the doubt with it being in beta status, what I’ve seen of Pokemon Trading Card Game Live has been profoundly disappointing. Based on the overwhelminglynegative feedback from the community, I’m not alone in my current assessment.

Let’s dive into what’s wrong with Pokemon Trading Card Game Live in its current state and consider what could be done to improve things.

A mountain of bugs make the game incredibly difficult to play

On launch day, I cashed in a bunch of booster pack codes in the new game. Nothing happened. Weeks later, the game realized that I cashed in a code and finally allowed me to open the packs I redeemed.

Sadly, the issues go way beyond redeeming codes. The actual act of playing the game is a nightmare by oftentimes not even doing the bare minimum. I have gone long stretches where the game won’t match me up with anyone. The only way to actually get a match when this happens is to cancel and restart. Or worse, literally restart the game (and even that isn’t a surefire solution).

A number of cards flat-out don’t work properly, such as the Elesa’s Sparkle card, which is pivotal in literally the most popular deck in the game right now. The card allows you to attach one energy each to two Fusion Strike Pokemon, but Live is bugged in such a way that you can only attach to bench Pokemon.

Things actually get worse from there. Sometimes cards overlap one another, making it impossible to interact with the cards you want. It’s possible to trigger instances where you can’t interact with your cards at all when you should be allowed to, forcing you to quit the game. There are even issues with the way the game’s timer works, which have allowed jerks to scam out of players out of wins by running down the clock when it’s counting down for the wrong player.

This is a beta, so there has to be some wiggle room from the player base in the this regard. However, there are so many game-breaking bugs in the game that one’s experience is likely to be compromised each time you play.

Overall game speed has been reduced dramatically to accommodate for pointless animations

The opening coin flip in takes about one second to complete in PTCGO. In the new game,  it takes multiple seconds for the same action. PTCGL is needlessly slower in every regard, from the coin flip, to the time it takes for the game to shuffle cards, down to the weird and needless animation of the discard pile unstacking and restacking itself when you look at a discard pile. Overall game length is oftentimes more than doubled by virtue of forcing players to sit through slow and oftentimes pointless animations that only make the game worse.

Attacks don’t look or feel satisfying to use

In the old game, attacks would be punctuated with screen shaking, cards slamming down on the table, and elemental effects like lightning striking opposing cards. PTCGO may not have the best attack animations, but it certainly felt satisfying to perform.

The attacks in PTCGL hit with the force of a dry sponge. When an attack is performed, a cloud of smoke envelops the defending card. If it’s knocked out, there’s a pregnant pause between the smoke and the card tilting sideways to denote that it’s been defeated. The gap is so wide that it almost feels like something wrong happened with the game. Nope, it’s an intentional delay to an already-underwhelming attack animation.

For a game that overwhelms players with frilly animations that add no value at best, it wildly underdelivers on some of its most important animations. Losing the fanfare that comes with landing an attack goes a long way towards deflating the entire experience.

Overall visual presentation is bland and actually detrimental to the user experience

Attack animations aren’t the only place where the game feels half-baked. Arguably the most exciting part of the game comes from opening packs for the chance at getting something rare or powerful. The original game featured a flashy animation that spread all the cards across the screen, leaving the rare cards face-down for you to flip. When you do, fanfare music plays.

PTCGL sucks all of the joy out of pack-opening. Clearly optimized for phones, cards are only revealed one-at-a-time in the centre of the screen. There’s no music or fireworks when you flip each card. You don’t even get the opportunity to zoom in on the cards you just pulled, which is insane, because the game lets you zoom in on cards everywhere else.

Things don’t get any better at the table. Based on an interface clearly designed for mobile first, the desktop version of the game is actually a pain to use on desktop. Everything is zoomed out, making it hard to read anything at a glance. Some of the menus are awkward to navigate, including the discard pile which pulls the entire pile of cards out of place before stacking them all back down when you’re done looking at them.

Certain moves are actually harder to perform. In the old game, any moves that required you to distribute damage counters would simply allow you to click on a card with one click equal to 10 damage. With PTCGL, you have to drag every single counter onto your opposing Pokemon. If you’re using Mewtwo V-Union’s Psysplosion move, you have to manually drag-and-drop 16 damage counters onto your opponent’s card, which is a considerably worse way of damage distribution.

When your Pokemon is knocked out, you have to choose which of your benched Pokemon will move into the active space. However, the Pokemon you choose may depend on which cards you have in your hand. Unfortunately, the game makes the bone-headed decision to hide your cards during this pivotal step, robbing you of the information you need to make an informed choice.

Building decks is a chore. Your actual deck is relegated to a side bar, which doesn’t allow you to see your whole deck without scrolling. Adding and removing cards can be confusing, as its confusing menu design can make it look like you don’t have cards you actually have. This can lead to scenarios where you might actually purchase cards with in-game credits that you don’t need.

Even if they ironed out the plethora of user experience issues in the interface, the overall presentation and art direction is sorely lacking. The pseudo-sci-fi aesthetic doesn’t look anything like Pokemon. The avatars look creepy. Its completely devoid of joy or anything that resembles the franchise it’s based on.

The in-game economy is confusing (and quite possibly worse) than the dark alleyways of PTCGO

The most glaring issue with the old game was that obtaining specific cards was an absolute nightmare. You either got lucky opening packs or you dove into the dystopian hell hole that is its trading system. In that free market economy, players exchange high-powered cards for dozens of packs each. At its peak, you would have to trade 40 packs of the latest set (400 cards) in order to get one Mew VMAX. Besides having to trade packs-for-cards, you essentially have to buy codes for booster packs and then follow external sites like PTCGO Prices to see what a fair deal is for every card you’re trading for. Obtaining cards was, in a way, a game in-and-of itself. And an awful one at that.

Trading is gone from the new game, but the new system isn’t clearly better. For starters, players were rudely awakened on launch day when it was revealed that booster packs only contained five cards instead of 10. While the odds have been reweighted to make it more likely that you’ll get two ultra rare cards per pack, none of this was clearly communicated to players before launch.

Instead of trading, the game provides players with credits for duplicate cards when you have more than four of a specific card. You can also earn credits by winning games and by making progress in the battle pass. From there, you can cash in credits to unlock cards.

In theory, this is a much better solution to the old game. However, the amount of credits you unlock through regular play is paltry at best. Having played this game every day since launch, I’ve only earned about 5,000 credits total, which is roughly enough to fully-upgrade only one of the starter decks.

Outside of grinding, the only real way to earn credits is almost as unintuitive as the old game. This time, you’re buying booster pack codes for smaller sets (like Celebrations) and opening the packs. You’ll reach four-of-a-kind on every card pretty quickly, turning every card after into credits. At least cards have the same value based on player-driven prices where the best cards are valued through the roof, but it’s still an awful system for obtaining new cards.

What a mess

The Pokemon Company was not kidding when they told us this was releasing as a beta. This certainly isn’t the type of beta where the game is basically done and they’re just using a beta as an opportunity to promote the game. Heck, I’d argue that this game in its current state isn’t even ready to be shared with the masses in beta form.

Not only is it plagued by a litany of bugs, Pokemon Trading Card Game Live is worse than its predecessor in almost every regard. Even if it were bug-free, shockingly poor design choices at every turn make playing the game, building decks, and unlocking cards a slog. If this new game isn’t even as its decade-old predecessor, there’s no chance it measures up to modern competition like Hearthstone, Magic the Gathering: Arena, and Yu-Gi-Oh! – Master Duel.

It’s done nothing to attract new players while driving the existing player base back to the old game. Twitch numbers aren’t necessarily a fair measuring stick, but PTCGO always has streamers and viewers, while PTCGL is a wasteland. No one wants to watch it and no one wants to stream it, either.

For now, we can retreat to the old game. But what happens when the old game is replaced by this newer, inferior one? At this point, it feels like anything less than starting-from-scratch would be disastrous for players and The Pokemon Company. But is The Pokemon Company even in a position to do that? I don’t know.

Wherever this goes, I truly hope that The Pokemon Company does everything in its power to make this better. It is unacceptable to replace the old game with this new one until the new game is at worst, equal in quality. I adore playing this game, but its trajectory is so bad that I may need to walk away. Here’s to hoping The Pokemon Company can turn this around.

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