I'm going to tell you my 3-4 day journey in PBO, backwards. Take it as the perspective of a prospective new player who was trying to decide if this game was worth the time investment.
The ruling is out on that and while I got frustrated and left, I'll probably check in a few months again to see what's up.
Since most people try something out and just leave, I thought having this perspective might be useful to staff. This isn't "in a fit of emotion" or something lame, I spent several days trying to deconstruct my thoughts into something generally fair, reasonable and hopefully readable.
The bad news is that a lot of the problems I picked up on can do massive damage in the long term.
The great news is that I believe all of these have pretty simple fixes and that no problems will come up if they're tackled early.
Onto the show!
THE PVE GRIND.
I understand you guys are trying to make the game a challenge. That's great! The problem is, the PvE is not a challenge but a grind and precludes people who enjoy to challenge themselves.
Here are the first gym Pokemon. The ones worth obtaining and training in any manner are underlined. I'm precluding SR/URs since those are a large time investment.
Notice how few are underlined compared to the availability pool.
At first, I loved how many random Pokemon from different generations I could get early on. I'm the bird trainer, so I could run a squad of Rowlet, Murkrow, Pidgey, Pidove straight off. I was training them up, having a blast, but the experience to me felt contradictory or "off." I couldn't put my finger on that initially, until it hit me a few days later.
The nearest highest levels for Gym 1 were level 6. I needed a host of level 20s and clever maneuvering, even with the offensive advantage of grass Dartix, to beat that first gym. It was tough.
Now could I just use Mankey and Cubone? Yes. Should I have to? Imo no, yet there I was being indirectly beaten over the head by the game for daring to do something different.
When I play a game, I'm either intensely min-maxing/theorycrafting or yoloing it. This is why the game was so contradictory feeling to me. It offered all of these interesting even if silly Pokemon, but forces you to take a specific path or else be punished with an unholy amount of meaingless grind. Several hours on a single map. Of level 6s. Before the first gym.
Without context, I had 0 way of knowing that. The game doesn't exactly tell you, either.
Hell, in some ways the game tries to lure you into taking all these weird bait-worthy Pokemon choices. See, I became initially interested in this game because the SP system lets odd Pokemon potentially be more useful/viable in a PvP meta. I thought the spawns would cleverly compliment that design choice - that it was intentional, considering how many weird Pokemon there were. I was looking forward to how PBO would let me follow up on those options. Well, we've already established how that turned out.
Look - there is no actual strategy in power levelling a Cubone and Mankey, and there is no other option but to do that if you care anything about the endgame. Not the best introduction to one of many Pokemon MMOs, particularly since this one initially seems so polished.
SKIPPING AHEAD, I beat the gym with a Dartrix, Pidove, Yungoos, Pidgey, Murkrow, and Woobat with levels ranging from 20 to 15. Stupid team? Yes, I'm stubborn. I started heading out toward the next town, beat the grunts that block the way. Hell yeah. During my grinding session, I had figured out what was coming up next so I could prepare and stop yoloing with birds, because that approach obviously wasn't going to work. I learned how the SP system works, etc. Really at this point I was just trying to get out of those handful of maps and move on so I could see the rest of the game.
I figured the interesting lategame SP system might be worth it if I can manage to just get to it. (More on that later).
Then in the same cave, with the same level 6s, I ran into a rival with level 20s and I had no type advantage. For people who power levelled cubone/mankey, there's a nice wingull at level 20 waiting to own them. I can't imagine what people who started Litten, Cubone & Mankey are doing to manage this. Seriously that rival has level 20s, and the nearest grinds are level 6. What if somebody wants to adapt? Who here actually looked forward to retraining a team at that stage without having to try and find some sort of silver lining/readjust their mentality? I can almost guarantee that "OH BOY, THIS IS THE BEST AND FAVORITE THING" is not the first thought people get when faced with that situation.
I beat two pokemon, died. I mind numbingly trained up another level. Faint 2-3 pokemon again, died. At that point I said bye to whoever was in the ingame chat, thanked them for their time and wished them the best, and that was it.
I really, really wanted to like this game. I came in excited about how the SP system potentially allowed some normally subpar Pokemon to have a place in this "be almost anything" meta.
But even if I started over with my nub team and retrained everything...tossed my silly self imposed "fun" challenge of making it with a bird team, went into min/max mode, bowed my head and only did what the game was obviously telling me to do, etc ...
It still wasn't worth it.
Why? That leads me to the rest.
TWO AND THREE:
THE LEVEL 1 SP SYSTEM COMBINED WITH THE SMALL AMOUNT OF PVP-OPTIMAL/VIABLE POKEMON AVAILABLE IN THE COMMON/RARE TIERS.
At level 1 gym with birds vs rocks, I reconsidered swallowing my personal flair/enjoyment of the PvE system and looked ahead. What could I catch where? What would be an interesting team in that I could get on a budget? If I can't be silly and make it with pidove & co, I wanted to get a step ahead and start getting good commons I could use later in transition. I wanted to engage in PvP as early as possible with Pokemon that were "disposable" - common/rare stuff. That way, if I made a mistake with the new SP system, I could easily recoup my losses with some elbow grease as well as get a feel for how to improve myself. I open Darkdane's spawn guide (thank you Dane for writing that) and start trying to plan ahead.
But then I had this conversation:
..."What are some good PvP commons/rares I could use? Let me open the list. There's Tangela, Manetric, Excadrill, I have a Krow. Haunter, maybe Timburr...Ooo growlithe's a good one. ELECTRIKE, MY LOVE! I wonder if I could invest in speed and treat it like a psuedo mega manetric in this meta. Digglet, Azumaril, Starly, Ambipomb, Joltik, CLEFABLE YES, Magneton, and a couple of nice waters like Karp. Not a bad pool at of commonish Pokemon at all, plenty to work with for 3 v 3 team cores."
"You can't really use those pokemon like Excadrill or Haunter."
"SP is already spent for certain wilds, that's why Gastly level 1 as SR is valid and Drilbur Lvl 1 is event map only."
This is what killed me, to be blunt. Team options shrank pretty incredibly fast. Stuff like Slowbro (SR I know, whatever)/Manetric/Excadrill went from "possible with some elbow grease and typical Pokemon MMO luck" to almost impossible. See, to get a team like that now, I would have to get Manetric, Slowbro (SR), and shiny hunt for an Excadrill so those SP points could possibly be refunded (I think that's how this works? Correct me if I'm wrong). On top of this, the shiny Exca could be useless due to a bad nature.
Staff had said they might consider nature changes in the future for shinies for this reason, but I realized later that this kind of destroys the purpose of the Level 1 = unspent SP system (more on that later).
The Manetric team turns into like...Manetric/Slowbro/Dugtrio or Manetric/Tangrowth/Bunnelby, which has glaring weaknesses/overlaps.
It's another problem of there being a lack of real options for newcomers without investing in a lot of grind/RNG. Worse, SP is unlike any other game I've played, so a mistake is inevitable. Why would I want to invest that much time into something that is easily, permanantly ruined with a small mistake?
So let's remember newbie me. Right when I was going through the newbie tunnel for my hopefully last time fresh after defeated Gym 1. Newbie me is debating on ditching the aspect I found fun with in PvE (AKA Pidove vs the world for lols/to see if I could) for the benefit of transitioning to mid/lategame. Then, I had that conversation and realized I would have to spend countless hours just to get something usable.
And then I hit the rival in that tunnel, died, tried again, and realized I would have to spend 3 more hours in that damn tunnel just to progress. And for what? There was no reason to even put in the effort. It's not rewarding. The reward for grind and ditching creative flair was just...more grinding. That is when I said bye. Not because the PvE was too hard and I'm too lazy, but because there was no reasonable next "step" for me to take up the ladder to engage with the game.
Quick derail to show how this isn't just a single person's experience and in fact affects entire populations of people:
This also hurts the PvE, because the "worthwhile" pokemon bolded for each route from Gym 1 to beyond that were almost always Level 1 so that people can hunt/train them in the lategame as well. This means I have to retrain something each time. To make matters worse, if you check the spawn list, the staff tended to only provide you 1-2 Pokemon of a "good" type for that gym IN the town of the gym.
So level 1 Tangela and Electrike for Bijli city, and the last city gave you...Cubone, Sandshrew, Mankey? Not useful for Gym 2; almost none of the spawns were. Every early gym = high possibility that you have to retrain something from level 1. It'd be a LITTLE better but still pretty useless if they slip in a tangela earlier, because then they're relying on people to read the forums/guides before jumping in when that should be completely unecessary anyway.
The Level 1 SP + low "PvP optimal/worthy" Pokemon in the spawnpool also goes beyond creating an iffy situation for new players. It also limits experimentation/innovation within PBO's PvP system. The system is so investment-heavy and is so willing to punish you for not having a perfect answer on your first try. Sometimes things that work in theory or in calculations don't work in practice, and anyone here that does anything with PvP literally anywhere else will know that reality firsthand. This is true of anything, anywhere, any time, in any meta.
Somebody will inevitably figure out something is broken/strong, because again - new meta/new stat system means new weird combinations show up. Instead of people being able to reasonably adapt to that new strong thing, every attempt to build/test a team is going to require huge investments of either time and/or money. That's going to mean people are just more likely to adopt the new broken strategy instead of innovating to counter it. Why? Because people who do try to adapt to that strategy are punished by going broke or are few because of how much time that adjustment will take to perfect/polish. It is literally just safer to wait until somebody finds something broken and then hop on the bandwagon than it is to innovate on your own. How could staff handle that outcome? Banning every new thing that's broken as an unofficial clause? That's hardly wanted let alone ideal. To avoid this issue requires a core game design adjustment and no amount of duct tape/band aids will improve it otherwise.
Worst of all, this system is completely unnecessary. "Level 1 = no spent SP" offers a small benefit to designers by allowing any theme-appropriate Pokemon appear on any map. Normally you have to have serebii/bulbapedia/whatever open in another tab, scroll by type and wrack your brain for what would fit on the map. Then, you would have to balance and compare that to other maps in the game economically to make sure you aren't making other maps outdated or useless, etc etc. Yes, it's a pain, but it's pretty solidly overcome with some work and good notes (hooray spreadsheets).
Even in a game where you're dealing with existing maps and thus limited spawn pools that have easy overlap (IE: Kanto should probably only have Gen 1/Gen 2 Pokemon in it) this benefit is STILL not worth the detriment.
Good new for PBO is that this is a game with entirely custom everything. There are what, 700 Pokemon as of Gen 7? Even if you put 10 on every map and take out most of the legendary Pokemon, you could have 60ish maps with completely unique, no repeat spawns. For comparison, Kanto has about 30 maps that have wild spawns, and several of those Pokemon overlap. Again, that's TWO regions of 30 maps with NO spawns repeated - no commons shared among any map. Crazy cool. You really, really do not need that assistance for this game. The downfalls are pretty heavy and the gain is not even needed. I have worked under worse constraints, I absolutely promise this is possible. Primarily if you do have some mild, harmless repeats (nobody is going to cough at Sandshrew being common in -gasp- 3 maps).
BUT WE WANT THIS GAME TO BE A CHALLENGE.
This game is not a challenge, it's a grindfest. There is no meaningful way to engage with this game on a budget. Hunting is insane, getting into PvP is insane. The lategame here looks really solid but there's no way to really get to it without spending weeks upon weeks of grinding and hunting, and it's...just not worth it, to be blunt. This is a time when there are what, 5 other MMOs, at least 3-4 other ones that are known or high profile? Why are you blocking what makes your MMO intriguing and different behind a grindfest that every other high profile MMO offers? There are so many others of these that have the high challenge hunting rarities that DO allow new players to join in PvP, so why even stay here? I don't say this to be an ass, but as a "consumer", these are exactly the types of questions people will ask themselves. ESPECIALLY since this is a word-of-mouth MMO that is primarily grabbing people from other communities who want to try something new.
This game is like the cute shy girl in class hiding behind her bangs and glasses, covering her head with a hoodie despite having such hidden beauty or whatever that weird sappy 90s movie trope is. C'mon.
I derailed myself.
The PvE is not a challenge. The PvE sets up traps like "look at all the diverse pokemon you can catch use" but in reality the only way to reasonably beat it without getting your brain going num is to train a cubone & mankey from level 1 on wild level 6s.
Annd in the next area you get to do that again, but with an electrike and a tangela from level 1 to level 20 something, on wild level 12s.
There's no strategy to that. Meanwhile, the game also outright says "NOPE HAHA NO NOT GONNA HAPPEN" to people who self impose challenges. Nuzlockes? Gimmick silly teams? There is 0 joy in replaying this game even assuming you go through the PvE the way the game tells you to. Creativity is punished because of the high level requirements.
Here's how I beat Gym 1 with a mostly bird team:
Send out Dartrix vs Graveler, hope Razor Leaf doesn't miss, faint Graveler. Switch to Pidove as a sacrifice to safely get Yungoos in - Pidove will faint immediately. Send in Yungoos, hit sand attack twice (it will die after that). Send in Pidgey, use sand attack until pidgey inevitably dies. Send in Woobat, spam confusion until Nosepass dies. Get a confusion off on Tyrunt, Woobat will faint. Send in Dartrix, finish off Tyrunt with Razor Leaf. If Dartrix fails, Murkrow will take out the sliver of HP remaining.
Compare this to "Catch cubone and mankey (or two), level, use Bone Club until Cubone dies, use Low Kick or Karate Kick until Mankey dies, finish off with Popplio/Rowlet or use a 3rd Mankey if you started with Litten."
Which is a more thoughtful process?
Hell, you can let the game be hard as long as people have a next step to adjust to. In almost every situation I encountered, I was forced into a box or "stuck" and the only way to get out was repetitive, non-engaging tasks. Your game's difficulty did more to stifle-
(Gets out thesaurus to not repeat "engaging" for the 20th time)
Actually let me bold this and make it huge, too, because I think it's the most important point out of everything I've gone through so far.
Here is every single one of the game's problems overly simplified into one sentence:
The game's difficulty does more to stifle/hinder/slow down deliberately strategic choices than to actually create a thoughtful obstacle. The game challenges your patience, not battle tactics, and then doesn't reward that patience enough if at all.
SKIPPING AHEAD: HOW CAN THESE ISSUES BE CHANGED/IMPROVED/AVOIDED?
Great news! This game is about 2 months old and has a custom region. You guys can basically do whatever you want, and my solutions are going to obviously be a variation of what is going on right now.
A) Remove wild, levelled/evolved Pokemon from having set SP. Let players do that instead.
If you want some things to be extrardinarily rare anyway, no problem. Replace those pokemon like Excadrill with something else if you want, just make sure to follow B. Level 1 SP system adds no real value to the game, creates issues both in PvP and PvE, and just convolutes things for no gain.
B) Add more viable Pokemon to the common pool. Horsea really, really doesn't have to be hard to get (Especially considering you expect players to faint Horseas/Seadras to obtain the evolutionary item for Kingdra, which is the assumption by the playerbase). DO NOT tie PvP viability with hunting. This is awful for people who primarily just want to PvP and forcing the ability to PvP mostly behind grindwalls alienates everyone from a good chunk of the gameplay for no gain.
This lets newbies and vets alike to experiment without being punished for it. Newbies being able to engage in PvP allows vets to have more diverse interactions with other people instead of being stuck socializing/playing with the same vets with the same teams over and over again.
I am not suggesting you turn this game into a battle simulator, just suggesting you throw people a bone. You CAN have high difficulty goals as long as there is a variety of difficulty for everyone/different challenge levels spread wisely throughout the game. Noibat being very difficult is fine. MOST things being very difficult is not fine; it is demotivating and creates issues later.
OH GOOD GOD WHERE IS THE TL;DR OKAY I FOUND IT
Level 1 SP should be dropped and/or more good PvP pokemon should be made common so that if people make a mistake in SPs, it's not the end of the world (and their wallet). I'm not asking you to make Eevee and Dratini common, but like...Mareep? Horsea? Why are they all SR? It's not necessary.
More spawn options for PvE/less grindfest for PvE.
Maybe add more NPCs, better NPC cooldown timers, or outright make gyms less high level compared to the areas/opportunities around it. At least don't force people to use the same 2 Pokemon each area.
This sums up why I'm not really sticking around. You're all great people, I enjoyed talking with you and dissecting the systems here was unfortunately more fun for me than the game itself. I'll probably check in again in a few months, but unless at least one of these things is adjusted, I don't see a reason to stick around.
I'll probably check in on this topic in case I need to clarify anything or go into more detail, but otherwise that's it for now. I'll be genuinely grateful for whoever read this whole thing. I hope it's at least helpful - maybe I'm wrong about one or two things, but I highly doubt I'm wrong about everything in here, even if my suggestions aren't the ultimate solution for some of the problems I dug up.