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At police department's request, Pokémon Go developer makes changes at Tampa's Ballast Point Park

TAMPA — Standing near the water at Ballast Point Park, Jeff Williams looked down at his cellphone and realized something was missing.

"The gym is gone," said Williams, 26, of Tampa. He was there with wife Chelsea, sons T.D. and Noah, and dog Buster to get some air and play Pokémon Go.

Williams is one of many players of the augmented reality game who have noticed the disappearance of the park's "PokéGym," a place where players congregate to pit their digital Pokémon characters against one another in virtual battles.

It's not a glitch. Niantic, the developer of the game, removed the feature last week as a concession to the Tampa Police Department.

Confronted by a wave of players parking illegally and lingering long after the park closed, police officials asked Niantic in late July to remove the PokéGyms as well as the PokéStops, where players can replenish their avatar's supplies and drop "lures" that cause creatures to appear.

After months of silence, the company finally replied.

On Oct. 21, police Lt. Ruth Cate spoke by phone with a Niantic representative who followed up with an email the same day saying the company would remove the PokéGym from the park and that no game elements will appear in the water surrounding the park and the fishing pier.

The email said the changes would be in place by the following week.

"Please let us know how the changes are received by the community and do not hesitate to contact us if you have additional feedback," the Niantic representative wrote. "We greatly appreciate your support and willingness to collaborate."

A Niantic spokesman told the Tampa Bay Times that the company would not confirm the status or details of specific removal requests.

It's the latest development in a saga that began shortly after the game launched in July. Word quickly spread that the park in South Tampa was one of the best places to play because of its plentiful and rare Pokémon. At one point, scores of players were hanging out after dark, angering neighbors who called police. One night in July, an officer used his Taser on a man who refused to leave and threatened police.

Police spokesman Steve Hegarty said it is hard to tell whether the changes have made a significant difference because the situation at the park was already improving as the "fever pitch" of the Pokémon Go craze cooled.

"Regardless of the cause, the situation at Ballast Point Park has calmed," Hegarty said. "You will still see folks out there playing, but not in the numbers that they were, and the dangerous situation near the pier and water has been eliminated. So, we're happy with the Niantic response and their willingness to work with us."

Pokémon players interviewed this week by the Times greeted the changes with a shrug.

Many players, like 40-year-old Danielle Ware of Tampa, don't bother battling in the gyms. Instead, they're more focused on the game's primary goal of catching as many of the nearly 150 characters as they can.

"My son likes to play in the gym sometimes. I don't do the whole battle thing," Ware said during a break from playing with her daughter Ashley, 22. "But there are lots of gyms around, so it doesn't matter."

Told of Niantic's promise to remove game elements near the water, Ware said: "Not true. My kids have caught some Pokémon in the water just in the last few days."

Other players also said monsters were still showing up in the water, but Martell Davis, 23, said it seemed like fewer rare characters were popping up along the water's edge.

Davis was part of a consensus of players who said Niantic shouldn't have to make changes at a public park simply because some players refused to follow the rules.

"I don't think it should be (the company's) responsibility," Davis said. "Niantic got people outside and off the couch. They should be commended, if anything."

At Ballast Point Park, Tampa got a firsthand look at how placing virtual markers in real world places can create ugly conflicts. Some property owners sued the company to force the removal of gyms and stops that were causing problems.

So, responding to complaints — especially from a major city's police department — "has to be part of Niantic's business model," said Mark Skwarek, director of New York University's Mobile Augmented Reality Lab.

Skwarek said it's not surprising, though, that it took so long for Niantic to respond to the Tampa request. The company was overwhelmed with the game's popularity, juggling technical bugs and a flood of requests from property owners all over the world to remove problematic features.

"Maybe in the future they'll have a way for governments to communicate to expedite the process for public land," he said.

The company's move to remove the gym at Ballast Point Park was "more than symbolic" because the feature draws a lot of players, said Brian Wassom, a media lawyer and author of Augmented Reality Law, Privacy, and Ethics. And while the initial craze has leveled off, there are still a lot of people playing the game.

"The app was still 10th on the iTunes chart of top-grossing apps a few weeks ago, and jumped back up to third after their recent Halloween promotion," Wassom said. "So I don't think the game is going to fade away anytime soon."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

At police department's request, Pokémon Go developer makes changes at Tampa's Ballast Point Park 11/04/16 [Last modified: Sunday, November 6, 2016 7:28pm]
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