As you likely already know, Pokemon Go Fest did not go as planned. Even without the spectre of Kyogre’s Drizzle to ruin our fun, things fell apart quickly. But before we discuss just what we experienced in Grant Park, here’s a bit of background for those just joining us. Pokemon Go Fest was meant to be the first official real world event for the popular mobile game. Located in downtown Chicago, the event promised special challenges, exclusive in game items, rare Pokemon spawns, above average eggs, and more. 20,000 tickets were made available, and they sold out in half an hour. Scalpers later sold tickets for up to twenty times the $20 purchase price, and people came in from all over the world and all over the country to participate, as Niantic hinted that the event would bring the first legendary Pokemon to the game.
So how did things go so terribly wrong? It started even before the event officially began. I attended with fellow TVGB writer Joel Campos and two others. Joel and I were able to get into the event early, and were told we should meet up by the gate for a tour of the park. Even this was disorganized; nobody was sure where or when the tour would happen, nor whether we should have been able to get the QR codes that would allow us to participate in the event. These were to keep people outside of the park, and those using GPS spoofers, from taking part.
In the end, there was no tour; just a quick Q&A which we couldn’t even hear. We ended up giving ourselves a tour of the facility; this included a main stage, large tents for each team, a walking path with Poke Stops, a store, and a bunch of numbered real-world Poke Stops. As we toured around, we saw early promise in the event. Once we were able to get those QR codes, we swiftly caught the elusive Unown and region-exclusive Heracross, among others. We even got some cool items in game.
But the problems started to become apparent shortly after the early access people started flooding in. First, given the size of the park and the bizarre choice to have only one entrance, people were funneling in very slowly. Second, the game started having some serious problems. It would crash and lag constantly. Sometimes it would just show an empty map. By the time general entry was supposed to start at 10:00, many of the early entry people were still waiting in line, and few people could even log into the game in the first place.
Around 10:30, the event’s opening ceremony began on the main stage, and people were already pissed off. Between an authentication bug, overtaxed game servers, and weak cell towers, virtually nobody had any success. Speakers who came up during the opening were met with players booing them and chanting “We can’t play!” among other things. I was among those players, and none of us were in a good mood. It seemed like Niantic and the organizers were ignoring the problem until one of its representatives noted that the whole Niantic team was working on solving the problems. People were less than impressed.
During all this, the other people who joined us were still waiting in the General Admission line. With no cell communication working in or around the park, it was a Herculean task just to stay in touch. While the event officially opened at 10, they didn’t get in until around 1:00. In the meantime, I wandered around the park, asking visitors about their experiences. Everyone was remarkably friendly, even when discussing their dismay that they traveled from all over the world to be here. I saw families and individuals, kids and adults, some with custom made shirts and everything. We discussed the issues that should have been obvious to the event organizers, and all of the confusion surrounding everything. At one point, after an announcement that was barely audible (a repeating theme at this event), people started saying that Niantic would give everyone a complete refund, and $100 in in-game currency. This was eventually confirmed, though there’s still no word as to how that will happen. Some people must have been having some success, as people continued chasing after Unown spawns, which we eventually realized spelled out “Chicago.” This would have been a cool scavenger hunt, if things worked properly. It seemed like only people on less common carriers were getting through, though.
Throughout everything, the main challenge windows took place. The idea was that we in the park had to catch a certain number of Pokemon of a given type to unlock a given bonus, while players elsewhere had to collect as many Pokemon as possible to extend the bonuses and unlock the final challenge. Of course, virtually nobody inside the park could play the game; while it got better over time, it still didn’t work for most. So when we were told after the second challenge window that we had reached the Silver stage of the overall event, we were suspicious. I started hearing rumors that Niantic messed with the totals to make it look like we had done a lot more than we actually had, and some evidence of this did come out the next day. Meanwhile, it turned out that it was really Groudon we had to worry about, not Kyogre; the sun was hot and shade was limited. Outside of whatever trees were in the park, the only shelter from the heat was the the three team tents, which were packed full and muddy as hell. Finding shade quickly replaced finding Pokemon as our main goal. Meanwhile, they announced that the Pokemon Go Fest in-game features would expand to a two mile radius around the park, and last until Monday night. This was just as well; some people couldn’t even scan their QR codes inside the park.
A number of announcements were made during the day, confirming the refunds and checking in on the teams via pre-recorded video segments. All of this was met with jeering from throughout the park, of course. I actually started to feel bad for the people on stage, especially the host, who really couldn’t do anything about the problems. All throughout, Niantic’s incredibly brave CEO sat on the edge of the stage, signing autographs and talking to players. After the last challenge window, we were all gathered to the main stage at 4:00 for a final announcement, which didn’t take place until closer to 5:00. My guess is that the organizers were in something of a panic backstage, as there was no way we really unlocked all the challenges. But we also realized there was no way that they would announce that we failed; it would start a riot. And indeed, the host came out and claimed that we had unlocked all of the bonuses and reached the Gold level, unlocking the “mystery challenge.” But really, there was no extra challenge; they just announced that due to our “success,” the legendary Pokemon Lugia would be unlocked in legendary raids worldwide, and would be given to all of the attendees. They also announced that due to Team Mystic contributing most to the challenge (which seems like a given since it’s by far the biggest team), Articuno would become available for raid battles too.
Now, here’s how I think this was supposed to go: upon unlocking the “Mystery Challenge,” Lugia would appear as a raid boss at the park. Once we defeated it, we would be able to capture it, and that would lead to it and Articuno appearing as raid bosses everywhere else. Sadly, this didn’t quite work out. After all was said and done, my boyfriend and I returned home for a quiet night, though not before catching a few Machop outside of the park.
The story does continue after the event itself, though. Due to the extended radius and bonuses, many attendees returned to downtown Chicago on Sunday, primarily to try the legendary raids and actually catch the Legendary Pokemon we were promised (so far, no word on how or when we’ll get the promised Lugia). The raids were pretty easy with so many of us gathered, though there were some persisting errors that made it frustrating. As everyone went out and fought legendary raids, something peculiar became apparent: while actually catching the legendary Pokemon was trivial here in Chicago, they had an incredibly low catch rate elsewhere. This was presumably to make sure we’d be able to catch Lugia at the event, but some trainers outside of the city were dismayed to find that this easy catch rate seemed to apply to EVERYONE in Chicago, not just event attendees. Me, I was just happy to finally get Lugia and Articuno.
So, now that the exhaustive recap is over, what can we say about Pokemon Go Fest? There’s no question that the event was a failure. And looking back, there were a few things that are clear to us in retrospect that Niantic probably should have considered beforehand. First, a stress test of the servers would have been helpful before planning any details for the event; they could have done this by announcing that they would spawn some Unown in Grant Park and seeing what happened. Second, even without a stress test, they shouldn’t have sold nearly as many tickets as they did. While everyone was able to fit into the park, the small shaded areas were not enough for everyone, and the servers and cell networks certainly couldn’t handle it. There should have also been more entrances, so it didn’t take people until after the first two challenge windows to actually get inside. If possible, they should have found a way to give attendees a shot at obtaining Lugia before the rest of the world as originally planned; I found it very annoying to see people who didn’t put up with the event’s issues getting these rewards before us. And finally, it shouldn’t have taken them that long to recognize and speak to the issues.
All of that being said, I still actually enjoyed myself a lot at Pokemon Go Fest; it just wasn’t how I expected to. Once the problems became clear, Niantic responded as well as they could have. Offering refunds, unlocking all the challenges, and giving everyone at the event a Legendary Pokemon were exactly the right things for them to do. Extending the event bonuses in both location and duration meant that everyone was able to at least catch some of the special Pokemon present, and we were still able to complete the legendary raids that night and the next day. Beyond all that though, even the event itself was fun in a weird way. It’s kind of entertaining to watch everything fall apart around you, and since I started before shit hit the fan, I really did get to see the whole process.
More importantly, though, I had great experiences interacting with all of the people at the event, learning their stories and commiserating about all the things that went wrong. Nothing brings people together like a common enemy, and for all of our team pride (I was wearing a red shirt and a Team Valor necklace myself), on that day we were all Pokemon fans. I met people from other states and countries, learned why they came, and learned what they were planning to do next. There was a strong sense of community throughout the day, and all of the problems really brought everyone together. I still wouldn’t call the event a success by any means, but in a way it was successful. It was meant to celebrate the game’s first year by bringing its players together to overcome a great challenge, and in that sense, we definitely got what we came for.