Hands-on With Niantic's First Global Pokemon GO Fest
In 2019, 300,000 people descended upon parks in Chicago, U.S.; Dortmund, Germany; and Yokohama, Japan, phones in hand, to explore model environments, socialize in pop-up lounges, and most importantly, catch hundreds of virtual Pokemon. This was Pokemon GO Fest, a four-day long celebration of Niantic’s hit AR mobile game that maintains a dedicated community worldwide.
2019 was Niantic’s third Pokemon GO Fest and the first to take place in multiple cities. What the original plan was for 2020’s event, we’ll never know, but it’s safe to say Niantic wasn’t expecting that a global pandemic would transform their three-city event into a truly global, anywhere-in-the-world, ground-up reimagining of their biggest celebration ever.
Pokemon GO Fest 2020 sets up an odd tug-o’-war between a game that is built around social interaction at its core, and a series of smart but hastily implemented changes designed to mediate that core interaction. I participated in this year’s festivities from July 25–26, and I came away with some thoughts on what worked and what didn’t.
Virtual Team Lounge
Previous events featured team lounges for Pokemon GO’s three joinable factions: Mystic, Instinct, and Valor. These lounges were central hubs during the in-person event, but this year, a virtual web-based team lounge replaced the big colored tents. The virtual lounge was intended to be a place to connect with other players and catch livestreams, but at the end of the day, a webpage that requires you to close the game doesn’t feel much like something worth doing when you’re out catching Pokemon.
I found myself excited to access the virtual lounge to tune in to the kickoff livestreams featuring Niantic CEO John Hanke and other senior developers, but after those ended, my interest in the virtual lounge quickly disappeared. Unfortunately, the extent of socializing with other team members amounted to sharing Niantic-approved photographs. Its only other purpose was to view what Niantic called livestreams, but were really pre-recorded YouTube videos that could be viewed at any time.
Real festivals have schedules, and since there was zero incentive to tune in to the presentations as they happened, they didn’t feel much like they were a part of the festival at all. There were some pretty funny interviews with Rian Johnson though (yes, Star Wars director Rian Johnson), so that was cool.
This is how social Pokemon GO Fest was this year.
One thing I was most excited about before the event was the idea of the rotating virtual habitats. In previous Go Fests, players got to explore small environments representing Pokemon habitats, where certain Pokemon could be found. I was sad that something like this would be impossible during a virtual GO Fest, but Niantic promised an interesting alternative. Every hour, the game would rotate virtual habitats, so one hour the game might be in the fire habitat, spawning more Charmanders and Tepigs, and the next hour it could be the water habitat where you’d be able to find more Squirtles.
Because many of the activities during the event required players to catch specific Pokemon, being aware of the current and upcoming habitats was important. However, in reality the game provided little feedback that habitats were even a thing if you happened to miss the marketing.
One would think that the game would graphically represent these changing habitats by, I don’t know, showing a different background on the battle screen, but no, the same verdant green field is present no matter what habitat you’re in. The only way that the game does communicate the current habitat is in the color if the confetti that is continuously sprinkling down over the world map. It's pretty easy to assume that the confetti is simply a cosmetic element in celebration of Pokemon GO Fest, not anything intended to communicate important gameplay. It wouldn’t even be so bad if all the habitats were as straightforward as fire, or water, but then you have habitats like battle, and friendship. What color confetti would you expect to represent these habitats? I still don’t know.
Even the team lounge holds back this information. For such a heavily touted feature, it was frustratingly misimplemented, so much so that I had to rely on a fan blog to get a somewhat accurate habitat rotation schedule.
A Social Game
I think the strangest thing about Pokemon GO Fest 2020 was that despite all of the changes and features added to accommodate socially distant play, being somewhat social remained almost required to get the most out of the event.
I was lucky enough to spend the weekend playing with my girlfriend, which meant we had a blast stomping up and down our neighborhood together, mostly due to the changes that were added to the game since COVID-19 began and the new GO Fest storyline, research quests, and Pokemon. But eventually there reached a point where continued success meant that finding other real players would be hugely helpful. Research quests requiring the completion of raids, the exchanging of gifts, and the simple desire to feel like Go Fest wasn’t just a private event for the two of us led us to one of our city’s busiest gathering spots for players.
And instantly, the recollection of what was ever so special about Pokemon GO in the first place came back to us. We found a field full of strangers forming groups to help each other take down powerful raids, becoming new friends to exchange gifts, telling stories about the ones that got away, gawking at each other’s rare catches, and being part of a small but passionate community.
Unfortunately, the realities of COVID only made the moment more bittersweet. Donning our masks and keeping our distance, we got what we needed and quickly left to continue playing on our own.
Never Without a Goal
Despite Niantic fumbling some of the GO Fest features, the core gameplay of Pokemon GO has never been more fun. Typically, it’s a game that hooks me for a few hours a month until I run out of things to do, but this weekend I found it hard to put my phone down. I actually went and purchased a 10,000/mAh battery on Saturday to ensure my phone could keep playing.
GO Fest 2020 introduced a fun string of research tasks that relied on the rotating habitats, asking players to catch specific Pokemon—and there were tons of new Pokemon to catch. It felt like I was catching new Pokemon and getting shinies more often than I ever had before, and with each success came a desire to catch the next rare surprise. Despite the lackluster communication, the habitats did successfully provide a constant selection of new Pokemon to catch at least.
The second half of the Go Fest gameplay experience involved Team Rocket, who has been present in the game for some time but played a major role in the weekend’s storyline. Team Rocket has been taking over random PokeStops and flying around the map in hot air balloons during the last few weeks, providing trainer battles and new rewards. During GO Fest, the battle rewards and research quests for interacting with them has been increased, leading to a satisfying loop of tasks to complete. Eventually, the interplay of constantly spawning new Pokemon, the influx of Team Rocket grunts at every stop, and a bevy of research tasks being completed every time I returned to the map screen meant that there was almost never a time I had nothing I wanted to click on. GO Fest was as fun as the game has ever been, and it even drove me to spend my first actual dollars in the game in the form of some items and bag upgrades.
Gotta Catch ‘Em All
Thankfully, perhaps the most important part of any Pokemon game is the catching of Pokemon, and this part GO Fest 2020 nailed it. The amount of new Pokemon to catch were fun, surprising, and diverse. The habitats gave players a constantly changing roster of Pokemon to encounter. Team Rocket battles rewarded the players with unique catch opportunities and challenges. Plus, Pokemon gained from completing research tasks were plentiful and powerful, and the final research reward of the festival was a brand-new legendary addition to the game.
Not every aspect of Pokemon GO Fest 2020 met my expectations, but I commend Niantic for all the hard work they’ve done to transition Pokemon GO into the framework of social distancing. They’ve taken the challenge of redesigning Pokemon GO Fest head on, and the result was an imperfect but fun experience. I think a global GO Fest would be a hard feature to roll back if things are back to normal next year. Going to Chicago for GO Fest is not something I would ever do, but having an excuse to go explore the neighborhood with some friends and have a unique experience at the same time is something that I could see myself doing for years to come.
Much of the development for this year’s GO Fest could have only started in earnest a few months ago, so many of my issues may be worked out by the time something like this needs to happen again. Most encouragingly, the things that make Pokemon GO special are still present, and I am only more interested than ever to see what Niantic is able to do for their next event.