It’s fair to call 2017’s Pokémon Go Fest a total failure. The inaugural,outdoor event was plagued by connection errors, bad weather, angry fans, and a whole lot of nothing — and it was all streamed live around the world.
It was a learning experience for developer Niantic, clearly. This year’s Pokémon Go Fest showed that the developer has not only done major work to improve the game over the last year, but it’s learned a lot about how to put on an event, too. Pokémon Go Fest 2018 wasn’t without its own faults, but it was a heck of a lot more fun than any of us survivors from last year expected.
Stable connections (mostly)
Pokémon Go lives or dies by your phone’s ability to get online, which is something largely out of our hands. Last year, our data networks failed us; this year, the majority of phone carriers held steady. That detail alone made spending an entire day in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, amid mud and humidity, a painless experience. We could call people! And use Twitter! And scroll through Instagram ad nauseam!
Oh, and we could play Pokémon Go, so that was good. One glitch: There was supposed to be free, public Wi-Fi available throughout the park for those of us with limited data plans, although getting it to work for more than 10 minutes was impossible. But it’s 2018, so we’ve always got a backup plan to get online.
A real trainer’s challenge
That wasn’t the case in 2017, of course. Another change from Year One was that Year Two gave all attendees a clearer purpose for the event, and one that felt far more independent than the team-based goal of last year. Pokémon Go Fest 2018 cohered around three major research challenges, the quests that Niantic introduced earlier this year into the game that further incentivize daily play. There was a storyline to this one that drew on the fact that we were hanging out in this park all day. It also was an obvious path toward unlocking a new mythical Pokémon.
As I wrote on Saturday, clearing all those tasks to win a Celebi took time. Yeah, the most hardcore players had it done before the afternoon. But us normies spent a few hours and walked along the two-mile trail of PokéStops to catch Pokémon, hatch Eggs and complete the quest. It was tough but not impossible, and it was probably the most I’ve walked while playing Pokémon Go since it started. (I had 25,000 steps on my pedometer by the end of the day.)
It’s hard to compare the focus of Go Fest 2018 to Go Fest 2017’s, considering nothing worked as planned last time. But the premise of the 2017 event was that each team would compete to catch the most Pokémon and unlock a Raid Battle with Lugia, the first in-game legendary. We weren’t able to do that properly, so Niantic gave every single person a Lugia without putting in the work. For us normies: Great! For the hardcore fans: Bad.
A solo journey
An easier comparison to make between the two events, however, is with that team-based focus. Because everyone had to catch their own Celebi, there wasn’t a point to work as a group. A lot of people traveled together, walked together, sat together; no one played together, because that wasn’t the point. There were neither Gyms nor Raid Battles for people to do together. I’m not huge into those, but Pokémon Go Fest is the rare time where those competitive features actually make sense.
At least we had trading, I guess. Not that anyone was giving me anything good.
That being said, focusing on playing the game on your own felt like a natural Pokémon experience. Sprawling Lincoln Park was a good setting for doing things on our own, and Niantic set up specific meetup points throughout the path. There were four type-based areas with surprisingly great designs, each one loaded with specific Pokémon.
Still, I often felt like I was among just a handful of other players working on their own quests. There were no crowds this year to overwhelm us; no shouting packs of players running to catch some rare Pokémon in the distance. Niantic dubbed this event “A Walk Through the Park,” and that’s what it was — walks are often solitary. There were still 21,000 people who came through over the two-day event, according to the developer, and it was easy to run into other players all throughout Chicago. (Niantic also said 180,000 logged in while playing in the city during the Go Fest weekend. There’s no available numbers for 2017’s event. )
Pokémon Go ... is fun again
The game continues to hinge on its community, despite a much more dispersed crowd in 2018. That community just is more intimate, faithful and ... calmer than the Pokémon Go player base of its first two years, and certainly of Pokémon Go Fest 2017. And even though it was raining and hot and terrible to be outside for half of this year’s event, I came out with a much more positive review: It was fun playing the game again.