Pokémon Go Fest could have been great—instead, it was a disaster

Busted servers and strained cell connections ruined the game's Chicago birthday bash.

pokemon go fest chicago2
Andrew Hayward/IDG

Like the nearly 20,000 other attendees, I was thrilled about the prospect of Pokémon Go Fest. I’ve covered the game extensively for Macworld since before its release last summer, but more importantly, I’ve been playing it for fun—sometimes solo, or with my wife and son. All told, I’ve spent dozens of hours capturing thousands of Pokémon, making thousands of PokéStop visits, and hatching loads of digital eggs.

Pokémon Go Fest promised the ability to catch rare monsters, team up with lots of other players to tackle the new Raid Battles, and the opportunity to unlock and capture top-tier Legendary monsters, which would finally be added to the game for the occasion.

Instead, the game collapsed under the weight of all of the player demand—and cellular networks likewise failed to accommodate the thousands of simultaneous connections coming from Grant Park in downtown Chicago. As more and more people flooded the park, the situation just got worse, and fans became expectedly upset and very vocal about it. In my case, my most significant finds were a gnarly sunburn and a wasted day full of frustration.

Early promise

Pokémon Go Fest got off to a solid-enough start before the vast majority of people were let into the park. As a member of the media, I was allowed in with an early batch of attendees, and we had a chance to experience the Fest before it was in full swing—before technical issues totally crippled the fun.

pokemon go fest screen IDG

Well, this looked promising.

Once inside the Fest, you’d need to walk up to any of the special PokéStops on the map and spin the disc, which then prompted you to scan the QR code that Niantic provided alongside your NFC chip-packing wristband. After that, you were enrolled in the Fest’s digital activities, which meant your Pokémon captures would be tallied and added to the totals needed to gradually unlock the legendary monsters during the three challenge windows, plus heaps of Pokémon suddenly appeared on the map. Good start.

Before 10:00 a.m. hit and more people were allowed in, I began walking the special pathway created within the fest, which spanned a number of marked PokéStops that would award special 2km eggs to hatch. I figured I’d probably walk that path several times throughout the day, and had spent about $10 to purchase several extra incubators to make sure I could hatch a load of them before the Fest’s end.

By the time I reached the #6 stop on the map, I ran into a problem. The game wasn’t responding, so I closed the app and tried opening it again—and it wouldn’t let me sign in. I tried again and again with no result. At this point, I was on the far outskirts of the fest, so I decided to head back towards the main stage area, and see if I could login using the Wi-Fi near the media area.

After about 15 minutes offline, I finally got back in right as the crowds began building inside of the park. Phew. Just a small hitch, right?

The backlash begins

Nope. As attendees began flooding the park, the technical issues became more pronounced and widespread. As Niantic CEO John Hanke took the stage at around 11:00 a.m., the crowd viciously booed him and shouted obscenities, as chants of “Fix the servers, fix the game!” began echoing throughout. Hanke seemed uneasy at the response, and urged fans to be patient, reminding them that children were present. In fact, Hanke’s young son was with him at the event.

Some of that frustration was clearly pent up and had been held in for a long time. Pokémon Go was famously half-broken for its early weeks of existence: it became an overnight phenomenon, and Niantic couldn’t keep up with the demand. Servers crashed and stayed down for long stretches, and glitches and crashes plagued users during play. Some of that smoothed out over time, but reappeared here and there following big game updates.

pokemon go fest stage2 Andrew Hayward/IDG

Hanke took a lot of flak from disgruntled fans, and this was still very early on.

On top of that, fans traveled from far and wide to attend Pokémon Go Fest. People drove in from nearby states or flew out from other areas of the United States, not to mention other countries. And in some cases, they waited for hours to get in, as lines wrapped around the park. Some people couldn’t get into the Fest until a couple hours after it opened, simply due to the extensive lines and slow process of scanning wristbands. 

That doesn’t excuse some of the ruder remarks flung at Hanke and other onstage talent over the course of the day, but the frustration and irritation were absolutely palpable. These people spent their hard-earned time and money to come play this social game at its supposed peak, and instead spent hours grimacing at their phones, unable to complete basic game tasks.

From bad to worse 

It was pretty terrible. At multiple points throughout the day, I couldn’t even log into the app. When I could get in, there was no guarantee that I’d be able to do anything, let alone finish any process that I started. PokéStops often wouldn’t load, meaning I couldn’t spin them to obtain items and XP. Tapping Pokémon on the map would often trigger a network error, or simply cause to freeze up in some endless loading cycle.

pokemon go fest Andrew Hayward/IDG

The team lounges thankfully had charging stations for our overtaxed phones.

Every so often, you’d see a group of people run in a certain direction of the park because a rare Pokémon—like an Unown or Heracross—was spawning in that area, or because new Raid Battles had just begun at a Gym. However, when you’d get to that area, the game would more often than not become unresponsive due to the mass of connection requests in that space. After a while, I started heading in the opposite direction of crowds, simply hoping for a chance to play.

And then came the full-on game crashes. At multiple points, I was able to complete a Raid Battle and take down the Pokémon with a bunch of other players—but then when it came time to try and capture that Pokémon, the game crashed and I missed my opportunity. In other instances, especially later in the day, the game would crash simply from trying to catch a common Pokémon or load up a PokéStop. 

Partway through the day, the organizers announced that there were three known issues plaguing the play experience. The first bit of blame was put on cellular networks, with Niantic claiming that providers were slammed with requests and couldn’t keep up.

pokemon go fest pokestop Andrew Hayward/IDG

The special PokéStop trail ended up being pretty useless.

Well, of course they were. Have you ever been to a music festival or baseball game and struggled to refresh Twitter, or spent 20 minutes waiting for a photo to send to a friend? It’s the same situation here with 20,000 people all trying to use their phones at once. How could Niantic not have seen that one coming and tried to work with providers to boost reception in the area? Surely there’s a solution for that. And if not, then why on earth are you inviting 20,000 people to waste their time in an impossible situation? 

Niantic owned the other issues, however, saying that network demand was crushing the game’s servers, and that a bug in the code was causing the game crashes. They promised that work was being done to alleviate all of the issues, but there was no real sign of relief throughout the day. The servers seemed a bit more responsive as people exited the Fest in the last few hours before it ended, but the crashes lingered and it all still seemed pretty pointless. 

Ending with a whimper 

Ultimately, Niantic issued a mea culpa and announced that it would refund the purchase price on every ticket, as well as provide $100 worth of in-game Pokémon coins for each attendee. They also expanded the radius for in-game events to two miles stretching out from Grant Park, allowing attendees to seek out better reception while still seeing special Pokémon and getting perks, and extended the play period until Monday morning. 

Furthermore, they revealed that the first Legendary Pokémon in the game—Lugia—would eventually be automatically granted to anyone at the Fest. But there was a catch: while everyone expected to be able to catch Legendary monsters at the festival, they wouldn’t actually be available until afterwards. Lugia and Articuno were added on Saturday night about an hour after Pokémon Go Fest concluded.

pokemon go fest flags Andrew Hayward/IDG

Frustrated fans began taking flags out of the ground and carrying them around.

It felt like a bait and switch. The official blog post announcing the Legendary monsters said, “If the Trainers in Chicago succeed in defeating the Legendary Pokémon, that Pokémon will start appearing in Raid Battles around the world, after Pokémon Go Fest.” But we didn’t have a chance to defeat a Legendary Pokémon at the Fest. Shortly before 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, ahead of the 7:00 p.m. close, Niantic announced that the monsters would be added within 48 hours after the Fest ended. That’s when people started leaving in droves.

As mentioned, they actually came pretty quickly after the event—and groups of people still lingering around downtown Chicago were able to track down both of the Legendary monsters, beat them in Raid Battles, and attempt to capture them thereafter. I’m glad it worked out for them, and I totally admire their tenacity and endurance after the long, hot day in the Chicago sun.

Me? I packed it in right after the announcement, and exited Grant Park around 5:00 p.m. to retreat home, take a much-needed shower, and nurse some wounds.

Lasting impact

It was a disappointing day, to say the least. Despite the many, many crashes and restarts, it wasn’t a complete loss in terms of gameplay. I did manage to catch both Heracross and Unown, and hatch a few more Pokémon that I didn’t have in my Pokédex—and should have Lugia at some point. However, with so many of the PokéStops being non-functional, I actually came away with far fewer PokéBalls than I had going into the day. I didn’t see that one coming.

And there were a couple of bright spots in the day that didn’t involve playing the game or staring at my iPhone screen. For example, I got this killer photo with Pikachu: 

pokemon go fest pikachu Andrew Hayward/IDG

At least I’ll always have this.

Even better was seeing the enthusiasm of the attendees, many with their own custom-made Pokémon Go t-shirts representing their regions or squads, as well as people in cosplay offering their own interpretations of the various monsters and human characters from the anime series. The player pool may be smaller than at launch, but there’s no shortage of passion. It was also neat to see the broad cross-section of players, including older couples, pregnant women, and families. I’d often come across a kid tethered to a parent by a charging cable, which was plugged into an external battery pack in the mom or dad’s pocket.

Will that be me and my (currently four-year-old) son in a couple years? Will they hold another Pokémon Go Fest again, and if so, would I bother attending? Would anyone bother after what happened this past weekend?

pokemon go ar IDG

Pokémon Go couldn’t keep up once the gates opened.

Pokémon Go Fest is an excellent idea, and while I think we were a bit duped with the promise of Legendaries at the event, it would’ve been a blast had the technology lived up to Niantic’s plans. That’s on both sides of the equation, too, but I don’t think it’s fair to throw most of the blame on companies like Verizon and AT&T. It should’ve been up to Niantic to ensure that they could deliver a solid experience with those network partners. Besides, the game itself was a mess. One of those technical problems would have diminished the day, but with all of them in play, it was effectively ruined.

I’m not the sort to be cynical about game developers, and frankly, I was taken aback by the booing and the loud expletives being hurled at Niantic’s CEO and other onstage talent during the day. Niantic developed a game—a free game, for that matter—that has captivated these players for potentially hours and hours apiece, and that kind of entitled attitude is one of the worst parts about video game culture. Luckily, the screamed insults were few and far between.

The booing, on the other hand, was widespread—and while I didn’t join in on the chorus, I totally get the frustration. I only took a train to get to Pokémon Go Fest, but for anyone who drove hours or paid for a flight and hotel, the disappointment must have been amplified dramatically. There’s no sugarcoating it: the event was a total failure.

Will it be enough to kill hardcore interest in the game? We’ll have to see. In my case, I’m still playing—I was back at it the next day, taking advantage of the special boosts that attendees unlocked for all worldwide players. But while I had shrugged off the earlier technical hitches of Pokémon Go, and always gave Niantic the benefit of the doubt towards the myriad problems, the experience has sadly unlocked some cynicism towards the game.

After Pokémon Go Fest, it’s hard not to believe that Niantic lacks the ability to execute on its lofty ambitions, and that the game may never live up to its full potential as a massively social mobile experience. And that realization will sting long after the sunburn subsides.

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