Pokéflop

The threat of thunderstorms loomed over Chicago like a bad omen the night before Niantic’s first Pokémon Go fan convention. The next morning, rain or shine, more than 20,000 people were expected in the city’s beautiful Grant Park for Pokémon Go Fest. These people, or “trainers” as they are known in Pokémon Go, are mostly here for two reasons: to catch rare Pokémon to round out their collections and unearth the game’s first legendary beast.

On its website, Niantic claimed both opportunities would be possible, making a trip to Chicago a worthwhile expenditure for people who have been playing the game every day since it launched just over a year ago. Having the event set in a sprawling, art-filled park incentivized me to bring my family along for the work trip – something I’ve never done in my tenure at Game Informer.

My wife and daughter both play the game as extensively as I do, and it seemed like the perfect marriage of my professional and personal life. We arrived in Chicago the night before the Fest began, and wasted no time heading over to Grant Park to survey the event as best we could outside its gates, but more so to start playing the game. We thought we would look silly walking around the park with cables running from our phones down to battery chargers in our pockets, but it turns out we weren’t alone.

A good number of families were out in the park playing Pokémon Go. We mingled with a handful of people as we engaged in Raid Battles and walked through the park to hatch eggs. As the night went on, the game suddenly started moving slower, followed by the app crashing repeatedly. I noticed more trainers had descended upon the park to play. I never saw more than 15 to 20 players in one area, yet the game was clearly struggling to keep up with the influx of traffic.

I talked to numerous players in the area that were all experiencing the same problems. The fear of rain on the horizon was suddenly replaced by a concern of the game not working – some- thing Niantic has taken flak for since the game launched. Pokémon Go is fun and engaging, but it’s never been reliable. I was so worried by the troubling developments that I reached out to Niantic’s PR to alert them of a story I was going to run about stability being an issue the night before the Fest.

 A representative for the company told me that phone service providers were “amping things up,” and that “Niantic is on it.” Amping up meant companies like Verizon offering an extra cellular tower, and others bringing in cell trucks to boost signals. I didn’t want to fearmonger the night before the event, so, given the information I was provided, I decided to squash the story.

No way to play the game

Chicago was hit by hard rains and thunder in the early hours of the next day, but the storm front moved out of the area, producing clear skies, sunshine, and a muggy heat for the convention. My family arrived at the Fest gates an hour before it opened, and I noticed the game performance was in no better shape now than it was the previous night.

Families were out in full force, many heartbroken by the game outage

The one thing that gave me hope: There were already thousands of people standing in line, and I was still able to play the game in the area. That hope wilted quickly, as people started entering the park. I couldn’t stay logged in for more than 20 seconds at a time, preventing me from spinning a stop or catching a Pokémon. With no way to play the game we decided to pocket our phones to check out what else the Fest had in store for us.

Grant Park offered plenty of space, even for 20,000 people. Most of the area was wide open, consisting of just walking paths and wet, puddle-stricken grassy areas – a space that should have served players well. On the perimeter of the “playing area” were three huge tents, a red one for Team Valor, a blue one for Team Mystic, and a yellow one for Team Instinct.

These tents offered shade from the sun, areas to lounge and charge phones, as well as concession stands. Tucked in-between two of these tents was a merchandising booth, which oddly didn’t have much to sell other than a t-shirt for each team, the Pokémon Go Plus accessory, and a few other little things.

No plush toys or collectibles were for sale. A small row of food trucks, a little wooded area, and an oddly placed “wear a Velcro vest and jump onto a Velcro wall” attraction rounded out the park. Basically, there wasn’t much to do other than play the game. As more trainers poured into Grant Park, the game became even more unplayable, not even booting up for stretches at a time.

The opening ceremony kicked off about an hour into the Fest, and tried to carry a fun atmosphere. The host attempted to pump up the crowd, and Niantic’s CEO John Hanke looked upbeat as ever, but the crowd was already stressing over the game not working. Some players were get- ting online long enough to see that a Pokémon called Unown was spawning in the area. It’s the rarest Pokémon in the game, and people wanted to catch it, but couldn’t log in.

Fest was an unmitigated disaster

Hanke ran out on stage to boos, people yelling “we can’t play,” and a chant of “fix the game.” He stumbled over his opening words, nodded as he looked at his feet, and tried to go into his upbeat spiel, which even talked about the weather. “It looks like we got some sunshine. Let’s hear it for sunshine,” he said as the crowd looked on in disbelief. People came to the event to play the game, and they didn’t want to hear any more pleasantries. The chanting and yelling picked up again, this time louder, and Hanke could no longer ignore it. “I know some of you guys have had trouble getting logged on this morning,” he said. “We got the whole Niantic team working on fixes, so please be patient with us, okay?” Those fixes didn’t come.

A steady stream of new people continued to enter the park, and it was clear the game wasn’t going to work any time soon. I talked to a family of five decked out in Team Mystic gear that flew in from Los Angeles and spent thousands to get to Chicago. They were crushed by what was happening. Hardly anyone could play the game. People with Sprint service fared the best, but even they were struggling to catch anything.

At this point, the Fest was an unmitigated disaster, and no quick fix was in sight. As the heat from the sun increased, so did the sense of unease in the park. A water bottle was thrown at the host on stage. Niantic wouldn’t say the day was lost outright, but when Mike Quigley, the company’s CMO, took the stage, it was clear he was waving the white flag. He said the game was experiencing three issues: one tied to the networks, another to a crash bug, and the last an authentication issue. It sounded like a mess that wasn’t going to be resolved before the Fest closed. A chant of “refunds” be- gan, and I thought a riot was going to break out.

The game glitched during my first Legend- ary battle. I was the only one left standing

Quigley offered everyone in the park a full refund on tickets (which were $20), as well as $100 in in-game currency for Pokémon Go. That still wasn’t enough. People came here to catch the rare beasts. In the entire span of the Fest, I was only able to stay logged in long enough to spin one Pokéstop and catch one critter. Knowing few people would be able to play the game in the park, Niantic did the smartest thing they could: extend the Fest grounds to a two-mile radius into Chicago’s city streets.

Fest as a funeral

This allowed people to play the game and reap the exclusive rewards the Fest was supposed to deliver. I caught roughly a dozen Unowns, but the game was never fully stable, even with the expanded radius. Even small clusters of people brought crashes. In the weeks leading up to the Fest, Niantic revealed players in the park would have to catch enough Pokémon to lure out the game’s first Legendary.

If those trainers in Grant Park defeated the Legendary beasts, they would then be unleashed upon the world. That battle never took place. Niantic shelved the theatrics and just made them available as Raid bosses later that day. As a final apology to people who attended the Fest, Niantic added Lugia to their Pokédexes. None of the handouts were enough to make people forget about the disastrous festival they just attended.

They were sunburnt, tired, unfulfilled, and angry. Niantic doesn’t have a firm grasp on its game, even a year after its release. In its current form, Pokémon Go is clearly not made for large-scale gatherings, or even moderately sized ones. Niantic also clearly didn’t do the proper testing before asking 20,000 people to come together. We watched the game fall apart before our eyes, and hopefully give Niantic the wakeup it desperately needs.

Pokémon Go is a great idea built on a troubling foundation. Niantic shouldn’t think about another fan gathering before the apparent code issues are addressed. Even raids with just 20 people in an area run into issues. That kind of performance isn’t new, however, and has plagued this experience since its start. I talked to a man who traveled from Europe to attend the event, and he said he came here to embrace the game more, but decided he was done with it entirely. He treated the Fest as a funeral.

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