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Enjoying Pokémon GO Fest Despite Its Problems

posted on by Jennifer Sherman

Did Pokémon GO Fest Chicago have issues? Yes. Did I still enjoy my time there? Yes, and I'm glad I went.

To be honest, I'm not necessarily a glass-half-full type of person. However, this event has gotten overwhelmingly negative press that I don't fully agree with. Players have a right to be upset over the problems on Saturday, but some of the feedback feels overly harsh. Let's take a look at what happened from my experiences there compared to what Niantic promised on its official Pokémon GO website.

I stopped by Grant Park on Friday to check out the scene before the coming day's event. Everything appeared to be in place, and the entire park was fenced off with metal gates. The entrance was ready to accept 20,000 registered fans, but Niantic would have been wise to add another entrance.

Sprint and Boost Mobile stores gave out so many First Catch Hour wristbands that many players who received them didn't enter the event early. Niantic began allowing lines to form at 6:00 a.m. for the event with the general start time of 10:00 a.m. As someone fairly close to the front of the early admission line, I got in at about 9:40 a.m. Personnel at the entrance were thoroughly checking bags, so players continued to pour in the only gate for at least another hour.

After I got in, it took several attempts to spin a PokéStop and scan the QR code on the card we received at the entrance. The code activated the in-game parts of the event for attendees, including Unown spelling "Chicago," Heracross (normally a region exclusive for South America), and special 2K Eggs. At that point, the cell networks inside the park were not yet too overwhelmed. I managed to catch my first Heracross and other Pokémon, visit special PokéStops, and battle a Pikachu Raid Boss (which was special for the day) before the major network issues started at around 10:30 a.m. The excitement in the air was still fresh as players explored the park.

An announcement came over the speakers to gather all Trainers at the main stage before the first Challenge Window opened that would help unlock rewards for players around the world. The unfortunate host of the stage events immediately received booing and chants of "Fix the game!" and "We can't play!" when she started speaking.

It's completely reasonable that fans were upset. Some of them couldn't even unlock the in-game aspect after entering the park because of the network overload. However, the host could barely talk over the initial booing. It's regrettable that people chose to take out their frustrations on someone simply hired to read lines who had no control over the situation.

Next, Niantic CEO John Hanke appeared on stage to more booing. He at first tried to go ahead with his planned words, but went off the script to comment on the situation and ask for patience while Niantic worked on the issues. Many fans left the first stage event frustrated and asking for answers. I decided to check out the grounds in more detail.

This was not another Fyre Festival. The physical setup of the event in Grant Park was done well. There was a good selection of food and various water bottle filling stations. Cute photo opportunity spots let fans take pictures on the screens of giant smartphone-shaped boards. The stage was framed with balloon arches representing the game's three teams: Mystic, Valor, and Instinct. Team lounges offered an escape from the heat, screens showing event info, and additional concession stands. Niantic clearly put a lot of time and money into planning the event space. Despite the heat and soggy ground, it was a very pleasant location to wander around.

Special PokéStops gave fans exclusive 2K Eggs that hatched some less exciting Pokémon as well as rare monsters. Niantic could have been more explicit about the Eggs so that players didn't set their hopes too high and become disappointed when the hatched ordinary creatures. Yet, some people were hatching Chansey, Larvitar, Dratini, and other prized creatures from the Eggs. Pokémon type banners were also set up around the park to indicate which varieties of Pokémon were spawning in the wild in that subsection of the park.

The elephant in the room was, of course, our inability to play the game we came there to play. Players had in-game errors, crashing with the inability to reload the game, and lagging problems with Gym and Raid battles. In the early afternoon, Niantic went back on stage to acknowledge concerns. A representative said that the root cause was two server issues on Niantic's side that the entire staff was working to correct, as well as the local cellular networks' inability to handle the load of all the players in the park. He said that Niantic was in touch with all the cellular providers in the area to try to mitigate the server load problems.

Before the event, Niantic reportedly contacted all the cell network providers in Chicago and told them the traffic they expected and what they should prepare for. All of the providers apparently said they would be able to handle the load and it wouldn't be a concern for the event. Niantic also asked the providers for cells on wheels (COW), but only Sprint, which had an existing partnership with Niantic, agreed to send out COW to provide better service. That's why Sprint customers had better service than most other players at the event.

The biggest issue of the day was largely out of Niantic's control. It seems that Niantic did what it reasonably could to prevent and address the connectivity issues that occurred.

I decided that since I couldn't efficiently play the game for much of the day that I would still try to do everything I could to take advantage of the event. I discussed the game with players around me in line to meet Nick of Trainer Tips, one of the YouTubers who have become the face of Pokémon GO. I took a picture with Pikachu, received a physical Trainer Level badge from Sprint, and signed up to receive in-app bonus items from Boost Mobile. All-in-all, I was managing to accomplish a lot while I waited.

Pokémon GO is based on the idea that players get out to explore their world. Also, interacting and cooperating with other Trainers is the heart of the updated battle system. I personally loved the opportunity to interact with communities of Trainers from around the world. That was a main factor that made the event a positive experience for me. Niantic succeeded in bringing together thousands of people in the real world, and that is perhaps the biggest goal of the game at its core.

Due to the sheer number of players sharing networks in a small space, some Trainers were still unable to play despite Niantic's efforts to solve the problems it could. Later in the afternoon, Niantic announced to players in the park that everyone who attended would receive a refund for the price of admission, PokéCoins worth US$100, and Lugia in the game. In addition, Niantic expanded the event area to a two-mile radius around the park so that attendees could encounter the event Unown, Heracross, and special Eggs in a wider area for two additional days until Monday.

That was the decision that improved gameplay and the overall mood of the event most for players. With more chances to play and a wider area to play in, people began exploring the city to catch rare monsters and take on Raids in their groups of friends.

Niantic announced on Tuesday that it was further extending the worldwide bonuses until Thursday to give players an even bigger window to enjoy the perks unlocked on Saturday. Although it seemed like Niantic would limit the possible bonuses to only one or two, the company is allowing players to earn all six rewards based on the type of monsters caught during Challenge Windows. Players can currently earn Candy, XP, Stardust, Egg distance, Buddy distance, and encounter rate bonuses. Niantic's decision to further extend the bonus period brought home the company's commitment to its players for some fans. The top comment on the announcement's Facebook post reads:

Niantic, I know you guys get a lotta crap from complainers, but this weekend has been some of the most fun I've had with the game-- the event and the rewards have encouraged players to meet new people and play collaboratively. Getting to see people high-five my excited 4-year-old when he caught a Lugia is a pretty great memory.

That's also what made Pokémon GO Fest Chicago most memorable to me. With this game, Niantic has pulled off something remarkable that no one else did before. Not only does the game lead the vanguard for a new wave of AR technology, but it also brings together a warm and welcoming community of players around the world who help each other have simple and pure fun while experiencing the outdoors.

We will probably never know the full scale of what the Saturday event was supposed to be. The final Mystery Challenge was meant to be a Raid Battle that attendees would take down and unlock for the world. Niantic wisely chose not to attempt to offer the Lugia Raid Battle during the planned window at the event due to the overwhelmed cell networks. However, in classic Niantic fashion, the game developers snuck in a huge surprise for fans who were wandering away after the event's anticlimactic end at 7:00 p.m.

I heard "Lugia!" and saw a stampede run across the park. Staff quickly herded excited fans toward the exit because the park was closed. I followed at regular speed because I was sure someone was lying for entertainment again. But sure enough, there was one lone Lugia, the very first in the game, hovering above the Gym at Buckingham Fountain. After Niantic announced a Legendary would appear at the event, it's what we were all hoping for but no longer expecting. Although no Legendary Egg or Legendary Raid Pass appeared, we still got our chances to catch the promised Legendary. The cheering and excitement seen at end of the announcement video below was even more deafening in real life.

Although everyone was sunburnt and tired as the event came to a close, the crowd of hundreds of players still lingering turned into all smiles as soon as the Legendary monster appeared. It was heartwarming to see pubescent boys squeal in delight (or scream and fall on the ground) as they caught their first Lugias.

And that wasn't the end. Lugia and Articuno started to appear all over Chicago. People swarmed the streets. As a further thank-you and apology to the people of Chicago, the new Legendary Boss Raids were available for everyone and not only the people that registered for the event. Within a two-mile radius of Grant Park, the Legendaries had an astounding 100% catch rate. Outside that area, it is much harder to catch the creatures, but they are currently appearing as Raid Bosses in abundance to offer plenty of chances for a catch. Although much of Saturday was rough for everyone at Pokémon GO Fest Chicago, Niantic found a way to end the day on an incredibly high note. That surreal experience made the event for me despite the problems.

I ended up walking around Chicago with a player from Wisconsin that I met at the first Lugia Raid. We wandered together helping each other locate and catch four Legendaries that night. By the time I had to fly back on Sunday, I'd caught eight Legendaries, 26 Unown, and 17 Heracross. My feet were throbbing, but my mind was buzzing from the excitement.

Fans can continue to help Niantic plan better events by providing rational, constructive criticism. Everyone knows what went wrong with the Chicago event, but we can't forget what went right with Niantic's response to make the best of unfortunate circumstances. Hopefully we can work more with Niantic, and the company will take everyone's thoughts into account to create better experiences in the future.

Trainers in Europe can soon "get out and GO" to the upcoming Pokémon GO Safari Zone events. The rest of us can look forward to more Legendary birds appearing this summer in our quests to "catch 'em all."

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