My legs are still aching, but what an amazing weekend I've just had. I'm just back from Pokémon Go's first big live event of the summer, in Dortmund, Germany, where a Safari Zone full of ludicrously generous Pokémon spawns attracted hundreds of thousands of players - some of whom had travelled from all over the world.
Safari Zone was a free event - spread over Dortmund's enormous and beautiful Westfalenpark, and then across the whole inner city centre - but the associated costs of travel and accommodation for attendees (the entire city was booked up) meant the pressure was on for Niantic to deliver an event without the widespread technical troubles which marred Chicago last year. It had a whole year to take stock - and you could see the extra provisions around the park: mobile cell towers for extra coverage, areas of wireless internet. And yet, as players dribbled into the park from lengthy queues, things did not go to plan.
A little before midday, with network coverage in some areas of the park beginning to show signs of the 50,000 people - the site's quickly maxed out capacity - playing, a major bug erupted in Pokémon Go's game code. Anyone using Incense, a premium item bought to boost nearby Pokémon numbers, was locked out. And they continued to be - for up to five hours. Players were left listening to regular announcements over tannoys that Niantic was aware of the issue, and that those like me who could still patchily play would find better results back in Dortmund city centre.
Niantic had always planned to use the whole of central Dortmund, but had also heavily promoted Westfalenpark as the place to be. For the groups of players I spoke to from Cambridge and London, who had queued at the park gates from 3am and 6am, being told to leave the place they had waited hours to get into was - to put it lightly - something of a communications fail. Outside of the park on Saturday afternoon, things continued to be wobbly. I spoke with furious players from Germany, Mexico, Scotland, and a lady from Belgium affected by the Incense bug who'd slept in her car to get there.
But then, miraculously, around 4pm Niantic found a fix to the Incense issue and - with everyone better distributed around Dortmund city centre, plus some likely having headed home for the day - the network issues calmed. Baffled locals looked on as thousands of players walked the streets and stopped to sort through their catches in its squares. I have never seen as many valuable Pokémon within the game in such volume, and it was clear from the group I was walking with - players I'd found from Brighton - that Niantic had boosted the rate of encounters for the ultra-rare Shiny Pokémon variants. The mood quickly lifted, and I ended up playing until past 10pm, hoovering up everything I could in the good company of others doing exactly the same.
Day two brought nothing more than the odd network wobble - a need to reset the game and go again - as the crowds once again surged through the city. Niantic managed queues at Westfalenpark by quietly opening its gates early to those who had turned up, meaning easy access by the time I got there. WiFi was now advertised as available throughout the park, not just in specific spots. And players had now learned from experience that the same spawns were available across the city, allowing everyone to spread out. Up until I had to leave in the early afternoon, I chatted to players from Finland and Wales, Oxford and London, all playing fine. Why hadn't it been like this on day one?
Saturday's issues had put a dampener on the first day, and there was disbelief Niantic had hosted another event which hadn't gone to plan. But throughout it all, and despite the understandable griping, the event never hit the stage-heckling lows of Chicago. Dortmund this past weekend was a baking 30C hot. Throughout, there remained a rock festival atmosphere to the event, Westfalenpark filled with players enjoying the weather on bean bags in the shade and under the enormous team-coloured pavilions. People proudly wore their free Pikachu headbands, many already dressed up for the occasion. The shouts of "Shiny!" - the same in any language, apparently - were loud and constant. Goodness knows how hot the cosplayer in a full furry Squirtle suit was, but bless him for asking for "ein euro" for a photo. In those temperatures you deserve it, mate.
I love Pokémon Go for its unexpected, unique moments of social interaction. Not the circle of people silently staring at their phones, but the groups of mums and dads and kids and couples and retirees playing together. Over the weekend I spoke to dozens of these. I remember the family from Margate - mum a wheelchair user - who had found a disabled parking spot just outside the park. Their kids were having a whale of a time. The party from Nebraska, over especially for the event. The guys from my home city of Norwich, who'd hired a bus and got there on the overnight ferry, their specially-printed T-shirts proudly displaying PoGo Norwich and their trainer names. The couple from East Grinstead who usually play with their dog, who has an account himself and plays wearing an auto-catching Go-tcha device on his collar. The rush of people from one side of the park to the other after a hoax call of a rare spawn, prompting a hurried tannoy announcement that "there was nothing behind the stage!".
Sunburned and exhausted, Pokémon Go-account stuffed to the brim, I left Dortmund remembering these people and moments and everything that went right from Saturday afternoon onward. On the way to the station, small stampedes were taking place, as people shouted about a high-level Pokémon a block away. Niantic pulled it off - just - although I had plenty of questions to ask its boss John Hanke during an interview on the second day - look for that online soon. With Pokémon Go's even bigger return to Chicago up next in just a fortnight, Niantic needs to deliver.
This article was based on a press trip to Dortmund, Niantic paid for travel and accommodation.
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