This weekend I attended Dortmund Safari Zone, Pokémon Go's first big live event of the summer, and everything did not go entirely to plan. It was a positive experience overall, but once again it was not without its technical wobbles.
On Sunday morning I got to chat with John Hanke, the boss of Pokémon Go developer Niantic, to ask what went wrong and what Niantic was doing to ensure its events continued to improve.
In our wide-ranging chat we also touched on various other hot-button issues - the company's work to battle bots and how it affects users, the frequency of updates to the game, and - of course - the upcoming Squirtle community day.
The full chat lies below.
This is Pokémon Go's first big event of 2018 but, just like last year's Chicago, it has been a bumpy ride. How did yesterday go for you guys?
John Hanke: Well, not like Chicago in the sense that was a total outage for quite a while. Yesterday we had bumps with the carriers and bumps with our own server so it wasn't as smooth as we'd have liked, but it was nice some people at least got to play in the park for all day, and the city seemed to be working well, and then everyone got online and it was a really nice evening. But definitely stressful during the day at times.
The [early morning] queuing was unfortunate - it concentrated people onto specific [mobile network] access points accessible from the queueline which then created a sort of shock to the system which took a while to resolve. We opened the park early today, unannounced for those who did show up, so they could disperse into the park rather than being clumped around the entrance to take the pressure off specific sites. So we didn't see the specific lock up which we saw yesterday when those specific cell sites were overwhelmed.
What went wrong with the Incense bug? Players started to work out this had caused it, Niantic caught on. What happened?
John Hanke: It was a bug in the software - a very, very large number of people in a small area were using Incense and it wasn't a situation we'd encountered at that scale before. We found a corner of the code were something wasn't as efficient as it needed to be...
Was there no way to foresee that? Did it not come up in Chicago last year?
John Hanke: No, we'd never seen it before and I don't know... yesterday was interesting because there was Wi-Fi set up as a fallback but it was obviously strongest at the access points, people were tied to that rather than exploring the full extent of the park. It was an unusually high number of people anyway, but with that, I don't know. We hadn't seen it before but the team worked incredibly hard to track it down and get it fixed. It took a little bit of time.
I know people who were out for about five hours. Some people had to head home.
John Hanke: Some people did come back to the park - we saw the numbers there go up by around 5000 later in the day.
Yesterday evening in the city was enjoyable - there were loads of spawns and a significantly higher shiny rate. Was that always the plan?
John Hanke: The plan was always to make the city around the park also have really good gameplay - just to encourage them to explore and avoid extreme concentrations of people as much as possible around the fewest number of cell towers, which is the point of weakness. So it was designed to be attractive!
Gameplay across the city, not just constrained to the park, seemed to work really well yesterday evening, whereas concentrated locations like the park add stress to game servers. Is it logical to continue promoting concentrated locations? Why not promote a whole city from the off?
John Hanke: There are certain things you can do in a controlled environment like a park - pavilions, PokéStops, photo opportunities - which make it perfect for walking around. Doing that across an entire city, there are limitations to what you can do to elevate the environment above normal gameplay.
The level of shinies there last night...
John Hanke: You can do it digitally but to do it physically, to make that experience of a day in the park with friends, lounging and having some food and drink, some background music, feeling like you're there with your community, I do think there's benefit to making it work. So, we are pioneering this, we are continuing to get better at this, and I expect we won't be the only company at the end of the day that does them. It's early days, Bob Dylan's first electric concert - if you go back and listen to that - it's a little rough. There are these transition periods where people try and figure out new things, and this is kind of like that. It gets better each time.
Looking to Chicago, which is just two weeks away, have there been any tweaks? How are you reacting?
John Hanke: We're absorbing at the moment, writing up our internal reports on what we think the causes were for things which didn't go as we wanted them to and what we can do. Thinking about Chicago I don't think we have the major takeaways [from Dortmund] at this point, but obviously it's top of my mind to make sure we avoid - if at all possible - any kind of hiccups. I'm sure we'll have a lot of scrutiny on us there - probably even more so than here - it'll be bigger because of what happened last year. But we signed up to return to Chicago because we want to put on a great event there and deliver that for fans. We're doing everything we can to pull that off.
So fans shouldn't be worried, looking at Dortmund?
John Hanke: We'll be doing everything we can to make a great event. I think it'd be arrogant of me to say 'don't worry!', but we believe it'll be good or we wouldn't be doing it.
Niantic has announced a makeup event in-game this week for Europe. You have a difficult balancing act there, because people who did make the journey to Dortmund will not want to feel like everyone else across the continent is getting the same in-game rewards. They are the ones being apologised to, after they bought flights and hotels, after all. How do you balance that?
John Hanke: All I can say is we're aware of exactly the trade-off you just outlined and we're trying to find a reasonable balance there.
[Niantic has now announced it will release Corsola - the event's region exclusive - across Europe for 48 hours.]
I think Tropius would be a good shout.
John Hanke: [laughs]
Could you have looked at the Pokémon Go players active within the Dortmund area, where they were geo-tagged between those hours, and just compensated them? Is that technically possible?
John Hanke: I don't think so.
John Hanke: We looked at many options yesterday thinking of the right way to follow up and some consideration was given to that one, but there are some challenges to being able to do that.
So the other option is the whole of Europe gets something? Were there any others considered?
John Hanke: There probably were - discussions were going on around many people that afternoon but those were the two that I participated in.
Did you consider the idea of refunds for people's hotels or flights who couldn't play?
John Hanke: Not something that was discussed. I don't think, for a free event, that's something we would do. For people who were unable to use items purchased in-game or who had challenges like that, our Ops team is certainly being sympathetic to the situation people were in.
Looking ahead to this weekend, and Articuno day, you're giving everyone five free raid passes to try and get a shiny Articuno in three hours, but haven't said how realistic this will be. Normally, shiny legendaries take around 15-20 tries, but can be even more. Are you setting up a large proportion of the userbase to not get that shiny, or are you adjusting the rates to make sure most or all do?
Kento Suga [Niantic's Global Marketing Lead]: We're not saying people must get a Shiny. We can't share the detail of the gameplay but we are thinking about the right balance. The idea behind it is to bring people together - and as a reward for achieving the task results this past weekend.
Players have never failed to unlock a global task reward, but do you have a backup plan if they ever did?
Kento Suga: We do have a backup plan... it's not something we could share. If people had failed to unlock Farfetch'd there was a plan... but it's not one I can disclose!
One burning issue for players right now is the bugged friendship levelling system. Any news there on a fix?
Kento Suga: We're working on it. The friend feature is still in its very beginning phase - the levelling bug will be fixed along the way.
But no timescale yet?
Kento Suga: Not one we can share at this point, but we're working on it for sure.
John, I believe a man on a flight recently talked to you and then wrote about it all on reddit. You mentioned player-versus-player gameplay was being worked on. Anything more to share there?
John Hanke: I spent an hour with him, we had a good conversation. We've talked about PVP ever since launch and it's definitely on our roadmap... Since 2017 we've been striving for a major game update every quarter. The second half of 2017, in the aftermath of Chicago, we lost some time there when the team went into bug-fix and performance mode, taking on bots which is an unfortunate distraction. So the cadence in 2017 wasn't all we wanted it to be, although we did get Weather out before the end of the year. This year it's been more regular with Gen 3, Quests and Friends and we're looking forward to finishing out the year with something interesting for people.
Does that mean two more big updates, autumn and winter?
John Hanke: [laughs] I couldn't say specifically.
But that would be the game plan if it was one per quarter?
John Hanke: I guess you could put a buffer in there for the events season - we're going to be spending the rest of July and August making sure events go well.
So just one more update this year then?
John Hanke: [laughs] I'll let you do the calendar math to figure it out. But I feel like the team is in a great place to deliver good quality updates and we have a much bigger team which has been growing over the past few years that is bigger now even than a few months ago. We have a 12 month roadmap. The team is in a much stronger place to deliver on that. The game is strong, the community is strong, usage is up.
There was a figure floating around this past week that Pokémon Go now has more active users than at any point since its initial summer of launch. Is that accurate?
John Hanke: It's been a strong year!
[Laughs] What does that really mean?
John Hanke: Usage is up and people have responded to the big updates throughout the year - and also to Community Days. Those have both been drivers for daily active users, monthly active users, time spent in the game. More sessions, longer sessions, more users.
Community Days were announced as a year-long thing, but presumably they will continue? Fans would love them to.
John Hanke: I think they're great. I think we'll do them forever. It was an interesting experiment - we've done lots of types of events, even going back to Ingress, but to do something worldwide all in the same day was new this year and it worked even better than we thought it would. It's been a really nice discovery and good way to do something with the community.
Squirtle Community Day is this weekend. Are you aware of the desire for a Squirtle Squad Squirtle? ...Are you aware what the Squirtle Squad is?
John Hanke: Uhuh...
There were some tweets from Niantic about sunglasses this week... it certainly seems like Niantic is aware.
Kento Suga: Yes we are. Yes we are... and I think our image - the shades on the beach... [laughs] We'll see... There's a huge fanbase for the Squirtle Squad, and we are aware of this!
Party hat Wurmple also has some fans, for when you're running out of Community Days.
John Hanke: [laughs] We'll give you credit.
[Niantic has now announced a Squirtle with shades will be available this Community Day.]
You mentioned bots earlier, and there was an update just prior to Quests launching which took down game scans. These remain down, some months later, to the surprise of people who expected them to be back by now. If and when they are cracked again and return, is it back to the game of cat-and-mouse?
John Hanke: We watch it really closely. It's not scans which are the primary offender, but the APIs you would use to talk to the game server are the same ones you would use to automate gameplay - to amass accounts which you can then sell on eBay. Automated farming of Pokémon and the selling of accounts is something very disadvantageous to those who play legitimately, who travel across Europe to participate in events, who work with friends to build up their level and Pokédex, so it's about fairness. We look at it constantly and it takes a fair amount of resource as there are people out there with businesses built up around selling Pokémon accounts. It's interesting - it's a sign of success there are people out there invested in doing that kind of thing - but it takes resources to combat it which I'd rather spend on building new features. It's a multiplayer game - and like a football match you have to pay for the referees and infrastructure.
I'd never argue for selling accounts or spoofing, but some of the functionality of scans themselves does lend itself to enjoyable gameplay. A rare Pokémon appearing on the edge of town, and dozens of people coordinating lifts to zoom over and get it just in time. Just being able to see raids in my town a few metres outside of the gameplay radius.
John Hanke: We have to find opportunities to make that information available through APIs or gameplay features. I'm not promising anything but it's something we're actively looking at - where there might be things which make the game fun for people and how can we provide that in a way that replaces people going in and hacking into the server.
Are we going to see more narrative in the game? Recently we saw Professor Willow pop back up again to send people off on Quests and introduce the Mew storyline.
John Hanke: Definitely, we're under invested in writing and it's undervalued in the genre to some degree. I'm interested in building on that in Niantic generally. With Pokémon it's somewhat challenging - it's not fully in our control and Pokémon is a great franchise because the keepers of the Pokémon flame are quite careful, so any story or fictional elements have to coordinated with them. So we don't have full freedom but it probably all should be coordinated by the central authorities of Pokémon to keep it all true to spirit of the original creations.
Gameplay-wise, is that relationship similar to story elements when it comes to developing new features? Was The Pokémon Company keen for you guys to put in trading, for example, something which has been in the main series since day one?
John Hanke: I'd characterise that as a collaboration. Niantic has a lot of expertise around location and group play, and large scale MMO-like mobile gameplay. And then there are things which are coming from the world of Pokémon from the past 20 years. They'll have ideas, preferences for certain things over others. There's a lot of back and forth between the companies about what to prioritise. And not only what to prioritise but how it should be implemented - whether that's consistent or deliberately different.
How early were you aware of Pokémon Let's Go?
John Hanke: A long time ago - I don't know how long they worked on the game but, a year or so?
Are you flattered?
John Hanke: Sure, I think it's good it's interlinked in this way. It feels like an interconnected universe where people are coordinating to make it all fit together. I'm glad we're part of that, and not an off-shoot that's not viewed as part of the Pokémon world, but part of the world and games and fictions The Pokémon Company makes.
I was amazed how similar it was to Pokémon Go. I played it back at E3. The main series never really evolves its gameplay, but to see how much it has been influenced by Niantic's gameplay was amazing.
John Hanke: Well, obviously Pokémon Go has been influenced by Pokémon. [laughs] But it's nice to see a little bit of that flow back. And if we're a jolt of new energy and ideas into that world then that's fantastic, we've made a contribution.
This article was based on a press trip to Dortmund, Niantic paid for travel and accommodation.