Pokémon Go's return to Chicago this year was as important for fans as it was for developer Niantic: revisiting the site of an old wound to repair things completely. Last year's disastrous loss of connectivity struck a far wider blow than the disappointment felt by attendees - it stung the game's dedicated community across the globe, unseating faith Niantic could foster the phenomenon it had founded, earning a black mark in the company's corporate copybook as custodians of a global brand. Coming back risked reopening that old wound - and yet Niantic had something to prove, and was keen to atone for what had gone before.
And it felt like, right up until this weekend, success was far from certain. Last month's enormous Safari Zone gathering in Dortmund, Germany was a fun but fumbled affair, with Niantic still having to firefight issues early on and afterwards. In my interview with Niantic boss John Hanke, I questioned whether enormous meetups (50,000 in one city park) were technologically practical, whether gameplay across an entire city radius was a better fit for the hordes of fans wanting to play. This weekend's Chicago event was another held in a city park - but, as it turned out, Niantic had something very different in store.
Where last year's Go Fest flirted with the idea of having certain areas of Grant Park feature different Pokémon, Go Fest 2018 expanded this into a carefully choreographed adventure in the larger Lincoln Park which made excellent use of the game's recently added quests feature. On entering the park, players with tickets scanned in their wristband's QR code via one of the waiting PokéStops - there were two entrances, lots of Stops, no need for barriers or queues. On doing so, the in-game environment around you came to life: rare spawns and special PokéStops sprung up, and the game's fan-favourite character Professor Willow popped up on screen. Players were given a set of tasks to help investigate strange events goings on, with gameplay akin to the Mew quest earlier this year. But whereas those missions were about elongating and embellishing the find of the game's first Mythical creature, this weekend's were about getting you moving around the area and exploring.
You were greeted by Unowns, rare creatures typically only encountered at events, and Torkoal, Go Fest 2018's visiting regional creature (usually only found in South East Asia). There was the temptation to linger around the event's starting area - to create the kinds of non-moving blobs of people which gummed up certain spots in Dortmund's Westfallenpark - but Professor Willow's requirements were calling. Collecting Pokémon of different types, one early task encouraged players to visit the park's miniature biomes. A fire area boasted smoking volcanoes which looked a little like they were made from papier-mâché, a snow zone with an igloo and foam snowflakes for kids to catch and chase, a sandy desert locale with cacti, and a small copse of jungle which needed no real extra theming in the weekend's muggy 30C weather.
As we explored the event's looping path - Pokémon Go players love a good loop - we found ourselves darting back on ourselves from time to time to mop up quest requirements. In Dortmund, despite the park's intricate layout, much of the crowd seemed devoted to a slow, unchanging clockwise plod. Completing tasks lead to more dialogue from the Prof, some impressive rewards (Metagross for catching 20 Steel types!), and further requests to fulfil: spinning Stops, hatching eggs, walking with your buddy Pokémon - which again required players to keep moving, exploring. Towards the end of the questline, a task to catch Unown then drew players back to the entrances where we'd seen the creatures originally, organically guiding us back towards the park's edges. The final step - catching Celebi, the game's second Mythical, available to the this weekend's 20,000 ticket holders before anyone else in the world - felt a fittingly impressive and unique reward. There's no word yet exactly when Celebi will become available worldwide - "soon" is all that's offered - but the missions for everyone else to acquire it will by necessity be different, the storyline about the park changed, and without the experience of being among the crowds of other fans playing alongside one another.
In the end, it felt like Niantic had left little to chance. Portable COWs (Cell towers On Wheels) were installed weeks in advance, the phone network infrastructure quietly tested last Community Day. Petrol-driven generators powered Wi-Fi access points. Gyms were removed from the park to avoid crowds massing in any one spot. As I understand it, there were backup plans for the backup plans in case anything did go disastrously wrong. As it was, service remained mostly smooth throughout, with minor issues reported by customers on one network, Verizon, in a particular park area. Speaking with someone familiar with the situation, I was told this was a coverage black spot Niantic had flagged with the network prior to the event, and which other networks had worked to fill. Spawns in that particular area were spread elsewhere to ensure those on Verizon could continue the quest without problems. Tellingly, Go Fest's help desk stations remained near-deserted all day.
Meanwhile, the event's team-coloured lounges and region-themed biomes remained bustling, as emcees hosted giveaways and, brilliantly, began organising and matching trade partners for people seeking specific rare Pokémon for their collection. (If you're ever in the US, European people, take some Mr. Mime. They will *love* you for it.) As the day wore on, our quests finished, we stayed on to soak up more Unown spawns and hunt down even more Shiny variants - Plusle and Minun were in abundance, although the appearance rate of others was also boosted. (My first shiny Wailmer! Finally!) And then, on the stroke of 6pm, the event ended, and the special in-game spawns disappeared to audible groans from those still running around trying to catch as much as they still could. The day was over, and after some 20km of walking we shuffled back downtown.
Go Fest 2018 ran both days of the weekend to fit in as many people as possible, though the event itself was a one-day per person affair. Our second day in Chicago, then, was spent exploring the city itself, where good if not spectacular spawns were still in abundance (Shiny possibles like Snorunt, plus rarer breeds like Trapinch - though no Unown or Torkoal). At 2pm, the city's gyms outside sprang to life for three hours of legendary-only raids - the globally returned Lugia, and a Chicago-only return for Articuno, after last week's money-intensive global Articuno Day. During those hours we saw much of Chicago's attractive downtown area as we darted about in the 30C heat smashing more than a dozen raids in the timeframe. It was a fine counterpoint to the more methodical, measured explorations of the day before - and a chance to see the Pokémon Go community collected on random street corners and around famous landmarks city-wide.
Go Fest 2018 was a pivotal moment for the game - and it delivered. Niantic had felt like it needed to return, to prove it had learned from last year and finally give Chicago a great event. There's never been a better time, either - as the game's popularity resurges and this year's mainline Pokémon games for Switch blur the lines between GameFreak's original vision of the franchise and Niantic's billion dollar re-imagining. Fans are already calling for more of these choreographed, narrative adventures in the future, for the smaller, better planned experience alongside a more general city-wide playground to become the norm. I'd love to see a Go Fest 2019 with larger biomes, with even more in the park to encourage interaction between with other players. But Niantic has time to work on all of that - and at last, the spectre of the past finally feels like it will now stay there.
This article was based on a press trip to Chicago. Niantic covered travel and accommodation.