Last year's Pokémon Go Fest events attracted around 300,000 ticket holders to the parks and city plazas of Chicago, Dortmund and Yokohama. This year? Well, 2020 is a little different.
As every game developer deals with the added challenges of 2020, it feels like Pokémon Go maker Niantic is having to adapt more than most. The start of the year saw a swathe of live events - including the UK's first Safari Zone in Liverpool - postponed. Then Niantic was forced to make sweeping changes to Pokémon Go itself, necessitated by what felt like a unique and sustained existential threat to the kind of social, outdoors gameplay Niantic was founded to promote.
But Niantic adapted, added new features, changed others. And as world headlines moved from reporting on 2020's pandemic to the wave of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, Niantic stepped up to provide what many praised as the best response anywhere in the games industry: a slew of internal promises and an eye-opening minimum pledge of $5m from this year's Go Fest 2020 ticket sales.
Speaking in a recent Zoom roundtable call attended by Eurogamer, Niantic founder John Hanke praised the Pokémon Go community which attended its live events as being a "rainbow of players" of all races, genders and socio-economic backgrounds.
"Right now we see the fabric of our country being stretched, past the breaking point," Hanke added, saying that Niantic's playerbase and its aim for encouraging safe social interaction was needed now more than ever. "If we can bring joy to people right now, we want to do that."
Go Fest 2020 details
So, here's the headline news on Go Fest 2020. As previously announced, it'll run as an entirely virtual event on Saturday 25th and Sunday 26th July, wherever you are. Tickets go on sale in-game from today, priced $14.99/£14.99 or local equivalent ("plus any applicable taxes and fees"), and will be available to all worldwide.
The event will tell a new story within Pokémon Go which will begin in the weeks leading up to the event itself and continue for ticket holders through the game and via social media during the event weekend. There's new challenge-based gameplay within the app, as well as new social features. There's a new system designed to emulate the physical event's various biomes. And yes, there will be a Mythical Pokémon to catch.
Over the weeks leading up to Go Fest 2020, all players will be able to unlock extra Pokémon for the event itself by completing three weekly sets of Timed Research from Professor Willow. It sounds similar to the team-based challenges we've seen in previous years to unlock other in-game bonuses, and you can take part whether you have a ticket or not.
On Saturday 25th July, 10am to 8pm local time, Go Fest 2020 will begin for ticket holders with a new Special Research quest and a rotating set of hourly spawns. Over the 10 hours of play, five habitats like those from the physical Go Fests will be featured hour by hour - themed around fire, water, grass, "battle" and "friendship".
A new Global Challenge Arena in the game will let ticket holders earn bonuses for the remainder of each hour by completing tasks and seeing their progress updated in real-time. It's the sort of thing Niantic has run before and tracked via Twitter, now packaged into the app. The sooner players unlock a bonus, the sooner it is live to enjoy for the remainder of that hour.
There's no word yet on what Pokémon to expect, although new artwork for the event notably features the highly sought-after Gible, as well as the event-exclusive Unown. Pokémon spawns will be the same for everyone around the world, but some regional Pokémon are expected - indeed, both Seviper and Zangoose are shown, normally separated by hemisphere.
On Sunday 26th July, 10am to 8pm local time, a second Special Research questline will kick in and... that's about all we know so far. "We want the Day 2 experience to be a surprise," Niantic said, "so ticket holders will learn what we have in store that very day."
It's likely the Sunday will be your chance to encounter the event's Mythical Pokémon (our money's on Gen 4's Shaymin). More than 75 species will be offered over the weekend in total.
Niantic is working to recreate the feeling of community felt while attending one of its events with further features: a virtual team lounge website with giveaways, developer interviews and event updates, plus print at home kits to make your own papercraft Poké Gifts.
A new cross-game platform named Niantic Social will also be added to the game around this time. Initially, it will let you see which friends are online in any Niantic game (Pokémon Go, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, Ingress) as well as in-game stats, with more features to follow.
Future changes, and future games
"This year is a unique situation," Niantic event boss Michael Sterenka said when asked if the virtual Go Fest 2020 could be a template for the company's future. In-person live events are part of Niantic's DNA, he added, and the company has previously announced plans to run this year's cancelled Safari Zones as physical events when possible.
"In the year ahead, we will be closely monitoring guidance from global health officials regarding larger public gatherings," a Niantic spokesperson followed up to Eurogamer. "We very much look forward to hosting in-person live events when it's safe to do so."
As the company returns to a new normal, some of Pokémon Go's recent player lifeline features will be retired, while some will be made permanent. The game's expanded limit of holding and sending gifts will become standard, for example, while the expanded PokéStop and Gym will remain in place for the foreseeable future. Walking distances for the Go Battle League will return "in a way that makes sense". Oh, and the rumours were true - the game's long-held level 40 cap will be changed, senior developer Matt Slemon confirmed, although there's no word yet on when or how.
When asked how 2020 had effected Niantic as a whole, Hanke acknowledged the year so far had incurred a "negative impact" in terms of usage and revenue, but that the multi-billion-earning company was still "doing okay".
New usage figures for Pokémon Go included a total of 30m remote raids completed so far since the feature's addition less than two months ago. The game has now seen more than 28bn kilometres walked, 290bn places visited in 195 countries and 20bn gifts sent (a stat which went up this year). Lastly, 1bn Go Battle League competitive matches have been completed since January.
After righting itself, Niantic will next look to help other businesses recover via a new program for Pokémon Go players to help promote a local small business near them. The Niantic Local Business Recovery Initiative will pick 1000 player-submitted locations to appear in Pokémon Go for free for a year, starting with those in the US, UK, Japan, Canada and Mexico.
Businesses will be able to appear in-game whenever they have re-opened or feel it safe to encourage customers in. There was mention of the ability to offer timed raids, or just a PokéStop to advertise the business to local players. To nominate and get more information, Niantic has set up a page which will go live today here.
And finally, there's news on Niantic itself. Alongside growing its existing games, it has a product roadmap for 10 new launches, with the plan to debut two per year. Following up to Eurogamer, Niantic clarified this meant "two new products that will take the form of AR games or AR experiences, beginning this year".