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How Pokémon Go's disastrous first fan gathering undid months of goodwill


It was all going so well. After a shaky launch amid the genuine fever of last summer, Pokmon Go was riding high with a successful string of updates; a new generation of creatures, an effective rework of gyms that encouraged players back out into the open, and a regular stream of activities to make more unusual creatures easier to find. With a generally smoother connection experience compared to launch, Pokmon Go has begun living up to its vast potential and fans, generally, had never been happier with developer Niantic.

The game’s inaugural anniversary event, Pokmon Go Fest, should have been a celebration of this rollercoaster first year, the final sign Niantic had set its house in order. Paying attendees (up to 20,000 were said to be allowed in Chicago’s Grant Park) would work together with players around the world on unique challenges, find special creatures, and finally unlock perhaps the game’s most requested feature to date, the ability to catch Legendary Pokmon – the perfect first birthday present for fans. Alas – it was not to be.

The day started well. The thunderstorms and rain originally forecast were nowhere to be seen. Warm blue skies highlighted the Chicago skyline as it towered over all that Niantic had put together. Arriving at the park enclosure that morning I was offered some neat surprises – a physical gym badge for fans to take away, the debut of an exciting event log-in mechanic involving spinning an in-game PokStop checkpoint and scanning a QR code (okay, for Pokmon Go nerds like myself it was exciting) and the welcome sight of Pokmon I’d never caught before.

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When a connection held, it wasn’t hard to find something new for your Pokdex.

Within moments of arriving, early attendees were swarming around an Unown spawn, followed by a Heracross close by. Excitement rippled through the crowds, passing on word of what they’ve just seen, then dancing with delight as they caught two of the game’s more elusive creatures with ease. It was already a good morning to be a Pokmon Go player.

After a quick lap of the park – dropping into colourful tents dedicated to the game’s three rival teams, each kitted out with charging pods and refreshments for players seeking refuge from the heat, as well as spotting a Pikachu photo stand and corporate sponsor kiosks already attracting long queues with giveaways – my phone’s connection started to wobble.

I attempted to buy a couple of incubators from the in-game shop (which allow you to hatch Pokmon eggs by walking set distances). Repeated failed server attempts meant I accidently bought six. It’s fine, I thought – I’ll easily make use of them today anyway. But within half an hour, as the crowds swelled before the opening ceremony, I struggled to log into the game. By the time proceedings officially kicked off and were being streamed on Twitch to fans around the world, I couldn’t even get a phone signal – and nor could anyone else. I struggled to send simple SMS messages (remember those?) to keep the team back home abreast of what was happening. For an event entirely dependent on everyone having an internet connection, it was nothing sort of a catastrophe.

Within the 90 minutes from early doors to the opening ceremony, the mood had turned sour. Though Niantic were quick to assure crowds they were looking into the connection issues, it wasn’t enough. CEO John Hanke was booed as he walked on stage, while brash heckles and chants of ‘fix our game’ rang out as bubbly presenters did their best to keep the show going. It was uncomfortable viewing, and later scenes were uglier still. A water bottle was thrown at one of the on-stage presenters – the unwelcome outcome of a disappointed few’s emotions boiling over. These sparks of frustration were fleeting but keenly felt, and something you wouldn’t expect at a family-friendly gathering with young children in attendance.