Caught on camera … fans could get their photo taken in front of a full-size version of their favourite loading screen.
John Hanke, the boss of developer Niantic, is as passionate as ever about getting players outside. And his strategy is working, as seen in the success of this year’s Pokémon Go Fest in Chicago.
Going to the gym meant something quite different in Chicago’s Lincoln Park one weekend in July. The Pokémon Go Fest, returning to the city after a disastrous event in 2017 that ended with developer Niantic refunding tickets, handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of in-game currency and settling a $1.5m (£1.18m) lawsuit, once again packed the US city with virtual collectible creatures and real Pokémon trainers. The 20,000 players who took part were on a five-stage quest to catch a mythical Pokémon, Celebi, and the soggy 30C weather didn’t put them off.
Yes, people are still playing Pokémon Go. The mobile gaming phenomenon has quietly reached its highest player figures since it launched in 2016. In a moral panic not dissimilar to the one currently surrounding Fortnite, the summer of that year saw Pokémon Go blamed for car crashes, trespassing incidents and even death. Two years on, though, the headlines have faded into memory and the augmented-reality monster-catching game has peacefully built a thriving community of passionate Pokémon trainers.
Getting in line … players gathered in team-themed gazebos to trade or compare medal statistics.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride for Niantic. The ex-Google team had previously only worked on Ingress, a lesser-known augmented-reality title that laid the foundations for Pokémon Go. But, in July 2016, the app thrust the small development team of 60 into the global spotlight as the studio’s servers melted under the pressure of millions of downloads. While Nintendo’s market value increased by $9bn in the first week (despite the fact it only owns a 32% share of the Pokémon franchise and didn’t make Pokémon Go), Niantic was swamped, trying to fix bugs and keep hundreds of millions of players going in their quest to catch ’em all. It’s only in the last year that the studio, now with a headcount of 250, has managed to fall into a schedule of regular updates, monthly global community days and real-world events.
“I don’t think I could have imagined anything about the last two years,” says John Hanke, founder and CEO of Niantic. “But it’s been great. I guess what’s most satisfying two years in, is seeing this thriving, strong user base of people that are not here for the fad, but because they love the core values of the game. Which is why we did it. It got lost in the first two months of Pokémon Go craziness. I wasn’t sure if people liked us for who we really were, or if they were just there because everybody else was.”
Passionate about Pokémon … John Hanke, the founder and CEO of Niantic, which developed Pokémon Go. Photograph: Niantic Labs
Pokémon Go is a better game now than it was in 2016. The central experience has evolved, just like one of its titular creatures. You still walk around the real world catching Pokémon on your phone, but there’s a lot more to do and hundreds more creatures. You can now leave your Pokémon to guard gyms and battle other players, perform daily research tasks and team up with fellow trainers to go on a raid to catch rare characters; there’s even a single-player quest experience to earn legendary Pokémon, such as Mew.
The most recent update finally added a friends list and the ability to trade Pokémon, which caused a spike in returning players. You can send gifts to friends, which include a picture postcard from wherever the gift was collected. And unlike other mobile tie-ins to huge franchises – such as Harry Potter – Pokémon Go doesn’t try to coerce you into spending money; it offers useful items to pay for, rather than locking off the game with timers or energy meters.
Niantic’s to-do list isn’t just a Reddit thread of most-wanted features, says Hanke. “It’s important that you have a vision of where you want to go. You can’t just be subject to the whims of what the public expresses. We’ve always tried to break new ground: things like trading and player v player combat, which is still not in the game but is something we think belongs in it. It feels like we are finally on a nice, regular cadence,” he adds.
“Our guidelines are that people should be encouraged to get out and explore their community, get exercise and interact with other people in the real world. Those are what we think distinguishes our games from others.”
Glacial habitat … digital Snorunts were found shivering amid real snow at the Pokémon Go Fest 2018
While the monthly community days, where trainers spill on to the streets to hunt down swathes of one particular Pokémon, are exciting for the team, it’s the real-world events where Niantic is pushing the boundaries of how the game is played. In Lincoln Park, thousands of people who had flown in from across the world followed a tailored 1.8-mile walking tour, passing giant mobile cell towers specially installed to cope with the extra network traffic.
There were “memory lanes”, where you could queue to get your picture taken in front of a full-size version of your favourite loading screen, a glacial habitat where digital Snorunts shivered amid real snow and a jungle biome where ludicrously tall Alolan Exeggutors filled the screen like goofy dinosaurs. Pokémon Go theme music blasted out across the park and the red, yellow and blue of Team Valor, Instinct and Mystic were everywhere. After last year’s fiasco, everyone seemed prepared for everything to go horribly wrong.
The event in 2017, in Chicago’s Grant Park, also gathered thousands of people, but failed spectacularly when the game was largely unplayable. A mix of mobile reception and server stress led to ugly scenes as fans – some of whom had spent thousands to attend – chanted “Fix the game!” at a main stage meant to be celebrating the global gathering.
“That would have to be the worst and best moment of Pokémon Go for me,” says Hanke. “The first six hours of it were among the most challenging of my professional life.”
Most CEOs would have been absent as the disaster unfolded, but Hanke was out talking to fans. “Events are our chance to meet players face to face,” he says. “At that point, they are not numbers or emails, or Reddit threads. [They are] actual, real human beings. I spent the afternoon facing the music. I just went out and sat with the players, and some were venting their unhappiness, but the vast majority of the people I spoke to that afternoon were expressing their appreciation for the game for a variety of reasons.
“It’s great to believe that you are some small part of a positive thing in somebody’s life. I heard stories about parents rebuilding relationships with their kids, people recovering from serious illnesses, people finding a community in a new town or city.”
Braving the elements … rain did not keep Pokémon fans away from the event in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.
It may have seemed mad for Niantic to try the same thing again just a year later, but this time it went off without a hitch – other than the morning rain, which saw the trees of Lincoln Park becoming large leafy umbrellas, with players gathering underneath. On the first day of the fest, there was only one network-related hiccup: a black spot for Verizon was discovered in the park. Niantic’s damage control was swift – it identified the Pokémon spawning in that area and moved them to other zones, making sure that Verizon customers could still take part in the quest.
“I’m really excited to be here. It was a really good turnout, way better than last year,” said 12-year-old Tyler from Toronto, as he patiently waited in a hundred-strong queue to meet Pokémon Go YouTubers Mystic Seven and Trainer Tips. “Go Fest’s a good thing because a bunch of people from all over the world get together, talk and become friends through the game and in real life. I got to trade with somebody today. I gave them an Unown and they gave me a Kangaskhan.”
The addition of friends and trading to the game refreshed the event, too. This was the one chance for players to obtain Pokémon that only appear in other parts of the world and trade for missing entries in their Pokédex, the in-game monster catalogue. Handmade signs slung around necks advertised Relicanth or Corsola in exchange for Mr Mime or Tauros. Players gathered in team-themed gazebos, where Niantic had set up stages for people to trade or compare medal statistics.
While there were plenty of children, players of all generations joined the hunt, whooping at the discovery of rare creatures and sharing battery packs to keep their phones going. Julya and Jon Myers, 56 and 57 respectively, have been playing Pokémon Go since it was released, and drove 13 hours from Maryland to get to Chicago. They were joined by an enthusiastic group of teenagers and extended family, all proudly wearing T-shirts emblazoned with their Discord group logo.
Something for everyone … players of all generations from across the world joined the hunt for rare creatures
“We have a really good community. We all meet up and play together,” said Julya. “Some of these guys had a hiatus, but we didn’t, because Jon had a transplant and I had my knees replaced, so this was our rehab. We did a lot of the walking that we needed to do. And then we met the group – when big raids came out, we started raiding together. Now we have this whole community and we all decided we wanted to come.”
Legendary raids, conspicuous by their absence at the event to keep people moving, spawned across the city all weekend, meaning players took to the streets in their thousands to catch a shiny Lugia or Articuno. While the Sunday attendees took over in the park, every Chicago raid spot could be clearly identified by clusters of players finding shade from the glaring sun and playing together, 20 at a time.
Pokémon Go is unlikely to be as popular again as it was in 2016, when around 300 million people were playing it. But, ironically, the 60 million who are playing it now are having a better experience, and they are enough to make Pokémon Go a billion-dollar business, as well as a great community of people. (By comparison, Uber has 40 million active users.)
“We got a great letter recently,” says Hanke. “We get these all the time so I feel weird calling out one. It was a mom who had a kid recovering from cancer treatment and the family had adopted Pokémon Go as something they did together. She wrote this nice thank-you note to us about how it gets them outside and leads them to new places. They had taken a weekend trip somewhere and explored the city together. She capped it off by saying it was great for her son – it was giving him social confidence. It was many of the good things we hear [about the game] all rolled into one. That’s what keeps us going.”
How to get back into Pokémon Go
Big in Japan … people play Pokémon Go on their smartphones in Shibuya district, Tokyo. Photograph: Aflo/Barcroft Images
If Pokémon Go was all about the original 151 characters the last time you played, it might look different now, but it’s easy to dive back in. Here’s everything you need to know before heading outside:
Generation game: There are three generations of Pokémon to catch so don’t be overwhelmed by your new Pokédex size. And don’t worry, the original 151 are still out there, but just in smaller supply.
First raid: The new raid system at gyms means you can catch legendary and rare Pokémon. It is possible to take on easy ones on your own, but for legendaries, it’s best to find some friends.
Get social: Pokémon Go is best enjoyed with a team, so check Facebook and see if there is a local group you can join. There are thousands of teams who will be happy to gain a new raid member and friend.
Task master: The new research and task quests are a great source of new Pokémon. Collect research tasks from Pokéstops, do one a day and you will be rewarded with a different legendary Pokémon every month.
Friend zone: You can now trade Pokémon with friends for the cost of stardust. Make it cheaper by sending gifts every day and increasing your friend status. And just like in real life, presents are always appreciated.