As part of Niantic’s Pokémon GO Summer Tour 2018, the second Pokémon GO Fest is set to take place on July 14 and July 15 in Chicago, Illinois, with tickets available from May 11. In an interview with IGN, Niantic CEO John Hanke explained how Pokémon GO Fest 2018 will avoid the problems of last year.
“Go Fest was a challenge for us, there’s no doubt,” Hanke told IGN. “As the person who stood up on stage and directly faced the consequences of having the technical challenges, nobody felt it more strongly than I did. Particularly with all of you in the press there to witness that with us, and all of my board members, all of our partners…It was one of the most challenging days of my professional career.”
“Shortly after Chicago, we got to work on Yokohama, which was already scheduled and there was no dodging that. So we just had to make sure that we didn’t screw up Yokohama,” Hanke said. “We dove much, much deeper with the cellular network partners over there and really figured out how to talk to them and explain to them the technical requirements of an event like ours.
“We made some changes to the way we plan the event, Hanke said. “We organized it so that everybody wasn’t concentrated in the same place all the time, and, you know, we made it. There were some close calls that week. There were some times when the network slowed down, but it never went offline, and it was a huge success.”
Following Yokohama, Niantic held a series of Safari Zone events in Europe, later expanding to Asia for multiple other festivals that each brought new lessons for Niantic as they prepared to return to Chicago.
“We kind of learned how to do those,” Hanke said. “We’re coming back at it this year with all that experience and it’s exciting to go back to Chicago. I’m going to be there and I’m looking forward to it.”
With those experiences behind them, Niantic is focused on making Chicago a success this year. While last year’s event was clustered inside of Grant Park, 2018’s event will be spread out across a sprawling 1.8-mile walking course in Lincoln Park to help alleviate some of the cellular strain.
“That was a learning directly from Yokohama last year,” Hanke explained. “A large portion of that event was a walking course that was set up along the waterfront in Yokohama, and it worked really well. It was super fun. People were moving and not standing still, which is actually more in line with our mission. At an event where people are kind of all clumped together in a group, there’s less room to move around.”
On the backend, Hanke explained that spreading the event across a longer course also means people are interacting with different Gyms and PokeStops rather than all trying to hit the same single point of interest, which helps spread out the bandwidth.
“We didn’t really know that the first time through,” he said. “There wasn’t really a model for how do you do a mobile gaming event for 30,000 people. The company we worked with had put on lots of big music shows, and I think their thinking was more like, ‘Hey, how does Lollapalooza work?’ There was a stage, there was a fence, there were concessions and things like that, but it was kind of drawing its inspiration from a music festival, and I think that’s not really quite the right model.”
Instead, Go Fest will utilize a tactic that Niantic tried as a last-minute save last year: once you’ve registered at the event itself, event-related Pokemon spawns will open throughout the city of Chicago, spreading out the area of the event.
“We will be lining up things across the city of Chicago as well as what’s happening in Lincoln Park to encourage that kind of flow that we resorted to at the end of the day last year as we were trying to figure out how to make a diving catch there in the afternoon,” Hanke said. “The evening [after last year’s Go Fest] in Chicago, despite the fact that the day had been so trying, was kind of a golden hour there. As people were out across the city, the weather kind of let up on us. There was a bit of rain a lot of the day, but a lot of the evening, it was nice and kind of cool, and people were out on the streets of Chicago having fun playing Pokemon Go. That’s the part of last year that we want to try to recapture this year.”
Hanke explained that Niantic will be keeping a close eye on server strain and can emphasize points of interest outside of Lincoln Park if any issues arise. “In general, if you create the right game incentives, it really shapes where people are playing and where they’re headed and where they’re flowing to. So the fallback is simply to closely monitor what’s happening in Lincoln Park itself and then to dial up the attractiveness of other areas if for some reason there’s a problem there.”
Niantic has also already been working with major U.S. cell phone providers to secure coverage along the entirety of the route and throughout the city.
“All of the major carriers are deploying COWs (Cells on Wheels), so there will be mobile network hotspots from all the major carriers set up in such a way that we believe we will have full coverage, efficient coverage, for everybody throughout the park,” Hanke explained. “And again, our understanding and our ability to communicate with our partners exactly what the network traffic looks like, and really technically profiling it and communicating it on a technical level, we’re much better at that than we were a year ago, so that’s been the formula that we used last year in Yokohama and Tottori and other places, to really work closely with those network providers.”
Despite these contingency plans, Hanke does remain optimistic that Niantic will be able to offer a good experience inside Lincoln Park itself.
“There are going to be themed areas for the different Pokemon types, so we think we’re going to create a really fun, interesting environment for people to move through, and to really experience the full breadth of that park,” he said. “It’s kind of a long, narrow park, which we’re taking advantage of, so I’m excited about what that on-the-ground experience is going to be there. But we do think that as people have moved through that, then there will be an intention for people to dissipate at the end and go off and explore other parts of Chicago.”
While Chicago is essential to get right after last year’s troubles, Niantic is also taking events in other territories very seriously. The latest Safari Zone in Dortmund, Germany kicks off this summer’s event tour on June 30 and will run through July 1, following a series of Safari Zone events in Europe last year.
In Japan, Niantic will skip Yokohama this year and instead will hold an event in Yokosuka timed concurrently with Pikachu Outbreak. “The idea there is to kind of spread out the concentration of people, rather than doubling it up on top of the Pikachu Outbreak area,” Hanke said. “Nonetheless, there will be lots of Pokemon fans within a quick subway ride of Yokosuka, so we’re planning on that to be a pretty big event.”
Despite the focus on real-world events, Hanke said it’s also a priority to offer global rewards so that players not in a position to travel to these events in-person can still get in-game benefits or watch the events unfolding online.
“You can go out and play and affect the outcome and be affected by the outcome of what happens on the ground,” Hanke said. “It was a deliberate design goal for Go Fest last year. We call it inside-out gameplay, where things outside of the event are affecting what’s happening in the event and things in the event are affecting what’s happening outside, so it flows both ways. It’s something that we try to do in all our events, and it’s definitely part of the plan for Go Fest in Chicago this year.”
Hanke said that Community Day, a recently monthly in-game event that allows players anywhere to focus on a specific highlighted Pokemon for a limited window, has proven that players will make their own gatherings even outside of the formal events Niantic organizes.
“For us that’s become the heartbeat of the community, and players have responded incredibly positively to that in terms of their on-the-ground engagement, their minutes played in the game, their activity in the game, as well as just the vibe that you pick up from The Silph Road and from Reddit and from Twitter and from other places where players are communicating,” he said. “So we know that’s working, and it’s really nice to be able to have that as a monthly kind of global cult that’s keeping the communities in touch with one another and keeping everything alive and happening, and punctuating that with these bigger events that hopefully many people will be able to travel to.”
Beyond what’s announced so far, Hanke acknowledged that events so far have mainly focused on the United States, Europe, and Asia, and he’d like to see future events held in additional regions.
“Asia’s obviously important to us, so we’re looking at follow-on events in other countries and locations in Asia, Europe, and perhaps other places we haven’t been,” he said. “You know, we haven’t had anything in Latin America yet. I’d love to do something there. We haven’t quite found the right combination of date, time, and location yet, but certainly we’d love to be there as well.”
“We can only announce the things that are absolutely locked down,” he added, “but we are thinking globally. We’re thinking long-term with this, so there will be events that continue on through the rest of the year, then on into 2019 and beyond. And many of those are being actively planned as we speak.”
As for what’s next for Pokemon Go itself, Hanke teased that more updates are coming to the game, but wouldn’t go as far as explicitly confirming that new features will be unveiled at this summer’s events.
“We like to release significant features in the game on a regular basis,” he said. “We’ve been trying to do that about once per quarter. Sometimes things move around a little bit. That’s sort of the nature of the game development business. But we’d love to be able to have some new stuff for folks this summer, so we’ll see. We’re hard at work.”