Standing in line by Grant Park at 9am, an hour before Pokemon Go Fest was set to begin, the crowd’s impatience settled into a resigned, but tense air. The tension lasted for almost two and a half hours until the line began to really move in earnest. Moving swiftly towards the entrance gates, people’s excitement and anticipation once again rose.
The excitement didn’t last long, however, as attendees filtering into the fest area discovered that not all could access the app. Others got in but struggled with laggy performance or were booted off the app completely. Later came authentication problems and slow network service that continued to hamper the app’s performance.
Pleasure and irritation alike mixed in the ambiance as Trainers roved in loose groups throughout the park taking advantage of the heavy concentration of Pokestops, occasionally rushing towards one corner or another where rarer Pokemon spawned. A couple hours into the event, once Niantic fixed two back-end issues and network providers started to increase bandwidth for the area, access issues became less patchy but ultimately unresolved.
Seeing the undercurrent of displeasure, Niantic ultimately announced several forms of compensation: a ticket refund, 14,500 PokeCoins (in-app currency), and a Lugia for every attendee. In a final, partly-successful attempt to salvage the end of the day, Niantic also released Lugia and Articuno to the general public. The long anticipated anniversary event of Pokemon Go thus ended on a higher note, but left something to be desired.
The Good: Overlapping Nerdoms, Cosplay, SO MANY POKEMON, And A Reasonably Competent Operation
By and large, Go Fest had several positives going for it, least of which were the actual operations of the event. Whether or not Niantic outsourced management of the event to another organization, the staff were competent and kept the event clean and running smoothly, the app’s issues and initial lines notwithstanding. The event’s food offerings were from local restaurants and vendors, and were reasonably priced despite having the opportunity to upcharge on a captive audience. Restroom facilities were also abundant, easy to access and rarely had lines, something every outdoor event should have but don’t always.
While irritation limited the height of the event’s fun, the crowds still endeavored to enjoy the event and one another. This mutual enjoyment and socializing is a hallmark of such events. As any comic con/anime convention goer will attest, there’s nothing more fun than to be surrounded by literally thousands of nerds who like the same things you like. Just standing in the general admission line, I counted at least 30 other fandoms represented, spanning video games, movies, TV shows, books, and comics (shoutouts for Bob Ross, Space Jam, Power Rangers, Five Nights At Freddy’s, and the one girl wearing Commander Shepard’s hoody from Mass Effect 3).
In the case of Pokemon Go, the concentration is even more intense as it has a singular focus: Pokemon. Without needing explanation, most of the people around you understood why “there’s an Unown by the stage!” was a reason to rush off to the other end of the park. Attendees were not shy about wearing their love of the game, with nearly two-thirds of attendees sporting apparel of some kind related to the game. Whole families wearing custom matching shirts emblazoned with their team was not an uncommon sight. Some fans went further and showed up in well-made cosplay.
Counterclockwise from top left: Pokemon Go Team Valor Trainer, Pokemon X/Y Female Trainer (Serena), Pokemon Black 2/White 2 Rosa, Pokemon Go Team Instinct Trainer
Source: Sangdi Chen
Go Fest also had the benefit of concentrating tons of Pokemon spawns in a single location. For attendees who traveled from farther flung locations, there was opportunity aplenty to catch Pokemon not typically found in their own locales. One attendee from New Jersey mentioned catching 5 Totodiles over the course of the event, something she felt she couldn’t have done back East. I personally caught several Unowns, the rumor circulating that the Unowns spawning spelled out “Chicago.”
Sadly, while all of the ingredients necessary for a great event were all present, Niantic was not able to really capitalize on them due circumstances of the event and some technology decisions that handicapped them from the beginning.
The Bad: Linecon of Linecons, A Weirdly Sparse Day, Under-preparation and Under-delivery
Longer lines at events of this size aren’t unusual, but the general admission line has been among the larger seen at similar events in recent years. To give an idea of exactly how long it was: By 9am, the line had at least 10,000 people and was 1.5 miles long, stretching south on Columbus, past Buckingham Fountain, squiggling several times in the areas immediately around the fountain and nearly enclosing it entirely (sorry for ruining your pictures, tourists). From my point in the line, in the first loop around the Fountain, it took an hour and a half after the event opened for line movement to really reach us. The early admission line was not enough to alleviate the pressure of latecomers.
Source: Sangdi Chen
Another odd problem for the event was the sparsity of events. While Niantic did promise from the outset that the day would be filled with challenges and raids, these plans were curtailed by the various tech issues. Unfortunately, Niantic seemed to depend largely on these in-app events to fill the day as there was little else to do in the event space but wonder to and from gyms, raids, and rare Pokemon spawns. While this conceivably could work as one in-game function uses distance walked to hatch eggs, it did little to ease the frustrations of the day.
But in the end, Niantic’s back-end issues and network unreliability were the most disappointing of the day. As many outlets have pointed out, the crashes and slowness felt very much like the Day One issues and Niantic apparently have not learned from that initial debacle. With 20,000+ people in attendance, crammed into an area of a little over half a square mile, Go Fest was sure to present an unusual scenario in the amount of active users in a single area. Niantic largely underestimated the stability of their servers and systems to handle such a large and concentrated load of activity and the early hours of the event were plagued by an authentication error and iOS-specific problem that repeatedly kicked players from the app. Exacerbated further by players repeatedly attempting to load back in, app crashes seemed to worsen until Niantic was able to fix the back-end issues and cell service providers boosted bandwidth for the park, roughly 3 hours into the event.
To understand what could be the root causes of these problems, I spoke with Dani Sarfati, a fellow attendee from Toronto who works as a site reliability engineer. Most likely, Dani speculated, Niantic’s systems aren’t using the optimal architecture for such unique circumstances. The current build of the app depends on real-time communication with Niantic’s servers, every action pings the server and awaits a response before proceeding. While less efficient, Dani suggested this is likely a choice on Niantic’s part to limit players gaming or otherwise cheating the system. He further surmised that Niantic has not yet joined the cloud server movement, a change which would allow their systems to dynamically scale with real-time demands. Unfortunately, the current system doesn’t account for circumstances like the event which concentrated a huge number of players in a small area, sending requests every couple seconds. Coupled with inadequate bandwidth in the area, the event resembled a flood trying to fit through a plastic straw.
Where To Go From Here
What can be said about the whole event is that the problems of the day were largely a matter of naivete and some ignorance, not of outright neglect or malicious intent. From the beginning, Niantic has been tremendously ambitious in their goals for Pokemon Go, and while they’ve struggled to really fulfill those promises for fans, the skeleton to really achieve the greater heights that they aspire for are all there. Niantic will have some thinking to do going forward on what technologies will be required to really bring this game to this full potential, and the scale that gave them success on Ingress just won’t be enough for Pokemon Go.
Despite what some outlets reported, at 7pm CST, the majority of attendees were still hanging around Grant Park. Niantic may not necessarily deserve this show of faith, but fans are grudgingly optimistic and we hope that Niantic won’t waste future opportunities to continue improving. In the meantime, those legendary raids are out there waiting for you.
Special thanks to the attendees who agreed to appear in this article:
Dani Sarfati of Toronto, Canada for his tech expertise
Pokemon Go Team Valor Trainer: Lawsae Cosplay
Pokemon X/Y Female Trainer: Christian O’Keefe
Pokemon Black 2/White 2 Rosa: Genevieve R.
Pokemon Go Team Instinct Trainer: Michelle White