Pokemon Go Fest has become an annual tradition for Niantic and Pokemon fans, but this year’s event, which took place on July 25 and 26, faced some unique hurdles. With the COVID-19 pandemic still surging in many parts of the world, particularly throughout the US, Niantic had to reconfigure the event–traditionally held in-person at Chicago’s Grant Park and other live venues–into a digital experience that players could participate in without leaving home.
Considering how challenging it must have been to adjust a game so dependent upon being outside around these extenuating circumstances, Pokemon Go Fest 2020 turned out to be a solid alternative to a traditional live event. Niantic did a commendable job of translating the usual Go Fest activities into a digital experience, even if there were a few hitches along the way.
Day 1 of the event featured the most compelling new feature: virtual habitats. To simulate the feeling of wandering into a new environment, Niantic rotated through different “habitats” every hour. Each of these brought out certain kinds of Pokemon; Grass types, for instance, appeared more frequently when the grass habitat was active, while Dragon types were more common in the battle habitat. This added a nice element of surprise, and it was fun to check in throughout the day and see what Pokemon were popping up.
For Day 2, Niantic took a different tack. In what has become a Go Fest tradition of its own, Team Go Rocket launched a “takeover” of the event, and the rotating virtual habitats of the first day were replaced by increased Team Rocket spawns. This offered its own benefits; considering how rare it can be to encounter a Team Go Rocket leader under normal circumstances, the Rocket takeover provided numerous opportunities to battle Cliff, Arlo, and Sierra and rescue their Shadow Pokemon. That said, Pokemon Go’s battle mechanics have never been particularly compelling, and the heavy emphasis on battling Team Rocket made Day 2 feel much more repetitive than Day 1, even though the ultimate reward–a chance to catch the debuting Mythical Pokemon Victini–was enticing.
And that ultimately brings us back to the biggest issue that faced this year’s event: there’s only so long you can play Pokemon Go while sitting at home. Although Niantic has been quick in adjusting the game in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, introducing a host of welcome changes and tweaks over the past few months to make it more enjoyable to play from a personal setting, Pokemon Go has always been at its best when it can be experienced outdoors and with friends–something that was out of the question this year. Niantic took steps to replicate that communal feeling by hosting a “virtual” trainer lounge online and streaming developer interviews and event updates throughout the weekend, and those were nice touches that helped elevate Pokemon Go Fest above other in-game events. Even so, they never felt like a true substitute for playing the game in-person with friends, which would have gone a long way in masking the repetition of the Go Fest challenges.
On top of that, many players on social media reported technical issues during the event. My experience was generally smooth, although I did encounter a couple of hitches as well; more than once, I would try to remotely join a Raid, only for the other players in the lobby to be abruptly dropped as the Raid began, leaving me on my own. This certainly wasn’t enough to ruin the experience, however, and I otherwise had no real difficulty connecting to the game and playing normally throughout Go Fest.
As a first attempt at translating Pokemon Go’s premiere live gathering into a virtual event, Pokemon Go Fest 2020 was an enjoyable experience. Whether or not it offered enough to do to justify the $15 USD price tag of a ticket is open to debate, but the event employed some smart features that helped make up for the inability to play outdoors. Niantic is likely hoping to return to a live venue for next year’s Go Fest, circumstances permitting, but it would be nice to see the developer retain some of these global elements for future events even when things return to normal.
GameSpot was provided a complimentary ticket for Pokemon Go Fest 2020 by the developer.