Rain clouds and a sense of dread hang over Pokémon Go Fest on the eve of its gates opening to the public. Heavy rain is likely the least of the worries for people who traveled from around the world to attend this gathering of Pokémon Go fans in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. These trainers, as they like to be called, are more concerned with the stability of the game, and wondering if they’ll even get the chance to play it.
At last year’s inaugural Pokémon Go Fest in Chicago’s Grant Park, the game was unplayable for most of the 20,000 people in attendance. As people baked in the sun, and the hours ticked by without hardly anyone being able to catch a single Pokémon, angry chants of “fix the game” and “refund” grew in volume. Niantic didn’t have any answers for the game blackout. Most cellular networks were overloaded by people trying to connect to them, and even if they did, the game itself wasn’t letting people in.
In the late hours of the festival, Niantic expanded the size of the digital play space that only people with tickets could access. Stretching a couple of miles into the heart of Chicago, showgoers dispersed from Grant Park and were able to finally start playing the game in the less occupied areas of the city. This switch saved the festival, and trainers walked away somewhat relieved, as their Pokédexes were filled with rare Unowns, Heracrosses, and the first Legendaries in the game. Despite getting the Pokémon they wanted in the end, people who attended still felt the Fest was a bust, and filed a class-action lawsuit against Niantic. The company settled it earlier this year for $1.5 million.
Niantic clearly believes that large gatherings of players are possible in Pokémon Go. The company has successfully united players at other events around the globe, but the United States, and Chicago in particular, have proven tricky.
To see Niantic return to the scene of the crime in Chicago is puzzling, but perhaps is a sign that the company has confidence in the game’s performance. The first notable change is moving the festival from Grant Park, which was a circle that grouped everyone in a large cluster, to the more spacious Lincoln Park. The hope is that trainers will be spread out and the networks and game won’t be overloaded. Niantic has set up a 1.8-mile course for players in the park with activities littered along the way.
Cell coverage should also be better. Chicago Sun Times contacted four of the largest cellular networks, and learned there will be more COWs (cell on wheels) and COLTs (cell on light trucks) in the area. Verizon is bringing in two COLTs, AT&T has two COWs, Sprint one COW, and T-Mobile says it will have four additional cell sites on hand. AT&T’s COWs are expected to boost performance capacity by 452 percent.
Niantic is also beginning the festival with an expanded digital play space. If trainers run into issues in the park, they can immediately vacate it and head into the city to hopefully have better luck.
Why are trainers taking a chance on this festival again? For the exclusive Pokémon that will likely only be at the event. We already know that the region-based Torkoal will migrate from India to Chicago for two days.
Rain or shine, Pokémon Go fans will be out in full force this weekend. Here’s hoping they have better luck filling out their Pokédexes with new critters than last year. I will be one of the many walking through the park with my eyes glued to my phone. You can read about my experience tomorrow, and I’ll also share all of the breaking news as it hits.