Pokémon Go Fest 2021 was the 5th anniversary celebration the game deserved

Pokemon Go Fest 2021 Header

2021 is a big year for Pokémon fans. It’s the 25th anniversary of the franchise as a whole, and (somehow) the 5th anniversary of Pokémon Go as the preeminent AR mobile game. Last year, despite… well pretty much everything, Niantic made a whopping $916m in in-app purchases. Remember, this is a game about going outside and interacting with people.

However, Pokémon Go is also a game that is mired with bugs, glitches and other flaws. Niantic basically forgot its own 5-year anniversary of Go, announcing what was happening for the anniversary celebrations literally the night before. And following from the server issues seen throughout Kanto Day back in March, with players simply unable to play the game as a result, I can totally understand why you might be sceptical of events like Go Fest. Niantic hasn’t exactly been on the ball at times.


What is Go Fest?

Like Kanto Day, Go Fest was a celebration of Pokémon that was split into two halves: premium and free, except this time it was also split into two days, each with unique themes.

Day 1, ‘Catch’, was a celebration of music in the world of Pokémon. Trainers had to step into the role of a special concert director, putting on a show with the help of your trusty guide, the Professor. In practise, this simply meant going out and catching musical-themed Pokémon like Chatot and Audino. If you bought the premium version — at £5, this was a third of the price of last year’s event — you also got a chance to encounter the Mythical Pokémon Meloetta for the first time.

Day 2, ‘Raid’, took a very different tack. Instead beseeching you to find out why it was permanently night in-game and why every legendary released in the game was spawning at gyms over the course of the day. Day 2 was about getting together with friends and raiding bosses.

The community was quick to point out that this is still taking place during a pandemic. Yes, Niantic knows about the Covid-19. No, they think it’s all over. Yes, the community is furious about it. It’s going exactly as you’d expect.

Pokemon Go Fest 2021

Day 1: Catch

Back to the topic at hand. Day 1, here in London, was an absolute scorcher, but I donned my cap, shades and slathered up in more sunscreen than a cricketer, braving the blistering Heatran to catch Pokémon. Immediately, comparing the premium and free versions of Go Fest on two phones and accounts, the difference in experience was stark.

Everyone got access to a bunch of cool perks: among other things there was new music from Pokémon veteran Junichi Masuda, a range of themed research tasks, extended lure modules, access to some themed Pokémon wearing a funky hat, and access to the hourly rotation of themed habitats. Between 10 and 11, for example, you could catch a bunch of Pokémon you couldn’t catch between 11 and 12.

Want to know what was spawning? You should have bought a ticket to the premium version if you wanted to know that. Only paying players got what is arguably the most important thing of planners everywhere: a to-do list. This gave players the chance to tick off each Pokémon as they caught it and get rewards for catching them all – you know, that thing that Pokémon players love to do. This checklist was something that was missing for free players back on Kanto day, and it’s as miserly now as it was then.

Along with a handy checklist, premium players also got access to additional Pokémon in hats that the free players did not, as part of a special research quest ending in an encounter with Meloetta. Also, there was a Rockstar Pikachu, which was vaguely amusing, or a Popstar Pikachu if you’re so inclined. Despite my proud status as a Kylie mega fan, I have small entourage of Rockstar Pikachus, and I love it.

More importantly though, was the Incense pool. Incense spawns Pokémon near you that other players can’t access, and this brought out the really interesting Pokémon, because they were otherwise either not yet in the game or normally unavailable in your region.

Additionally, the premium version seriously upped your chances of encountering the ultra-rare shiny Pokémon. My premium account managed 18 shinies over the course of the first day; my free account managed a flat zero.

Pokemon Go Fest 2021

I’m Spinda around

Overall, Niantic smashed it out of the park on day one, but not everything was perfect.

First and foremost, the new music was great for a few minutes, but it rapidly got annoying. The addition of lyrics was unexpected, though I didn’t listen to it all the way through more than once, because clicking on a Pokémon cut the lyrics to play battle music. The looping of the track was also subpar, so that’s an instant flavour fail given the musical theme of the day.

Second, locking stuff behind Incense is always a pain, but it’s more painful when Niantic does annoying things like this increasing Lure durations to three hours. This is normal practise — they do it for pretty much all Community Days at the moment – but they didn’t increase the Incense duration in kind as they have in the past, despite Incense being the theme here, not Lures. Perhaps it was to spur players on to spend more cash and buy more Lures?

I reached out to Niantic to ask if that was an expectation, and this is what they had to say:

“We reduced the price of tickets this year (almost 1/3 compared to the previous year), so more people can enjoy the GO Fest in line with Pokémon GO’s 5th anniversary. How people want to enjoy the GO Fest depends on [the player] … Some people may be willing to spend on items to get great results efficiently, while others may not want to spend any extra but still want to enjoy the event … We hope all [players] can enjoy the GO Fest in their own way.”

If it wasn’t about the money, it must have simply just been inadequate planning — something Niantic has shown itself capable of time and again.

But what makes this even more painful is that Niantic originally promised a special ‘Google Play sponsored gift’ for Android users, containing an Incense, a Super Incubator and 30 Ultra Balls, complements of the event’s sponsor. Sadly, this did not materialise, which was annoying considering the number of highly sought-after Pokémon that were locked behind Incense.

Last but not least, there was an additional ticketed event, just to really overcomplicate things: you could get a free ticket to go to a special part of your city (here in London, it was a small park near Greenwich Park), where you could stand next to a cardboard cut-out and have your picture taken.

Again, in true Niantic fashion, the location was only released two days before the event started. Ironically, for an event about running an event, Niantic is showing itself to be painfully bad at putting on events.

Pokemon Go Fest 2021

Day 2: Raid

After almost 13 miles of constant walking around London on Saturday, Sunday offered a chance stand in one spot for five minutes at a time and furiously tap on your phone. Free players also got a special research quest this time around, which was important for explaining the not-so-subtle changes to the game.

At the stroke of 1800 on Saturday (the end of Day 1), a new mythical Pokémon was added to the loading screen players see when they boot the game. Hoopa, the Mischief Pokémon, had set about unleashing inter-dimensional portals, bringing legendaries into the game for a hectic Sunday, and casting the game world into the shade of night-time with rings floating up  above. I already miss the ambiance that provided.

But the crux of the day was about catching a tonne of legendary Pokémon. And with 37 of them (plus some exclusive hat-Pokémon from Day 1), that is a lot of raiding, and that doesn’t come cheap. At a the current in-game rate, that’s around £30’s worth of in game purchases to do each raid once!

The expectation was not necessarily to raid everything, but rather to hunt down any Pokémon you missed the last time they were in the game — something paying players found easier than ever with their bundle of 21 raid passes.

Free players, limited to just four free passes, had a much trickier time on their hands. For some reason, I personally spent more than £5 buying raid passes for my second account, so both could take part in the day. This alone made the £5 cost of entry objectively worth it, and more so when you consider all the fun I had the day before.

The good, the bad, the Purugly

While Day 1 was almost flawless, Day 2 stumbled, giving players plenty to get annoyed about, from the usual low shiny rates to some game-breaking issues.

First and foremost, there wasn’t an in-game calendar or list of Pokémon that were spawning in raids. This time, not even premium players got access to a checklist, which means if you didn’t do the legwork or dig up a community infographic, you were left scrambling.

It’s a real issue, if a Pokémon Raid spawned five minutes from your location, you’d then had a 20 minute window to get to that location, get a team of players together (which is much easier if you pretend that social distancing isn’t a thing), lobby up, wait the mandatory 2 minutes for the lobby timer to finish, beat and then catch the boss.

With everything spawning at the same time, you’d then have about 7 minutes to get to the next thing before it despawned and you’d have to wait for the next hourly drop.

This isn’t an issue with chucking everything down in a day — I loved that idea and revelled in the chaos –  but rather an issue with the underlying mechanics of the game, which weren’t exactly built for this level of play.

And it shows: while Day 1 showed little-to-no lag for me, on Day 2 the game struggled. Raids crashed, I failed to get raid invites from my friends overseas, and was booted out of lobbies time and again. Not only was this overwhelming for players who couldn’t get through as many raids as they’d like, but the game was literally overwhelmed by the number of people playing.

This is particularly pernicious when you realise that although Niantic has a policy of refunding raid passes (worth around 79p each) if the game crashes and you can’t get back into a raid, they now cap the number of raid passes that their customer service will issue as compensation. It’s like putting money in a broken vending machine when there’s no-one around to help. It’s soul-crushing, and makes people hesitant to spend money on the game in future.

The long and short of it is that Go Fest was pretty awesome this year. With 1.5 billion Pokémon caught worldwide and 23 million raids completed, it’s safe to say the community got their fill of Pokémon over the weekend. And credit where it’s due: Niantic absolutely smashed Day 1, offering a fun and unique day out, themed around a special Pokémon. Sure, there were things they could have done better, but, by and large, they did an excellent job and I commend their effort.

Day 2, however, highlights how the raid system needs redesigning to be more user friendly, less time consuming, and less prone to crashing. It was a cool idea, but the execution remains a little lacking.

Despite this, given the improvement in stability compared with Kanto Day in March, Niantic is clearly moving in the right direction. I don’t have the stamina for another Go Fest any time soon, but come the next one in 2022, you can bet I’ll be eagerly handing over my hard-earned cash.


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