Pokémon Go has been, since its inception, a game based around community. At its launch this was by the nature of the size and excitement of its playerbase. Some seven years on, it’s by desperate brute force, as beleaguered developer Niantic refuses to accept the reality of its prime property, and never better displayed than in its annual anticlimactic Pokémon Go Fest event. The theme for 2022’s Go Fest was blandness, and the cost of admission $15.
2023’s Pokémon Go Fest technically took place this past Saturday and Sunday. I say “technically,” because this year’s “global” event felt like a reluctant afterthought following the month’s three previous single-city events that took place only in London, Osaka, and New York. Players able to turn up to one of those three cities experienced what this past weekend had to offer weeks ahead of the rest of the world, in conditions ideally suited to its design. i.e. places packed with other people playing.
In contrast, this past weekend’s global event was a peculiarly empty-feeling, pale follow-up for anyone fortunate enough to find someone else to play with. And it had the surprise, last-minute twist that if you had been to London, Osaka, or New York, your additional $15 ticket for this past weekend wouldn’t actually secure you another Diancie—essentially the only reason anyone had paid for entry in the first place.
Go Fest is traditionally anticlimactic. 2021’s was such a colossal mess that it built itself around a questline that would end in players getting the legendary Pokémon, Hoopa, then spectacularly ended without giving it to them. Saturday‘s programming had you ostensibly putting together a Pokémon music concert, which ended with you getting to see a photograph of some Pokémon pretending to be in a band, without even a song to go with it. Then Sunday it was all about catching Hoopa, with a questline that specifically mentioned catching Hoopa, and then you didn’t get to catch Hoopa.
2022’s was a more confusing affair, dragged out over three days across two months, and featuring a deeply boring story about the game’s main character, Professor Willow, having gone missing. It was better than 2021’s in some ways—it promised a lot less, and delivered on four new Legendaries—but it was still confusing to work out exactly what you’d just spent $15 on.
2023 decided to lean in on the lessons of 2022, and just make the event as outstandingly bland as possible. With no interesting build-up, no ongoing storyline, Go Fest this year played out far more like a regular monthly Community Day. Professor Willow’s preamble to the event on Saturday consisted of, “Hey, it’s nice catching Pokémon, isn’t it?” and then at a seemingly random mid-point to the quest chain, with seemingly no narrative logic, Diancie showed up on your screen. Then you caught a few more Pokémon, including newbies, and it was done. There were Snorlax in cowboy hats (which admittedly was worth $15 on its own), Pikachu in crowns, the arrival of Carbink, and, um, that’s about it.
What were noticeably absent were any of the intricacies that have become associated with the event in recent years. There was no choosing of a diverging path at a key moment in the story, or options to favor a particular type of play to determine the challenges you received. There was no sense of a grander narrative around you, or a motive for your actions, nor the suggestion that this was all heading toward something significant. Because it simply wasn’t.
Sunday was said to be more focused on raids, which translated to being more focused on a raid: Mega Rayquaza. Other than that, the raid monsters were all those who’d been featured on Saturday: Pikachu, Snorlax, and Carbink. And what raids: At 88,000+ HP, defeating Mega Rayquaza took at least six people, and preferably around 12. And, of course, defeating a Mega Pokémon always results in the disappointing moment when it turns back into its regular form to catch, and Rayquaza’s been in the game since 2018. So, y’know.
What stood out most to me on both days was just how desultory the whole event felt. The tasks were the most generic the game can offer, from “Spin 5 PokéStops or Gyms,” to “Catch 10 Pokémon,” while the Diancie encounter—essentially the only new thing you were paying for throughout the entire event—happened after step four of six, the following step giving you the mega energy you needed to get Mega Diancie, and the final step giving you, well, a handful of cosmetics.
Sunday was even more confusing for tasks, given Professor Waffle’s abysmally written gibberish kept alluding to Mega Rayquaza, and steps three and four offered energy for it, the whole event didn’t actually involve doing anything to do with the green dragon. What it instead repeatedly required, infuriatingly, was achieving super-effective charged attacks, which are just a colossally tiresome aspect of the game. You need to perfectly type-match your Pokémon and its attacks to a raid, battle, or Team Rocket encounter, and then seemingly also win that fight, and it’s just a ball-ache that few children and most adults find an annoying faff.
Shiny rates across the event were as random as ever, leaving some players catching dozens of the things, while others were getting none at all. In the group I was with, one kid got nothing all day, despite hundreds of encounters, and was miserable, while another had multiple of each. I managed 14 shinies across the two days, which was miniscule given the hours spent looking, although admittedly one of those was the Rayquaza (and two blips off a shundo).
It was just so hard to shake the feeling that we were wandering around in the reheated leftovers of what Niantic had considered the real Go Fest 2023—the city events. There, the company was able to enforce its demand that people only play the game while on foot, endlessly walking, able-bodied and rich enough to live somewhere where that’s safe. And there, in those cities, it works! Everyone’s playing, it’s a community, and you’re never shy of people to team up with.
Meanwhile, in real life, on Sunday me and my son were fortunate enough to bump into a group of four people playing at one point, and we all chased down some Rayquaza raids. They then left to get some lunch, and we were back on our own, in the town’s busy, central park, where we saw no one else playing for hours. Attempts to at least get some charged super-effective attacks were thwarted when the game decided not to count them when we didn’t beat the raids alone (we didn’t even dent its health bar), there were seemingly no Team Rocket members spawning all throughout the event, and we were stuck simply unable to continue with the challenges.
It seemed noteworthy that in 2021, the hourly challenges required players globally to catch 20,000,000 Pokémon. This year, that number was 5,000,000. So somewhere at Niantic, they must know. But the denial that it’s a game that people now need to be able to play alone persists, despite revenue reportedly plummeting, and the company laying off 230 employees while canceling and closing games.
Running their one long-term successful game as something that only works if you live in one of three major cities on the planet doesn’t seem a smart commercial choice at this point. And me, I’m left wondering exactly what I spent $15 on (well, actually, it was £15, so it was $19, thanks to the delightful way Niantic likes to fuck over non-U.S. players—see also coin prices). A Diancie? Um, that’s a very expensive drawing of a Pokémon in a game that’s getting ever less fun to play.
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