Niantic On Bringing Pokemon Go Back Into The Real World
Pokemon Go’s director of global live events talks returning to in-person events and what will happen if COVID concerns flair up again.
Pokemon Go is currently in the process of returning to its roots and recalling what made it a unique experience to begin with: It’s a video game you play outdoors with other people. Of course, it was never developer Niantic’s intention to shift the game to be a solitary, indoor experience, but during the height of the pandemic, there was no choice but to adjust ite so players could continue to "catch 'em all" even if they weren’t comfortable gathering in groups.
While there are still opportunities to play that way (the pandemic is not over, after all), Niantic is beginning to reintegrate official, live, in-person gatherings across the world. Last weekend, the game celebrated Community Day with various, localized events all across the globe. In the immediate future, events are planned for Berlin, Germany on July 1, Seattle, Washington on July 22, and Sapporo, Japan on August 5. The game is beginning to look like its old self again, and we spoke with Pokemon Go’s director of global live events, Humberto Kam, about how that works, what made Niantic feel it was the right time to encourage people to reconvene outside, and what will happen if COVID concerns flair up again.
We also asked about potential promotional opportunities that might be happening for Pokemon Scarlet and Violet. Kam couldn’t answer any questions about those games, but we had to at least try.
What do Pokemon Go in-person events look like right now? Is there still a feeling of uneasiness with the pandemic?
Humberto Kam: Well, first of all, for us and our events, we always follow whatever the local suggestions and ordinances are about health. Our players’ health and safety is the most important thing, as is the health and safety of our team members. [For our Safari Zone event in Seville, Spain], a lot of people weren't wearing masks but there were a fair number that were. Our Niantic employees were also wearing masks just because, for us, we want to take that extra step to be mindful of our guests.
We realize that there are still people who are taking precautions and may not be comfortable. In whatever way we can, we want to instill confidence. We have people traveling from the US, Australia, and all across Europe, so that just also adds to the desire of making sure everyone has a great experience.
And thankfully, honestly--we know this now--but being out in the open air in a park? That's probably the safest place that you can be instead of an indoor location where you have to start worrying about air circulation. With these parks, people have the ability to be as close with their party that they came with as they want, or keep as much distance as they would like because you can still raid with people without getting uncomfortably close. It’s whatever your own personal comfort level is.
But overall, it is just real exciting to be back doing this again. People really missed us over the last couple of years. It was palpable in Seville, and they were talking about how great it was to be back again. I'd say the energy is very much of pent-up demand and people are just happy and excited to be out there again.
On a gameplay and technical level, what do you do at these new in-person events? Are they different from past events?
There's a couple of things that we're doing different this year. At its core, it is still about coming out there, and like we've had in the past, have these habitats where you can come in and find Pokemon that you may not find as often when you're playing at home. We will be having special research and we will be introducing some Pokemon that have never been in Pokemon Go before. So, in that sense, it is similar to the way they've been in the past.
One thing that we're doing this year differently in Sapporo, Japan that we've announced, is we're actually going to be having a morning and an afternoon session. So, from 8:00 to 1:30 in the afternoon, people will be in the park, and then another group will be exploring and doing gameplay around the city. Then midday, we'll have an hour intermission and then they will swap. That actually allows people to spread out, be able to enjoy and actually explore the city while also reducing the number of people that we have in the park.
What was the line that was crossed where Niantic said, “Okay, we can do in-person events again”? Was it based on government decisions?
To be perfectly honest, I wasn't part of Niantic when it happened. What I can say is that right now we feel that across the board, particularly in places where we consider having the events, the regulations are such where they're not... The regulations do not reflect a place of fear in terms of uncertainty as to what they are.
As they're dropping mask mandates, even indoors, we felt that having an event outdoors actually was safe. So, in that sense, as the local regulations both here in the US and abroad have been relaxing, we started getting to the point. If some places don't necessarily require masking indoor or if you're vaccinated and all that, we felt comfortable that we could have a mostly outdoor event. Although, some of them do have indoor aspects. Seattle will have some indoor aspects, but it's mostly outdoor.
And honestly, it's been a hard two years for us because it is such a key part of who we are and our mission, that it was never something that we were like, "Well, eventually we'll get back to it." We've always been very anxious to get back into IRL events, and as soon as we figured out that we could do that last year, we had make-up events for Liverpool, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. We felt that those were kind of our test beds, because local regulations had relaxed enough and we were also able to do events for the people that weren't able to attend. It's been a process of opening things back up again and making sure.
And having smaller events, like the Safari Zone in Seville, Spain before going to a big event like Pokemon Go Fest--that also kind of helped us feel more comfortable in terms of moving forward.
Is a parachute, so to speak, in place that Niantic is ready to pull if there is another COVID spike where Pokemon Go can revert and events can be canceled if needed? Is that plan in place, just in case?
Sure. Absolutely. I mean, we're well aware of everything we would need to do if we need to cancel an event. Right now, we don't feel that we're anywhere near that, but as you know, as soon as we start getting to those levels where it could be even a possibility, then we would start revisiting and making sure that all our prior assumptions, in terms of what would happen if we were to push on the brakes, would need to happen, could happen. All that is well planned. Hopefully we will not have to use them, but we're ready to.
So what’s next?
We have our global event June 4 and 5. Then comes Berlin, which is going to be July 1, then after that comes Seattle, which will be July 22, and then comes Sapporo on August 5 through August 7. And then we're going to have that finale event, which is something brand new for this year that we haven't had. We'll actually have a finale event August 27, which is going to be a global event. If you have bought a ticket for Go fest, you'll be able to participate in that event.
How will the finale event function?
I think we're going to be releasing details for that in a while, but basically just like when you buy a ticket, and you have it available to you when you buy a community or whatever the day of, then it'll be the same thing. After the Go Fest global event, you'll see a ticket available for you that will activate on August 27. I don't know if this is where I'm going to get into trouble, but I do believe that we are--not sure if we've announced this or not--but if you happen to miss it, we'll find ways for you to participate if you didn't hear about it until after the global event has passed.
Are there exclusive Pokemon or items that will only be at these events in Berlin, Seattle, and Sapporo?
In all of the three IRL events, as you go through the game events and all kinds of stuff, you'll be able to encounter the Sky Form for Shaymin, which will not have been available at all before the event. We'll also be releasing Shiny versions of Pokemon like Shroomish and Pansear. I believe it will be the first time that'll happen.
I do think that, for example, in the European region, you don't see Pansear, Pansage, or Panpour, so those that you don't see normally in the region will actually be appearing in the region, which is a different and unique thing. Very much like we did in Seville, Spain where some of the ones that were native to the Americas were actually in the Seville Safari Zone. At Go Fest, you'll actually be able to find some regional Pokemon that you normally wouldn't find.
What is the relationship like with The Pokemon Company after all these years?
We speak to the Pokemon Company on a weekly basis. They're very close, as they should be. I think it's really great that they're not just the type of company that has a license and they check in sporadically. No, they're absolutely very involved with us as we're developing what the experience will be. They always provide amazing input in terms of what that means from a Pokemon standpoint.
And they're just as excited, based on some of the conversations we've had recently and just looking back at the history that we've had together. I think we've pushed each other in great creative ways that have actually resulted in a much better product specifically in Pokemon Go. And I think both parties are very grateful for that.
Are discussions about coordinating cross-promotion for Pokemon Arceus, or Scarlet and Violet happening?
I'm not part of those discussions, and even if I was, that would be something that we're not quite ready to discuss yet. But what I would say is that--and not in a specific answer to your question--is absolutely. We're always very close with them in terms of everything that's going in the world of Pokemon, and we always want to investigate everything. So at some point, hopefully some of those things will come to light and we can have an announcement around those.
You know I have to try to get something on Scarlet and Violet.
Oh, of course, of course! We wouldn't be doing our job if any time that they release something new we didn't also release something new. We explore those conversations, but obviously those are things that we need to go through the process and see what's possible or not. As soon as we align on some things, we're always happy to make those announcements. But yeah, I totally know you have to ask.
[Having these in-person events is] nothing necessarily new, but I just want to reiterate the excitement about in-person events for us. That is something that has struck me--particularly being new to the company--is just how deep the commitment goes to the community and to fostering those things. The fact that our mission is to get people out there, exercising, exploring, and doing all this stuff together. And whenever we look at events, features, and stuff like that, the fact that those are always the criteria of which we see something is successful or not, or whether we're going to put effort behind it, is just something that--as someone relatively new to Niantic--is really fantastic to see.
I know that it's translating into a desire to put on some really amazing events for everybody. Definitely, we're not done revealing all the surprises we've got, so there's more coming, but I have to be a little bit of a tease. Just going through to the different events and actually just seeing the wide variety of people that play the game, for me has been… when I was on the outside and playing Pokemon Go on my own, I always had my idea of who our players were, but it's just such a wide variety from what you expect, to people that you don't necessarily expect, and you couldn't tell. Bringing all those people together is really fun.
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