Pokémon Go's newly-introduced Showcases are one of my favourite additions to the game in years. They're local leaderboards, in a nutshell - a feature which first debuted in developer Niantic's now-canned NBA All-Stars - that let you show off specific Pokémon and win in-game rewards. What's really great about Showcases, though, is their smart design with a very low barrier to entry, meaning there's no need to meet other players, or cough up for premium items in order to get involved. This ease of taking part has ensured Showcases are a success, but has also led to something of a revelation for me, as I've looked at my local leaderboards and read dozens of player names I've never seen around my area before. These are people who aren't in my local raid groups and whose names don't regularly appear in gyms, but who are still clearly playing and enjoying the game every day. And the fact this is possible is a great sign for Pokémon Go's ongoing popularity in general, I think - that a very wide spectrum of people are playing and finding fun in the game, and doing so in different ways.
Nowhere is this clearer than Pokémon Go Fest, which touched down in London for the first time at the weekend. Go Fest is the game's biggest annual event, and runs each summer in a selection of cities, bringing together tens of thousands of players. Last year's event took me to Berlin to experience a new city. This time, it was all happening much closer to home - but the familiar sense of being part of a giant community of players felt just as special. As you might expect, Go Fest is where you'll find attendees keen to grind for hours on end to get as many rare species, Shinies and hundos as possible. But it's also where I found people for whom the event was simply a chance to share their love for Pokémon, and spend a day walking with family and friends around a colourful city park.
London is extremely well-equipped as a place to play Pokémon Go already, as you might expect from a city filled with landmarks, historical sites and big city parks. The fact you can play pretty much anywhere central was a factor in Niantic splitting each Go Fest day ticket between a half-day in the city itself and a more curated experience which filled Brixton's Brockwell Park. (It was also a good way to sell twice as many tickets without Brockwell Park ever feeling cramped.) For the city portion, I initially played around Victoria, drifting over to St James' Park which offers a good walking loop around its lake, dodging tourists and pelicans. Pokémon Go players were everywhere, every in-game location was lit up, and the game's first event questline - to unlock Mega Rayquaza for the first time - was fun. Every raid lobby I joined immediately filled. It was brilliant stuff.
My afternoon was spent in Brockwell Park with friends, exploring its various zones and completing the event's second questline, to meet the Mythical Pokémon Diancie and Mega Evolve it too. Every inch of the park was filled with PokéStops, and the variety of Pokémon on offer were well chosen, with rare types, new Shiny creatures and regional exclusives in abundance. Even the most hardcore of Pokémon Go player had plenty to hunt down, let alone those players simply enjoying the surroundings. But for every group of dedicated fans zooming around, there was a family strolling, young child thrilled at catching so many Snorlax. As ever, my most memorable encounters of the day were with people, rather than the virtual creatures. I spoke with folk from Sweden, Denmark, Holland and Germany, families playing together, retired couples. To the dad helping his young daughter complete her Kanto Pokédex, it was my pleasure to trade over that Tauros. To the family in matching Goomy hats, amazing work once again.
From a player perspective, Go Fest is now something of a well-oiled machine - and certainly Niantic seemed to be on top of things with rock solid phone signal available throughout Brockwell Park, and a decent mix of things to see (I'm told the large dry ice-filled glacier cave was a good spot to hang out when it rained on Saturday). Brockwell Park was also well chosen, I thought, just 10 minutes via train from Victoria and a good size. It may not be as famous as Hyde Park or others in the capital's centre, but I understand those also come with hiring costs in the millions and a three-year waiting list to get your event put on. Abroad, the biggest issue for Go Fest this year has been Japan's heatwave, which has prompted some health guidance from Niantic for attendees at the concurrently-running Go Fest in Osaka.
It's worth noting some of the newer features in Pokémon Go which helped further improve player experiences this year, such as the ability to see when players are in a raid lobby from afar, encouraging you to scurry over or simply letting you know for later that it's a place people are currently playing. I liked the fact that PokéStops in Brockwell Park were decorated to delineate the biome area they belonged to, a cosmetic feature originally introduced to decorate PokéStops last Halloween, letting you stay within a zone's boundaries when hunting a particular creature. This year's Go Fest also introduced a feature still in testing - the long-requested "ready up" button for raid lobbies (which also now immediately start upon hitting their 20-person capacity). Perhaps the only negative was the need to complete a Route for one of the event's quests - a new feature in the game which still feels unfinished and in need of more work. The fact you couldn't do this in Brockwell Park either was a surprise, and seemed to highlight the slow rollout of Routes more generally.
I extended my Go Fest with a second day add-on and followed the advice of regular London players who suggested visiting Regent's Park, which was again filled with players wearing Pikachu ears, or spottable from the battery pack cables dangling from their pockets. A friend who was there at 9am told me it had just been Pokémon players and local residents on their usual morning Parkrun. From there I headed through the city, eventually ending up on the South Bank, Pokémon players still everywhere.
I'm a fairly frequent visitor to London, though rarely walk longer distances on foot when a tube or bus can get me there quicker. I suppose I think of it as somewhere to be navigated through, rather than actually explored. But even as the skies darkened, I was glad to have the time - and via Pokémon Go, the encouragement - to wander without having somewhere specific to get to, or a pressing need to simply rush through. Surrounded by other players from all walks of life, it again made me think of those other names from where I live - people playing on the same streets as me, just doing different things.