Niantic's latest Pokémon Go Fest is community building at its finest
As a resident of Lower Queen Anne, it’s hard to overstate how much Seattle Center is a part of the neighborhood, whether you’re a tourist or a resident. Prior to the pandemic, the spot wasn’t just a place to go for a sunny weekend jog or take the dogs for a walk–it was a festival space, where events like Festal, Seattle International Beer Festival, Folk Life, and Bite of Seattle would line the streets with food trucks and throngs of people every weekend. Not all of these events survived the pandemic. Some have returned. But generally, Seattle Center is a lot emptier than it used to be.
Nonetheless, Seattle Center is one of the best places to play Pokémon Go in the world. Since the game’s debut, it’s been the go-to spot for the city’s most serious players. These real-life Pokémon trainers thrive on the dozens of Pokéstops and Raid Gyms along the park’s low-impact walking path. From monthly Community Days to nightly groups that meet during Raid Hour after work, it’s a strategic spot to collect in-game resources, catch rare Pokemon, and meet other players.
This community feeling hit a peak at Pokémon Go Fest Seattle last weekend, one of three in-person versions of Niantic’s annual event. This is the first of its kind to be held since 2019, and the first to be hosted in Seattle. It marked an opportunity for Niantic not only to reinforce the game’s focus on interactive exploration but also to connect with the community while building goodwill with the local residents. It was also a great example of how game companies can collaborate with cities and bring benefit both to their players and the community.
When I entered Seattle Center on Sunday morning, the bustle of the crowds felt comfortingly familiar. Players filled the pavilions and walkways in clusters, flooding into the event’s spawn zones as music from the Pokémon series filtered in through large speakers placed on all the lawns.
By 10 AM, with temperatures expected to reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoon, children were already playing in the International Fountain, which had been transformed into a sunny oasis with some Astroturf and fake tropical plants.
The energy was infectious but also remarkable; while many visitors to Seattle Center come for the events, few seem to ignite the kind of excitement that sends attendees sprinting across the park. From the photo ops to the visual attractions, people rarely stood in one place for long.
Pokémon Go‘s big Seattle Takeover
Pokémon Go Fest Seattle 2022 featured a lot of firsts for Niantic. In an effort to offer both an exploration-driven adventure and the more relaxed traditional Pokémon catching session, the event was split into two locations: Seattle Center and downtown Seattle, divided into morning and evening sessions. The park portion divided Seattle Center into four regions, with each area spawning Pokémon to suit its theme. At the north entrance, a Psychic Pokémon zone; at the International Fountain, a desert and aquatic-themed area; near Armory Square and Fisher Pavilion, a place for Flying-types, and beneath the Space Needle, an Electric Pokémon spawning point.
Players spent the day completing a series of in-game missions called “Special Research Projects. These mini-tasks highlighted Pokémon specific to each zone, requiring a few good laps around the park to complete. Within a few hours, I’d already walked five miles, revisiting certain zones as the Special Research projects demanded.
Most key points of the park were also remade for the Pokémon theme. At Memorial Stadium, the field was turned into a Trading Post and Battleground. At the Sonic Blooms installation, a forest of artificial mushrooms and flowers called the Electric Garden was nestled at the base of the glass blossoms stretching to the sky. Meanwhile, inside Armory Square, throngs of fans cheered at the Pikachu and Eevee meet and greet on the main stage, as others furrowed their brow, deep in thought, at the nearby Pokémon Trading Card Game Discovery Lab.
Other smaller attractions dotted the grass throughout the park; tents for each of the three Pokémon Go trainer team alignments (Instinct, Mystic and Valor), photo ops with an inflated Snorlax and Jigglypuff, and smaller Instagram-worthy novelties, like a giant replica of the Niantic Wayspot on the lawn.
The minimally invasive transformation of these spaces was impressive in how creative and yet unobtrusive they were. The tweaks to each location were simple but so well integrated that one area, the Electric Garden, was assumed by some to be a regular part of Seattle Center.
Encouraging Urban Exploration through Pokémon Go
An event this transformative to a public space can’t exist without help from the city. Niantic cites not only good park infrastructure but also Seattle Center’s collaborative spirit as key to the event’s success.
Humberto Kam, Director of Live Events at Niantic, speaking with Game Developer at the event, said that the park coordinators were surprisingly adaptable. “Once they understood what we were going for, they were all in,” even embracing some of the company’s less-conventional ideas, like piping in Pokémon music before the event to build atmosphere and anticipation.
Niantic’s goal for the festival, Kam said, was “to give people a reason to explore the city of Seattle,” while creating a thoughtful interactive experience that would respectfully reinterpret its most beloved park attractions. The company knew they had to be careful in embellishing some of the park’s features, as some of them, like the International Fountain, hold historical and sentimental value to local residents.
To that end, most of the visual features were minimally invasive but highly effective: with a few simple banners, posts, and bales of hay, the entire Memorial Stadium field was turned into a Trading Post, while a few sculptures added to the Sonic Blooms turned it into a magical garden.
This approach seems to have been successful; while people gather at the International Fountain nearly every day in the summer, few spend so much time at its base, soaking up the water, as I saw on Sunday. “I was there yesterday, just watching the parents and the kids just running around the jet stream, which they would normally do. But in this case, it actually is now it’s now a new oasis and a new magical place for them to actually play and interact with each other, which just really makes it all worthwhile,” said Kam.
Kam said as a developer that values the in-person, explorative experience, another goal was maintaining a sense of momentum, which lead to the event’s intermission and the morning/afternoon split.
The team felt that, as a location-based game, they needed to focus less on being prescriptive and more on giving the player freedom to complete the event’s tasks and Special Research projects without feeling rushed or left out. People often travel for these events, Kam added, and want the freedom to socialize or have a meal with other players they’ve never met before. To an extent, the decision was also about accessibility, as they wanted to take into account people’s fatigue levels, among other things, as the day wore on.
Sure enough, both in the park and downtown Seattle area, people were taking their time, socializing, eating, and just hanging out between bouts of play, adding to the relaxed atmosphere of the festival. In many ways, it felt like the average, pre-pandemic summer day.
As I closed out the day, taking photos of The Oasis on my way to the Monorail, I sat by the International Fountain and took it all in, watching families run around on the AstroTurf and sit in the pools of water forming around the base.
According to one of the artists who put it together, Shannon Kelley of Mach 2 Arts, Inc., the festival was the first time in the park’s history that they’d allowed the fountain to be altered, making it an honor to put the Oasis transformation together. He’d then spent the better part of his Sunday enjoying the fruits of his labor, getting a secondhand thrill from the infectious excitement of the kids and Pokémon players stopping by to marvel and cool off.
Beaming from the concrete bench as we watched, smiling, he said, “It’s a little slice of happiness.”