“I would say that Pokémon Go Fest is Pokémon Go on steroids.”


Those are the words of Michael Steranka, senior director on the live game elements of Pokémon Go, spoken under the blisteringly hot summer sun of Madrid.

We are hiding in the shade of the ‘press and partner’ area, surrounded by branded bunting, hard-working parasols and a constant loop of Pokémon music. A human-sized Pikachu was here just now for a photo op (see above).

Steranka goes on to describe the event, which RadioTimes.com has been flown out to attend, as "the epitome of the Pokémon Go experience".

He explains: "We really take all of the game's pillars of exploration, exercise, real-world social, and we turn it up to 11 at our live events, and especially Go Fest.

More like this

"And so if you're interested in those things, and Pokémon Go, there's really not a single better time to play the game than at one of these Go Fests.

"Because you're exploring a brand new location that you may have never been to before. You're getting lots of exercise throughout the day, walking many kilometres in the summer sun. And then you're meeting 1000s of other trainers who love this game just like you do, and you can celebrate in that together."

So, with the introductions out of the way, with our phones charged, our water bottles filled, our sun cream liberally applied and our shades affixed to our faces, let’s leave the comfort of the backstage area and see what Pokémon Go Fest is all about.

What is Pokémon Go Fest?

RadioTimes.com gaming editor Rob Leane poses with a giant inflatable Snorlax in a sunny park, at Pokemon Go Fest 2024.
Separated a birth, me and Snorlax. Radio Times

The easiest way to explain Pokémon Go Fest is to split it into two parts — there’s the part that happens in real life, and there’s the part that happens in the game itself.

In real life, the Pokémon Go community descends on a park, in this case the beautiful Parque Juan Carlos I on the outskirts of Madrid. (This year, there were also Pokémon Go Fests in New York and Sendai, Japan — there tends to be a European, American and Asian leg of the event each year.)

Around the park, the Pokémon Go Fest organisers have arranged numerous fun things to entertain the fans. There are photo opportunities galore, with a mixture of actors in Pokémon costumes wandering about (Disneyland-style) and giant Pokémon inflatables placed in eye-catching spots. The massive blow-up Snorlax sleeping in the sun was my personal favourite (see above).

One of the big real life attractions is the giant merchandise tent — check out my first-hand footage of all the Pokémon goodies on TikTok — where there’s a mix of plushies, clothes, accessories and exclusive items that will only be available at Go Fest.

That’s not to mention that you can grab lunch at the food trucks (shoutout to the yummy burgers), top up your water bottle at the many ‘hydration stations’, or simply sit around in the sun (or the ample shade) to socialise with other players. It is, essentially, a celebratory meet-up for the Pokémon Go community.

It’s not unlike a Comic Con or a Star Wars Celebration, but with the benefit of being outside in nature instead of cooping everyone up in a conference centre.

At times, it even makes me think of a Scout camp, one of those big summer ones where groups from all around the country come together for some fun in the sun.

Two screenshots of Pokemon Go Fest: on the left, a shot of the in-game map with lots of Poke-Stops visible; on the right, Solgaleo's in-game page.
Why would anyone look up from their phones? Radio Times / Niantic

Then there’s the part of Pokémon Go Fest that happens in the game itself. The first time I opened the app at the event, I was truly blown away with the number of Poké-Stops and gyms that have been dotted around the virtual version of the park.

"Oh my gosh, I don't know the count off the top of my head," says developer Michael Steranka, when I ask just how many of those spinning blue Poké-Stops have been added to the park for the weekend.

"But it's got to be, you know, at least, like 150 or more, maybe. I'd have to check with our game designers who spent the last week meticulously walking through and testing the experience, end to end, over and over again, and doing these micro adjustments of like, 'Oh, well, I think we added too many Poké-Stops over here. We're going to remove them a little bit so that you have more visibility on the map.'"

The effect, for players in the game, is that there’s something to do in every corner of the park. You’ll see people gathering in certain places throughout the day, for in-game reasons like battling a powerful Pokémon that is appearing in raid battles, or finding a rare spawn in the wild, or ticking off objectives that require them to visit certain areas, spin a number of Poké-Stops or catch a particular Pokémon.

At each of these events, attendees have a chance to catch a select few critters before they are widely released to the global community of players. At this year’s Go Fests, for example, the legendary Necrozma is available in raid battles and research tasks. Catching my first one was a proper highlight of the weekend.

And then, when I fused that Necrozma with a Solgaleo to make my first Dusk Mane Necrozma, that thrill was only heightened. This fusion mechanic is something that you can’t do in the game yet, unless you’re at an event like this.

As Steranka puts it: "Yes, you're getting early access to all of the content here. But I really feel like the [in-game] content is just part of the experience, and I would even say a small part of the experience.

"Because what you'll find is like, the whole thesis behind Niantic and Niantic’s games is that you get so much joy and your life is so much more enriched when you're actually going outside, and you're talking to people face to face, and you're seeing beautiful sights.

"And so, the content of the Go Fest is what entices people to come out to this thing. But I think what you find, once you actually come to a live event, is that it's so much more than that. It's all of these sort of intangibles that lead to, just, you know, an experience that is unforgettable and that people will take with them for the rest of their lives. Basically."

Different ways to play

An official photo from Pokemon Go Fest, showing three fans in dark T-shirts holding their phones and pulling excited faces in front of a branded hot air balloon.
Look how much fun you could have. Niantic

One thing that Pokémon Go Fest highlighted for me is that people can play this game in all sorts of different ways, many of which seem to be supported here at the event.

If you’re the sort of player that loves raid battles, you could probably do one every minute or so at an event like this, with max-level players piling on repeatedly to take out the likes of Necrozma and Blacephalon. The more times you pile on, as well, the higher your chances are of bagging a shiny version — that’s a major appeal for a certain sect of players.

For some, shininess doesn’t matter as much as simply ticking quests off a list, getting that satisfying little endorphin rush as the in-game rewards appear. Go Fest has its own quest line with lots of objectives to grind, goodies to unlock, and characters to interact with.

Some players are into PVP battles, and there’s a dedicated area for them to duke it out with each other at Go Fest. Others might be particularly big on trading, and you’ll see them walking around with signs displaying which Pokémon they’re looking for and which ones they’re willing to trade. Some spend a lot of time in photo mode, and Go Fest has plenty of great spots for them to pose in.

A photo of Oricorio, taken in a sunny park at Pokemon Go Fest.
Travel to new places, meet the colourful locals. Niantic

Back at the press zone, chugging a coffee before my next critter-capturing session, I ask developer Kathy Woo (senior product manager on Pokémon GO) if it’s a challenge to make the game work for so many different types of players.

"It is a challenge," she admits, "but I think it's like our favourite challenge." She went on to explain: 'I think Pokémon Go is genuinely a rare game that really does try to hit on so many different pillars. I feel like a lot of the games — at least the ones that I play — they do just one or two [features] right, and then really focus in on those.

"And we really try our best to make Pokémon Go for everyone. And we really do mean it. And that does mean, you know, making sure that our collectors have something or battlers have something, right? And sometimes a new feature might hit every cohort. Fabulous.

"Most times, it will probably hit a few here, a few there. And we try to kind of, you know, balance our roadmap and things like that to make sure that Pokémon Go remains a fun experience for all types of players."

Unexpected encounters

A crowd of players ambles about, against a leafy and sunny backdrop, at Pokemon Go Fest. There are colourful banners around.
Basically what I saw 99% of the time I looked up from my phone. Niantic

As something of an introvert, I would not count myself among the players that spend a lot of time thinking about battles or trades or even raids. One of the good things about Go Fest is that there will be heaps of high-level players in most of the raids, providing less-experienced players like myself with a lot of support that you wouldn’t necessarily find in your day to day life.

For the most part, though, I’m pretty happy just wandering around the festival site, taking in the gorgeous scenery as I tick off quests and collect as many of the event-specific Pokémon as I can. It’s a very pleasant way to spend a day or two.

However, the quest line in the game does eventually task me with making a few new friends and completing a few trades. When I mention to Kathy Woo that it feels like the game has nudged me to be more sociable, she has a lovely answer for me.

She said: "I'm like you, to be honest, I'm introverted. And it's not like my first nature to necessarily approach people who are playing Pokémon Go. [...] But I think just the fact that we are a real-world social game, like, people are so nice, and it actually boggles my mind [...] like, I've literally never had a negative encounter with someone at Go Fest or even [playing the game] at home.

"Sometimes I'll go to Community Day at my local park, and we'll just see people, and they'll approach me. You know, there's a little bit of a pattern, when you see people playing Pokémon Go: you'll see the charger cable maybe, and maybe a Pikachu on your shirt, there are these identifiers, I guess.

"And yeah, I've had people approach me and, you know, ask to trade and things like that, or just ask to be friends. And yeah, I've had nothing but really lovely experiences. And so I think that we want more people to have those experiences, right? At events like Go Fest, but even out wherever you are, right? And so those little nudges are kind of our efforts, maybe for people who it might not come so naturally to, to say, you know, maybe try it out?”

As my interview with Woo wraps up, we rush over to the Pikachu and Eevee photo op area. We’ve received a tip-off that there is about to be a string of marriage proposals between players. It reminds me that, when I interviewed Pokémon Go developer Tim Nguyen about last year’s Go Fest, he mentioned that he met his long-term partner while playing Pokémon Go. How’s that for 'real-world social' in a game?

An official photo from Pokemon Go Fest, showing a man proposing to a woman as a life-size Pikachu looks on.
Why does it look like Pikachu is officiating the wedding? Niantic

Inspired perhaps by Woo’s words and the sight of some Pikachu-adjacent proposals, I do, eventually, find the courage to have a few conversations with people, to ask if they will add me as a friend in the game and trade something with me. I start off small, making a beeline for a PR person that has seemed particularly friendly and helpful over the last couple of days.

Emboldened by the success of that trade, I even manage to strike up a conversation with one of those traders, the people walking around with signs saying which critters they’re looking for.

Read more:

I speak to a lovely chap from Germany, and sadly I don’t have any of the rare things he’s looking for, but he’s more than happy to trade with me to help out with my objective. (More than a week later, me and this chap are now into the habit of sending each other daily gifts in the game.)

I also manage to befriend a few people that I took part in raids with. I didn’t even have to speak to them, because the game offers you a chance to add friends at the end of each raid. This feels a bit like cheating, but hey, I’ll take it.

A large crowd of players, cheering and waving at the camera, as a colourful firework goes off behind them in a sunny park at Pokemon Go Fest.
Guess who missed this photo op. Niantic

Towards the end of my visit, around the same time that the community gathers for a massive group photo, I’m sat under a tree taking shade from the sun. I’ve just finished my second burger of the weekend and I’m spinning all the nearby Poké-Stops to tick off the last quest on the list.

I take a moment to look through all the creatures I’ve caught, excited to take them home and use them to defend the gym outside my home. Perhaps I’ll even pop along to the local community events that I keep hearing about?

My feet hurt from walking way more than usual step count each day, and my legs are tired too. My social battery and my phone battery are starting to reach their limits. In fact, it looks a little bit like my phone case has started to melt. I make a mental note to order a new one.

This is a small price to pay for all the fun I’ve had this weekend. I’ve explored a truly stunning park, I’ve been rewarded well in the game, and I’ve stepped outside my comfort zone slightly.

I’ve had my first experience of "Pokémon Go on steroids", and if you asked me right now, I’d happily sign up for another dose.

As I sit under the tree, winding down, I hear a polite 'excuse me' being muttered. I look up to see two people — a dad and his daughter — with their phones in their hands and their charger cables snaking out of sight into their bags.

They ask me for directions to the football area, another of the family-friendly activities on offer here, and I send them merrily on their way.

As they wander off, and I hope that I’ve sent them in the right direction, I feel like I’ve gone from an outsider to a proper member of the community, someone who can offer help if you come with a question.

It’s a nice way to feel, I realise, and I decide that I’ll definitely continue chasing that thrill when I get home. And for a self-professed introvert, that’s really saying something…

Pokémon Go Fest 2024 will continue on 13th July and 14th July, with the global event taking place online for players everywhere.


Check out more of our Gaming coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to The Radio Times Podcast.