Niantic and Warner Bros.’ WB Games studio showed off the first gameplay for Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, a mobile game that is based on the same location-based technology behind Pokémon Go and Ingress. It’s time for all of us to be spellbound.
The long-awaited game has been in the works for a few years, and it will debut on iOS and Android in 2019, according to a press briefing led by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment president David Haddad and Niantic CEO John Hanke in San Francisco. Niantic provided the underlying Niantic Real World platform for augmented reality and map-based gameplay while WB Games in San Francisco created the game. The publisher is Portkey Games, a Warner Bros label.
The game is a big test of where the location-based gaming phenomenon created by Pokémon Go (which generated $2 billion in revenues) can go next. (Haddad will be a speaker at our upcoming GamesBeat Summit 2019 event in Los Angeles on April 23-24).
The game takes players into the world of the Harry Potter novels and movies as well as Fantastic Beasts. Much like Pokémon Go, the game includes augmented reality animations where players can use their smartphones to see animated creatures in the real world. By walking around the real world, players can find objects or creatures and interact with them, including walking around 3D animations of locations from Harry Potter locations. Like Pokémon Go, it is a free-to-play game with in-app purchases.
In Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, players are new recruits of the Statute of Secrecy Task Force working to solve the mystery of the Calamity. Because of this event, the secrets of the Wizarding World are at risk of being exposed to ordinary people (muggles). Players unite to fight the threat. They will be able to explore their neighborhoods and cities to discover mysterious artifacts, cast spells, and encounter fantastic beasts and iconic characters along the way.
While players explore the real world, they will find a variety of Wizarding locations on their map, such as inns, greenhouses, fortresses, and magical traces where players can trigger specific encounters. When you find an inn, you can go inside it and eat some food, which gives you energy so that you can cast spells. There will be more than 100 types of encounters in the game, and that will expand over time.
The game is built around a story with a multiyear narrative arc that will have players solving various mysteries, including the truth behind the Calamity.
When you run into creatures in the world, such as Dementors, you’ll have to fight them by casting spells. The basic mechanic to cast a spell is to precisely trace a pattern, or glyph, on your screen. If you do it well, you’ll have a better chance of doing damage to the creature, which you can view in AR or an animated mode. You’ll see magical trades on your smartphone screen map as you walk around. If you tap on them, you’ll try to beat their “confounding magic.”
Overall, based on my experience with the game, I saw it as a more than a “reskin” of Pokémon Go. This game builds on the platform that Niantic made and makes use of it to create a bigger experience. You can do things like collect ingredients to make potions or seek out enemies to fight. While Pokémon Go is more casual, Harry Potter is more of a game. It is still accessible to everyone, but it has things that only fans of the franchise will appreciate — like 3D renderings of places in the Wizarding World.
There’s no launch date yet. The game will be available in 19 languages at launch: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, European Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Danish, Turkish, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Latin American Spanish. The game has no relationship to the Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery mobile game from Jam City.
Making the world more social and fit
Niantic’s aim in creating its game is to get people outside and exploring the world around them, instead of staying inside glued to screens. It wants people to exercise more and become familiar with the monuments and other things around them.
Combining Harry Potter with Niantic’s exercise gaming is sure to trigger a lot more exercise for sedentary gamers. With Pokémon Go and Ingress, Niantic’s fans have walked more than 23 billion kilometers (14.3 billion miles) to date, Hanke said.
“It’s like McDonald’s, you know, with 23 billion served for us,” he said.
More than 3 million people attended real-world social events in Pokémon Go in 2018, with single-day attendance at one event exceeding 100,000 people. And 190 million friend connections have been made to date, he said. The platform can support 100 million people in a single instance of the game, Hanke said. Insight firm AppAnnie estimated that Pokemon Go has 460 million downloads to date, and it estimates that Harry Potter could generate more than $100 million in revenue in its first month.
“We think there is adventure in every neighborhood, wherever you live, and we will help you find it and exercise,” said Hanke. “So all of us, from time to time, need a little nudge to get outside and get our daily steps in or get our workout in. And we want to be that nudge.”
Hanke said the company also wants to promote the idea of “real-world social.”
“For us, social is not chatting online,” he said. “Social is people coming together and doing stuff together in real life. In the beginning, it was about activities that I can do with my kids and my wife as a family together.”
Players can submit locations to be candidates for landmarks in the game worlds, and today, thanks to Ingress, Ingress Prime, and Pokémon Go, there are millions of real world locations identified as landmarks in the animated world. If you walk to all of those places, you’ll get over that “epidemic of people sitting on the couch,” Hanke said.
As for the accessibility, Hanke said, “I like the balance of the game [when it comes to] approachability. We’re certainly striving to have the game be one you can walk up to and begin playing and not be overwhelmed by the complexity. But [it] also has depth there, waiting to be discovered.”
More gaming in the gameplay
While Pokémon Go focused on collecting at the outset, the Harry Potter game will start with more gameplay options for players. Eventually, over two-and-a-half years, Niantic added to Pokémon Go more features, such as friends, a greater variety of creatures, raids, trading, and player battles. Harry Potter won’t start with all of those, but Niantic now has the benefit of having developed those things in its previous games, and that could make them available in Harry Potter sooner, Hanke said.
The Harry Potter game also has more activities for hardcore gamers with Wizarding Challenges, which resemble the raids in Pokémon Go. With those synchronous multiplayer activities, players can team up and attack fortresses on the map. That gives players leveling-up experiences similar to role-playing games, with things like shared arenas, combat encounters, and group-wide arena effects.
Adding to the RPG gameplay, players can specialize in different professions: Auror, Magizoologist, and Professor. Players from different professions will be encouraged to work together to defeat Wizarding Challenges and unlock rare content.
And then, there are treats for fans of the Harry Potter world in the form of Portkeys. Upon discovering and activating a Portkey Portmanteau, players will be able to reveal an immersive VR-like experience and transport themselves to explore iconic Wizarding World locations. I saw one such place in the form of Ollivanders Wand Shop in the Diagon Alley area. This shop looked beautiful, and it is unlike anything you can do in Pokémon Go.
If you visit greenhouses scattered throughout the world, you’ll be able to collect different kinds of ingredients. With those, you can craft potions. The kind of ingredients available will depend on your biomes, with ingredients available changing based on weather conditions.
Making the game
The team was inspired by a quote from the wizard Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter world. He says to Harry, “Of course it’s happening inside your head here. But why on earth should that mean it’s not real?”
Hanke said that he grew up with the Harry Potter franchise but found he wasn’t nearly as big an expert on it as many fans among the employees at Niantic and Warner Bros. They viewed it as a dream come true to work on it.
Jonathan Knight, vice president and studio head at WB Games in San Francisco, said that his company set up both a games label, Portkey games in partnership with Rowling, and a game studio to create the game. Rowling’s people make sure that the game is authentic and consistent within the franchise, but she did not otherwise have involvement with the project. The idea was to put the player at the center of their own adventure inspired by the Wizarding World.
The team created a lot of original, authentic content in the form of art, animation, sound, visual effects, and story.
“Harry Potter fans deeply believe that they have this wizarding potential and that the line between the wizarding world and the real world is paper thin,” Knight said.
Alex Moffit, product manager at Niantic, said that the world of Harry Potter is so dynamic that the team tried to convey that by adding a lot more motion to the animated world. So, you’ll see smoke billowing from the chimneys of inns on the map. When you come upon creatures, you’ll see them through augmented reality, overlaid on the real world. And you’ll be able to take selfies with them. This “photo mode” may inspire more people to use the AR features in the game.
More of the story and gameplay
The game takes place after the events of the Deathly Hallows, the final Harry Potter book. All wizards and witches have to unite to fight the threat. Mary Casey, executive director of product at WB Games San Francisco, said that in the game, a law was passed in 1692 that created a Statute of Secrecy, which sought to keep the Wizarding World secret from muggles. The developers didn’t mention it, but that so happens to be the year of the Salem witch trials.
But a Calamity has occurred, threatening the sacred law and creating the risk of items known as “foundables” appearing all over the place. These are artifacts like wizards, beasts, and items that have been scattered throughout the mobile world. They are shrouded in a type of magic known as “confoundable magic,” but it’s not clear how long that shroud will last and the objects will remain hidden. The British Ministry of Magic has called the wizards together to explore their neighborhoods, find the foundables, overcome the confoundable magic, and return the items to their rightful place. If you travel, you’ll find different creatures in different places.
The game kicks off with a call to arms to join the Statute of Secrecy Task Force and scour the world for the items. You create a Ministry ID, create your avatar, pick your magical house (like mine, Gryffindor) and customize it as you wish. When you find a foundable like Harry Potter, you’ll see him being threatened by a Dementor. You have to cast enough spells in a synchronous battle to defeat the Dementor and liberate Harry.
In the demo, I walked around the Ferry Building in San Francisco and found various creatures. I had a hard time getting better than a “fair” rating in how accurately I traced the glyphs on my screen to cast the spells. But only a few of my attempts failed. You can use potions to improve your chances of winning a fight. When you fight creatures, you have to block their spells by swiping on the screen. That adds some skill to the fighting. I think this fighting is where the game departs from the fighting in trainer battles in Pokémon Go.
We also had a chance to go into a fortress and attack a number of creatures. We started in a group of five, with each of us attacking one of the five opposing creatures. Once we all defeated our opponents, we were able to share in some loot. As you collect items, you’ll receive a treasure chest in which you can place the items.
The magical items are rooted in landmarks. And what you find there is affected by things, such as natural phenomenon like weather, time of day, or the state of the moon.
“Maybe players will see things differently and look at the world in a different way,” Moffit said.
As for adding more features in the future, Hanke said, “We have the advantage of two-and-a-half years of development on the platform. And we have a nice tool chest of features and technologies. So, it should make things go faster.”