For Niantic Labs’ next trick, the augmented reality game studio is diving head-first into another knotty fandom, the world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, with scores of dedicated fans, a rich history of lore to explore, and untold storylines to tell.
But this time, boiling down a massive fictional world into an easy-to-understand AR video game seems to have been a much more difficult task. That’s because Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is not very simple. In fact, it’s got numerous systems at work, all simultaneously competing for your attention and potentially obfuscating what it is that you might want to open the app to actually do.
In the first demo of the game at Niantic’s San Francisco office last week, I was among a group of reporters who were able to try Wizards Unite before its official launch sometime later this year. On the surface, the game feels and looks similar to Pokémon Go, the mega-hit AR game that made Niantic one of the most well-known mobile game developers in the world. There’s a map that corresponds to the real world, and you largely traverse around in physical space while looking for digital items to pick up.
The core activity in Wizards Unite involves collecting a mix of artifacts and sometimes saving notable characters from the series who are stuck in a bad situation, like the titular Harry being pinned down by a spooky dementor. From there, you play a little tracing mini-game, to evoke the casting of a spell and then collect the item or free your friend. Afterward, you’re able to add that item or character to your collections book, earn experience points, and level up.
It sounds simple, but it didn’t really feel that way. With Pokémon Go, players could instantly understand the point of the game: go around, find new creatures, and capture them. Everything else felt a bit ancillary, even if eventually battling at gyms, catching legendaries, and souping up your roster of fighters became the primary focus for advanced players. In Wizards Unite, there doesn’t seem to be an easy-to-explain gameplay goal that could hook a young kid or adult right away — that is, unless they’re already a Harry Potter superfan, of which there are certainly plenty.
This approach is not necessarily a bad thing. Niantic has always taken a simple concept — exploring real-world landmarks with Ingress or capturing pokémon through a smartphone camera lens — and layered more complex systems and other game design on top until the experience resembles something like a full-fledged role-playing game. With Wizards Unite, Niantic is going full RPG from the get-go, without wasting any time gradually building it up. That could give players who are hungry to make this their new go-to hobby plenty of things to do when the game launches.
Beyond traversing the map, collecting those artifacts, and visiting inns to eat food, players of Wizards Unite will have a few more advanced activities to keep them busy. Those include leveling up your character, picking a subclass (called a “profession”) to learn new abilities, and then teaming up with up to five other players to compete in a fortress (what Niantic has designed to be this game’s version of gym battles from Pokémon Go). These team challenges feel like a cross between a traditional strategy game and something similar to Nintendo’s Fire Emblem, where one-on-one battles take place simultaneously after players select an enemy from a top-down map.
Players who just want to dabble in an AR Harry Potter world may find themselves intimidated by the class system and skill trees. And the more complicated turn-based combat system that takes over when you engage in the team-based challenges is surprisingly difficult, forcing you to head into battle only after you’ve crafted some much-needed health and stat-boosting potions and carefully considered your class abilities. But it’s clear that those activities are designed for the hardcore players who want to really delve deep and spend serious time playing.
Not helping the game’s steeper adoption curve is a storyline that doesn’t immediately resonate with all but the most well-versed fans. According to Niantic and its partner Portkey Games, a new studio under Warner Bros. Games in charge of Harry Potter properties, you’re ostensibly trying to keep the non-magical world from discovering the magical one. By going around and collecting artifacts, which the game calls “foundables,” and dispelling the “confoundable” magic threatening to reveal it to the world, you’re essentially helping maintain the worldwide cover-up of the magical world.
I don’t imagine that will be easy to explain to children, and it’s nowhere near as simple and straightforward as Pokémon Go’s pitch of just catching pokémon in the real world. But Portkey Games, which says it’s in contact with the team developing the Fantastic Beasts films, considers the events of Wizards Unite to be authentic and part of the overall story arc, even in the likely event that it never gets mentioned in a film or future spinoff book. (According to Portkey, the game is set during the events after the seventh and final book in the main Harry Potter series.)
Of course, all of that may not matter much to your average die-hard Potter fan. The real magic of Wizards Unite is getting to see Rowling’s world come to life not on a film screen or your average 2D video game on a console, but in the actual physical world, thanks to AR. Just as Rowling made her magic world exist just underneath and behind the veneer of reality in modern-day England, Wizards Unite similarly expresses that tantalizing idea that there’s a hidden magic universe anywhere on Earth simply waiting to be discovered, so long as you have your phone on you. And one of the best features of the game, the Portkey portals, will let players step through a large blue swirl of energy and into a fully immersive AR game environment, explorable through your phone’s camera.
So if creating a layer of simulated reality that blends seamlessly with the physical world is all about evoking that sense of wonder, then Wizards Unite will surely be a success despite its more complicated design.