If there is one franchise that has the staying power of Pokémon and an even more rabid fan base, it's Harry Potter. The books and films are already a global phenomenon, so a Pokémon GO-esque augmented reality game should spell guaranteed success. However, there's the pitfall of overreliance on existing popularity. This is why the upcoming Wizards Unite should stand on its own merits, but also learn from Pokemon Go's successes and failures.
For those who missed the news, Wizards Unite will be an augmented reality location based game created by Warner Bros Games and Niantic. It was first announced in 2017 and expected to be released this year, but it has been pushed back to 2019. There isn't much official information about its gameplay or story yet, but there is plenty of speculation spurred by the sparse available info, as well as the short teaser trailer of the game.
As you can see, the main goal will be to prevent the exposure of the magical world. You will likely be able to cast different spells to achieve this objective, but not much else can be garnered at the moment. Since one of the developers is Niantic, we can also assume that the game will include magical locations that resemble Pokéstops, as well as other gameplay mechanics already seen in Ingress and Pokémon GO.
However, it is a hard line to tread - taking lessons from existing games without making the AR adventures too similar. Pokémon GO, for example, has greatly improved over the last 2 years - they have added highly anticipated features such as Trainer Battles, made the game more social through raids and community events and much more. Unfortunately, for many it's already too late. The game still has a stable player base, but it has significantly diminished since 2016. How does Niantic avoid a similar fate with Wizards Unite?
What Pokémon GO did right
When I first heard about Pokémon GO in 2016, I was excited but I tempered my expectations. It was a mobile game - I expected it to be riddled with microtransactions and pay-to-win mechanics, which you could only avoid with an endless grind instead. Yet, Niantic managed to pleasantly surprise me. Monetization is one of the things Pokémon GO did right from the start.
There still is in-game currency called Pokécoins, which can be used to purchase items that speed up your leveling, but you will discover plenty of free resources if you go outside. On top of that, you can earn Pokécoins when you conquer gyms. If you are a casual player like me, you will most likely never buy anything besides bag and Pokémon storage upgrades. This is why I hope Wizards Unite sticks to the same principles. It would be a shame if it went down the road of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, which is a blatant cash grab.
Another thing the upcoming Wizards Unite should certainly copy is the existence of teams in the game. Harry Potter already has the four Hogwarts houses - Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw - more than suitable replacements for team Mystic, Valor and Instinct. It creates a sense of both belonging and competitiveness to the game - a major draw for many players. However, I'm not sure if this will fit with the current storyline we have seen in the trailer.
Finally, although Niantic have been criticized for this and in many cases rightfully so, not all features and mechanics should be added right away. Yes, Wizards Unite should have the essentials ready when it arrives on Google Play, but keeping an AR location based game fresh is not easy. Updates prolong the lifespan of the game - they make it seem fresh, new and exciting, just as players might be getting bored. This is especially important in online multiplayer games, because the developers need a stable player base and consistent profit to keep the servers running.
What Wizards Unite shouldn't copy
First, let's get the obvious out of the way - Wizards Unite should not be a blatant reskin of Ingress or Pokémon GO. Of course, it can borrow elements, but it should have its own unique core mechanics. This is why I'm worried about the "traces of magic" mentioned in the game's advertising. If you just go around collecting that instead of Pokémon, it wouldn't really be innovative gameplay, would it?
If the games are too similar, they also run the risk of becoming the next MMORPGs. What do I mean? Back in the day following World of Warcraft's success, every game wanted to be just like it. Unsuccessful rip offs were flooding the Internet, until the market got oversaturated and players got bored. If every AR game is a reskinned Pokémon GO with a few tweaks, history is surely going to repeat itself.
Besides, the Harry Potter universe (or the Wizarding World as it is now called) has established canon and lore. This is why it is important for Niantic and Warner Brothers Games to make the right choice of when Wizards Unite is set - it will determine the game's narrative. If they want to set it in the past to capitalize on the on-going Fantastic Beasts films, it will certainly be a good business decision, but a strange story one. If it is set in the present, after the events of the Harry Potter novels, technically there shouldn't be much to do - it is a peaceful period after the defeat of Voldemort.
These details are vital for the success of Wizards Unite. Players want to feel fully immersed in the world/universe and nothing can snap you out of it as quickly as inconsistencies or a poorly-delivered story. If the developers choose to interweave the narratives of existing franchise elements, such as the books and films, there is also the potential to create an interactive overarching story. Transmedia storytelling, a term coined by Henry Jenkins, should see more use now that we have technology capable of achieving it. It means "integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story." Harry Potter definitely has the potential to fulfill these requirements.
Additionally, I think PvP is something that unlike Pokémon GO needs to make an appearance straight away in Wizards Unite. Challenging friends or strangers to magical duels could be incredibly fun and make the game appealing to a wider audience. Yet, I'm not sure if Niantic will be able to bear the server load required for the implementation of such a feature, especially if doesn't work with QR codes like it does in Pokémon GO.
I also think achievements and leveling up shouldn't be based so heavily on walking. A Harry Potter game should be about exploring, but it should have an element of mystery. Solving AR puzzles by casting spells, for example, could be amazing.
For these reasons and more, I'm happy that Wizards Unite has been delayed. As a huge Harry Potter and Niantic fan, I would rather wait than play an unfinished or unpolished game. Most importantly, I think this time Niantic and Warner Brothers games should anticipate the level of hype and server load that a Harry Potter AR game is going to have. Let's hope something great is in the works! The potential is certainly there.
What do you think? Are you excited about Wizards Unite? Do you think Niantic have learned a lot of lessons from their previous titles? Let us know in the comments below.