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- Wizards Unite
Harry Potter Wizards Unite should be the next big thing because it seems like it has the whole package. Potterheads are still highly invested in the affairs of witches and wizards, and this offering is certainly playing the long game. Eking out content and promising a multi-year narrative arc, Wizards Unite is not simply thrown together but there is something almost labored in the delivery of this game. It’s reflected in the numbers and international popularity, which is far below what Niantic has achieved in the past. Maybe it’s a slow burn, but the summer is slipping away and the figures aren’t altogether promising.
Lightning bolt scars don’t strike twice
The mechanics of the game work in much the same way as Pokemon Go: go out, explore your area, get your steps up, and keep players engaged digitally in a real-life environment. With Pokemon Go, the concept held water in a big way. Based originally on a video game, where the concept was simply to go out and collect monsters, it all just makes sense. Pokemon Go was the natural sequel to this concept: let players make their phones into Pokedexes, send them out into their neighborhoods, and let them capture creatures in the augmented reality that was taking off at the time. Throw the possibility of socialization into the mix and a hit was almost guaranteed. Conceptually, Pokemon Go was natural but highlights the forced nature of Wizards Unite. Even in the heydey of Pokemon Go, stranger danger was on the media mind then, are still even some fears being aired around child safety. Some things don’t change.
And that’s actually part of the problem. Despite the worldwide love for Harry Potter in its many, many guises, we’ve been here before. We’ve explored our local areas already, and have walked these same streets looking for Pidgeys. It was new then but not as much now as Niantic is asking us to oddly spend another summer with our heads down, trying to see past the sunlight glare on our screens. Besides this, Ash spent his life roaming his world in search of Pokemon, but Harry pretty much chilled at Hogwarts or fled through the British countryside. There have been brief textual forays to America or Europe, but it’s a school-based game. It’s a more than a bit thematically inconsistent, which only adds to the barriers surrounding proper immersion. Site-specificity would enrich the game, but doesn’t suit the world-wandering concept that they’ve run with.
The lack of engagement between platforms is also a little striking, too. While original announcements were detailed on Pottermore, the mecca for all things Harry Potter, the homepage is now bare of any updates has been since the launch. The info is there if you dig, but surely a huge game-release like Wizards Unite should be shouted from the rooftops of the official website. It’s possible that the Harry Potter beast has simply become too all-encompassing to remain cohesive across platforms, and precedence is given over to text-based material like new books, scripts, or even outing on the screen; stuff that has made Harry Potter the cult force that it still is, essentially. Alas, it has never been lauded for gaming.
Plodding Potter plot
That “all-encompassing” feeling makes the game more complex in a way that doesn’t always help. We enjoy augmented reality, Harry Potter, and a game that we can play during our commutes. There’s an element of Wizards Unite that feels as if the game came out under the cover of darkness. But Pokemon Go had novelty and simplicity on its side — colorful graphics and a cutting edge marriage of tech and reality that people were gung-ho about experiencing.
Wizards Unite just doesn’t have that simplicity. There’s a lot to unpack plot-wise in Wizards Unite, which might be the reason for the comparatively slow uptake. You’re not trying to catch ’em all, this time. Instead, you’re buying into a story that was pretty comprehensively laid out across seven books and a range of related media in small chunks. You even run into some interesting bonus material. If you’re a real Harry Potter head, then you’re going to have a good time diving into this rich narrative. For the casual player, it’s a little more of a stretch. Part of the mass-appeal of Pokemon Go was the accessibility and universality of the charm because it is pretty nice to have a pocketful of virtual pals. It’s a bit cheeky of Niantic however to release another game in the AR sphere which is based on collection of things once again: Pokemon, or Confoundables. Apparently, collection is the goal and we are in familiar territory here.
Wizards Unite does promises a fairly complex story, however, blending OG HP plots with a new Calamity which Harry, Hermione, and newcomer, Constance Pickering, are tasked with sorting out. This is a little more intellectually exciting than the plot of Pokemon Go. The promised multi-year narrative is intriguing, but a little overwhelming as a notion if you’re looking for a more commute-friendly mobile game to pass the time. As with much of the franchise, Harry Potter asks something of a time and mental space commitment which might be a little challenging and not exactly conducive to a mobile game.
And it’s not just mental space as it’s not exactly a small game either. Perhaps folks are still happy out playing Pokemon Go, and can only take one mammoth game on their devices at any given time. That number is sure to grow too, as Niantic adds even more to the game.
Yer a slow burn, Harry
Wizards Unite is by no means a failure, but how the game’s insistence on breadcrumbing sensational material is a little risky considering the joy of instant gratification. Consider the first Harry Potter Wizards Unite Fan Festival. It is being held at Water River State Park in Indianapolis and will be held over two days: August 31 and September 1. There’s a lottery for tickets, but the event is being lauded as it heralds the launch of in-game dragons. Following this, dragons will be slowly launched in different global locations. Talk about making players wait. Niantic isn’t exactly responding with speed to this less-than-stellar opening, and by delaying the release of vaunted material such as dragons, the studio isn’t stoking the flames of fan fever. Hopefully, these slower updates are to avoid crunch and not for some less positive reason. Whatever the reason, it feels slower mainly because the core hook isn’t as appealing as it was in Pokemon Go, which is making these updates feel more sluggish.
For all that, though, there’s at least some sort of excitement about the promise surrounding this game despite how slowly it is moving. Perhaps that is part of the plan and this is a game which will prosper from inspiring patience in its players. After all, it’s flawed but far from boring. But despite Harry Potter being such an international hit and cultural icon, the game has failed to really smash the games market so far, especially since that promising leaked Harry Potter RPG still hasn’t come out from under its Invisibility Cloak. Wizards Unite lets players establish themselves as an official member of the wizarding world and lets players explore and play together. This is a real hook, and just the sort of concept Harry Potter lovers are living for. But that concept hasn’t quite been fully realized and is both stumbling in comparison to Niantic’s previous game as well as Harry Potter’s place in pop culture. It’s no PS1 Hagrid nor is it the film adaptation of the third book but a disappointing middle ground that sits between those extremes.