Niantic clearly has a lot more money these days. It has enough clout to hold its big release date reveal for Harry Potter: Wizards Unite at Universal Studios Hollywood, with influencers and media being invited to play the game amid the crowds at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It was an event fit for the studio behind Pokemon Go, which continues to be enormously successful three years after its original release.
I was among the media types who flocked to Niantic's event earlier this week, keen to try out its follow-up to one of the decade's most popular games (and yes, to hang out in one of the world's coolest theme parks). I strolled through Universal's reproduction of Hogsmeade Village with phone in hand as I rescued Filch (why did I have to rescue Filch of all people?), zapped Cornish Pixies, and traced out spells. The whole theme park experience didn't add as much as I would have hoped, but I suppose it did add to the ambience, and it underscored the enormous resources at Niantic's disposal.
Impressive as it all was though, I couldn't help feeling a bit troubled. Pokemon Go had made instant sense when it was released back in the summer of 2016. Catching Pokemon in the real world was such a cool concept that it caught fire across the world, famously sending hordes of players charging into Central Park at the merest suggestion of a rare Pokemon. So why wasn't Harry Potter hitting in the same way?
I've been thinking about this a lot since my trip to LA, and the best answer I can come up with is that Harry Potter: Wizards Unite somehow misses the point. It's far more fully-featured than Pokemon Go was at launch, incorporating popular elements like Daily Challenges and cooperative raids from the start. But when it comes to capturing the essence of its source material, something that Pokemon Go does incredibly well, it falls short.
Anyone who played Pokemon Go three years ago will remember the magical moment when they first loaded into the game. Maybe they were in their living room and giggling when they found a Rattata on their couch. Maybe they went out on the street and happened upon a Charmander. They would flick a Pokeball with a quick swipe and boom—they would have a brand new Pokemon. Old or young, gamer or non-gamer, that basic conceit made Pokemon Go a global phenomenon.
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite doesn't have the same sort of obvious hook. When you load into its world, you're surrounded by a multitude of towers big and small, with multi-colored icons standing in for Pokemon. It's a weird and disorienting sight at first, and even knowing what to expect, I had to spend some time clicking around. What was the deal with the Portkeys? How was I supposed to use potions? There's a lot going on in Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, and while that gives it a lot more depth out of the gate, it also makes it quite a bit more confusing.
When you click on one of the half-dozen or so icons, you're taken into a quick scenario. By tracing out the image on the screen, you cast a spell that can, say, put a threatening troll into a giant bubble. Doing so earns you an image, which you can subsequently put into a little diorama based on a theme like "Platform 9 and 3/4" or "Care of Magical Creatures." Some scenarios need only be completed once to earn a reward, while others need to be finished multiple times. The idea is that you slowly complete these dioramas while also completing daily tasks, tackling raids, and finishing off story events.
There's plenty there to entice longtime Harry Potter fans, but it's at a natural disadvantage versus Pokemon. Where I had to spend a whole paragraph describing the basics of Harry Potter, one sentence is sufficient for Pokemon Go: "You catch Pokemon that appear based on your real-world location." That's all you need to know, really. Harry Potter, try as it might, can't quite find that simple hook.
I'll grant that I'm possibly being too harsh on Harry Potter given the circumstances. Pokemon Go found a huge audience in 2016 partly because it was so new. I wrote in my original review of Pokemon Go, "It's made me see my city differently. Now the Ferry Building isn't just a tourist spot—it's owned by a Gyarados. The White House has a Pidgey named 'Murica guarding it. The dragonfly sculpture near my house will yield Pokéballs and incense. If this is truly the essence of Augmented Reality, then it's already shown me a totally new way to experience games." I still enjoy Pokemon Go, but the novelty has obviously worn off. Harry Potter can't hope to deliver the shock of discovery that Pokemon Go provided. But that doesn't make it free from criticism.
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite's Most Baffling Decision
In a decision I can only call bizarre, Wizards Unite does away with the house competition that partly defines the books. Picking from Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, or Ravenclaw is a simple matter of choosing from an animated menu. You don't even get the benefit of a cursory Sorting ceremony.
This, to be frank, is a baffling decision. What's more Harry Potter than picking a house? On my desk, I have a framed print of a badger bearing the legend, "Everyone loves a Hufflepuff." Walk into a Harry Potter souvenier shop, and green, burgundy, yellow, and blue scarves are the first items you see. Harry Potter endures in part because its readers feel such a personal connection to its world, and picking a house is a huge part of that.
WB Games San Francisco executive producer Mary Casey describes the decision this way, "So Houses for me are probably one of the most iconic but intrinsic parts of the Harry Potter universe, I'm a Slytherin born and bred, tried true, there's no way that I would swap to another house. But at the same time, I want to be able to play with you! And I want to be able to play with that guy over there, and with my son, my husband, my nieces, and we're all different houses. We all have a part to play, we all have a role to play, and that's really important."
Casey frames the decision as a matter of inclusion versus exclusion. "[W]e made the decision to not go with competitive houses, and allow people with different houses to play together cooperatively and to overcome the calamity," she says.
What makes Casey's argument strange is that anyone who has played Pokemon Go knows that competing teams can still work together. Players from any team can work together to win a raid in Pokemon Go, with an added bonus for the team that does best. Outside of that, it can be delightful to be the one Team Mystic holdout in a Valor household. The trash-talking is endless, especially when your team takes over an entire neighborhood. None of these elements are in Wizards Unite, which I simply do not get.
This ties further into one of Wizards Unite's bigger problems: it simply doesn't hit hard enough at the core of Harry Potter's appeal. What is the fondest dream of any Harry Potter fan? Getting the letter. Getting sorted. Taking magic classes. Hanging out in Hogsmeade. The books spin a story in which its hero manages to find a sense of belonging that he lacks in the real world—through his teachers, through his friends, and through the constant wonder of discovery. I don't know how you reflect all of that in a mobile game, but that's above my pay grade. The point is that Wizards Unite feels much more like the lamentable Fantastic Beasts films than the original books, which... ugh.
So what does Wizards Unite get right? The graphics are certainly a huge step over those of Pokemon Go, featuring a lovely stylized overworld map and lots of fun animations. It runs well on my old iPhone 6S. It nails the dueling, featuring a fun timing element as you block enemy attacks and trace out spells. Elements like potions feel appropriately Potter-ish, and it includes all of the acclaimed features that were added to Pokemon Go last year, including friends lists, daily tasks, and special objective-driven events.
I expect it will be successful regardless of my complaints, if only because Niantic doing a Harry Potter game is A Big Deal. Everyone is going to be scrambling to cover it in the hope of hitting the next gold rush, and it will undoubtedly soar to the top of the charts as a result. But as for whether it will be able to stay there, I have my doubts. It's bigger, more ambitious, and more complex, but it lacks that one basic hook that has helped to propel Pokemon Go for so long.
For whatever reason, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite seems to be flailing a bit in comparison to its predecessor. Who knows, maybe it's an impossible task. Maybe a clean and simple hook simply isn't there for a Harry Potter AR game. If that's the case, maybe I should cut it some slack, since Niantic did a good enough job under the circumstances. But if the goal was to make a game that did for Harry Potter what Pokemon Go did for Pokemon, I've gotta say that it falls a little short.
For more on Niantic's take on Harry Potter, check out our Harry Potter: Wizards Unite Everything we Know guide.