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First Look at ‘Harry Potter: Wizards Unite,’ the Next Game From the Makers of ‘Pokemon Go’

There is magic all around you — and you’ll have join your fellow wizards in a global quest to make sure that it stays hidden from unsuspecting muggle eyes. That’s the premise of “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite,” the upcoming mobile game from WB Games and Niantic, the makers of “Pokemon Go.” The two companies invited a small group of journalists to Niantic’s office in San Francisco last week for a preview of the game, which had first been announced in late 2017.

“Harry Potter fans believe that the line between the wizarding world and the real world is paper-thin,” said WB Games San Francisco studio head and vice president Jonathan Knight during the press event.

“Wizards Unite” doubles down on that idea by introducing a new storyline to the Potterverse that puts the secrecy of the wizarding world at risk due to something called the “Calamity” — a mysterious event that resulted in magical artifacts, fantastic beasts, enchanted inns and dangerous creatures appearing all over the world.

Responding to the Calamity, the Ministry of Magic and the Magical Congress call on the wizards of the world to help save the wizarding world. “The game really kicks of with this call to arms,” said WB Games San Francisco executive director of product Mary Casey.

Wizards who heed that call can participate in the game much in the same way players take part in “Pokemon Go” — by walking around, and discovering magic places on map view of their neighborhood. Only, in “Wizards Unite,” those places aren’t Pokestops and Gyms, but inns, greenhouses, fortresses and magical traces that unlock encounters with creatures ranging from werewolves to death eaters.

Once a player engages in such an encounter, she or he gets to see an AR view of their surroundings, with creatures appearing on sidewalks, in parks and public buildings, invisible to any bystanders. Players then have to fight off evil forces with special spells — tracing their shape on their touch screen — which can be surprisingly difficult when you are in a rush to save Harry Potter’s soul from a hungry dementor.

Not all moments in the game are that stressful. Players can also spend time casually collecting objects to create new potions. And every now and then, they get to use a portkey — an object that will allow them to unlock magical places — to open up AR portals, which allow them to step into a parallel wizarding world.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Niantic

Opening an AR portal with a portkey in “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.”

Niantic, which was spun out of Google in 2015, has been working on refining these kinds of AR encounters ever since first introducing “Pokemon Go” in summer of 2016. But while mobile AR was still fairly primitive back then, “Wizards Unite” clearly is based on some of the latest advances, allowing users to walk up to 3D creatures, and even collect them to share them later as selfies.

“Pokemon GO,” and its predecessor “Ingress,” share much of the same technology, as well as the same philosophy, explained Niantic CEO John Hanke. “We think there is a story, we think there is an adventure in every neighborhood,” he said. “For us, social is not chatting online, for us social is people coming together and doing stuff in real life.” Hanke said that players had collectively walked more than 23 billion kilometers with Niantic’s games, and predicted: “This game is gonna accelerate that.”

With its two existing titles, Niantic has also experienced some of the side effects of complex narratives. “Ingress,” which was built on an elaborate sci-fi story of two factions battling each other, attracted many die-hard fans, but has always been a bit hard to get into for casual players. “Pokemon Go” on the other hand seemingly hit gold by combining a well-known franchise with gameplay appealing to casual players as well, but doesn’t exactly have the most elaborate story.

So how will “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite” appeal to both casual players and hard-core gamers, and how will it keep both Harry Potter fanatics and people who may have just watched a few of the movies entertained?

It’s a challenge both Niantic and WB Games thought about quite a bit, said Knight. “It is a very deep, rich game for casual players,” he argued. “Wizards Unite” will have over 100 AR encounters available at launch, with plans to add more content over time. “We are trying to make the game appeal to everyone.”

CREDIT: Courtesy of Niantic

Honing your skills in “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.”

Potter fans who want more than just some AR fun get to choose their own house and profession, and can hone their skills over time, playing with others to solve more complex challenges. “We want the game to be a forever game,” he said. “There is a path for you through the game that lasts for many, many years.”

“The trick is to have that complexity reveal itself when players are ready for it,” added Hanke.

Speaking of which: Executives from WB Games and Niantic weren’t quite ready to divulge when “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite” will be released, beyond committing that they will stick to the goal of releasing it this year. The game will be available in close to 20 languages, including English, Spanish, German, French and Chinese at launch.

Unsurprisingly, WB Games and Niantic are working on both iOS and Android versions, and there will also be a simplified AR experience for games not compatible with Google’s ARCore and Apple’s ARKit frameworks.

And yes, there will be an option to buy certain objects, but paying money won’t be required. “It is designed to be a free-to-play game,” said Knight. Then again, that hasn’t stopped “Pokemon Go” players from spending freely: Niantic generated some $795 million in revenue with the game in 2018, according to an estimate from mobile analytics company Sensor Tower.

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