I'm walking to my bus after a day at the office keeping my wits about me. Instead of dodging traffic or the guy trying to get me to sign a petition, I'm watching for magical beasts from the world of Harry Potter. Dueling dark wizards and overpowering magical beasts is a tough job, but all in day's work when you're keeping the Muggle world safe from unexpected calamity. And it's all happening on my phone.
First announced in 2017, the Harry Potter: Wizards Unite augmented-reality game will feel vaguely familiar to anyone who's played the wildly successful Pokemon Go: Relying on your phone's GPS, you move around the physical world and interact with beasts, objects, points of interest and other witches and wizards you come across on your game's map. A joint effort from WB Games San Francisco and Niantic under the Portkey Games label -- the game will finally release before the end of 2019, the game developers said last week at a briefing at Niantic's San Francisco headquarters.
The game is far enough along in development that Niantic invited a handful of journalists to its offices last Tuesday to get an update and then try a prerelease version under umbrellas for part of a rainy morning. Prowling the waterfront of San Francisco, I got to play the game, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Potter/Pokemon Go mash-up.
What is Harry Potter: Wizards Unite?
An unexplained calamity is scattering magical items across the Muggle world.
These items are shrouded by magic, and it's unclear who is doing the scattering and for how long they will stay hidden from Muggles.
As part of the Statue of Secrecy Task Force, your task is to look for magical traces of the calamity and piece together clues to uncover the cause. As you come across evidence, you enter them in a book registry of your discoveries about the anomalies.
The game builds on the Harry Potter books and movies and the two Fantastic Beasts films to create a compelling and familiar wizarding world on your phone. As a fan of the Potter books and movies, I was excited to finally be able to step into the magical universe to cast spells, encounter beasts and confront dark wizards.
What are the game basics?
Wizard's Unite uses much of the same underlying technology as Niantic's other games -- Ingress and Pokemon Go -- to create the map, points of interest and augmented reality, or AR, environment. If you've used the map on those other games to navigate to a portal or a gym, and if you've traced a glyph or tossed a Poke Ball, you've got a running start on how to play Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. But as comfortable as it feels, it's distinct enough that I didn't feel like I was playing a reskinned Pokemon Go. Instead, I was part of a new and strange world.
Part of the fresh experience comes from several tricks not found in Ingress or Pokemon Go that improve shared multiplayer AR environments. (If you want to get a sense for what's in the works, you can catch a glimpse in this Niantic video.) Another difference is Wizard Unite naturally has spells. To cast one, trace a spell hint with your finger on your phone's screen. The onscreen motions are not unlike the glyphs you trace in Ingress.
How do I get started?
To get going, create your wizarding avatar. Use your phone's camera to snap a photo of yourself, which you then outfit with witch and wizard garb. While a big part of the game is based on cooperative play, your avatar is not automatically shared with others and is saved just to your device. (The game also will come with parental controls to help adults manage child accounts.)
You also pick your Hogwarts house and choose your wand. But don't agonize over your choices: You can switch houses and wands at any time. If you'd rather be sorted into a house than choose one, head over to the Harry Potter official website and have the Sorting Hat place you.
You also choose a profession -- an Auror, Magizoologist or Professor -- which each offer job-specific skills and abilities you upgrade to as you go. As with houses and wands, you're not locked into your profession.
A demiguise, confounded.
Harry, struggling with a Dementor.
The map, with points of interest.
Transporting with a portkey.
Learning the Auror profession.
A registry page with items to collect.
How do I play?
On your game map, you'll see magical buildings, supplies on the ground and glowing magical traces that signify someone or something displaced by what the game calls the Calamity. The buildings include Inns, where you collect wizarding foods to use as energy for spells, and Greenhouses, where you gather potion-making ingredients. You can also find on the map potion-making materials, including items that appear only in distinct biomes and during different weather conditions.
Along with Inns and Greenhouses, you'll find Fortresses on the map. A bit like a Gym in Pokemon Go, a Fortress is where you join forces with up to four other players to dispel magical creatures and Death Eaters. You battle in real time with the other players in a shared arena, and after you defeat one opponent, you can move on to another until the Fortress is cleared.
But the main attractions are the magic traces you discover on the map. "Magic always leaves traces, sometimes very distinctive traces," Professor Albus Dumbledore told Harry. It is true in the books and movies, and it's true in the game.
The magical traces are items the unexplained Calamity has displaced from elsewhere in the wizarding world, past or present. Each trace points to a pair of items: a Foundable and a Confoundable.
Tap a trace, for example, and you may uncover Harry Potter -- a Foundable -- under attack by a Dementor, a Confoundable. A magical-exposure clock, much like one seen in the movie "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," measures the threat level of the trace to the Muggle -- or as it's called in the US, the No-Maj -- community and gives you an idea of how difficult the confounding magic will be to defeat.
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Cast a spell to overpower or dismiss the confounding magic and return the found object back to its proper place. Successfully dismissing a Confoundable earns you rewards and goes toward leveling you up.
You also may come across dark wizards on the map whom you can duel. Duels are fast paced, and you need to switch briskly between defensive and offensive spells to defeat your opponent. As you cast spells, you want to accurately trace the spell hints on your screen. Be careful since you're penalized if your wand work is too sloppy. Potions can help with the accuracy of a spell and heal damage caused by an opponent's spell.
For me, working out the mechanics of locating an opponent, targeting them, casting spells and minding my health took a few battles to work out. But after I figured out the process, battles were exciting. Not sure I reached the casual confidence of Sirius Black battling Death Eaters, but I seemed more effective than a first-year Ron Weasley.
And finally, you can find on the map and then use a portkey to transport to an immersive VR-like magical location to explore and gather supplies.
Can I play it on my phone and in my country?
Niantic and WB Games San Francisco said, at launch, the game should be available in 19 languages -- including English, French, Japanese, simplified and traditional Chinese, and Spanish -- but didn't commit to which regions the game would be available at launch. Likewise, while they said the game would run on a broad variety of iOS and Android phones -- from high-end devices to older models -- they wouldn't discuss specific devices. Nor would they comment on whether the game would work with hardware accessories, like maybe a wand, or have smart watch integration.
There's good news for those who worried the game would be microtransaction-heavy: Mary Casey, Executive Director of Product for WB Games San Francisco, said the goal is to allow people to play through the game without paying or hitting microtransaction walls, much like in Pokemon Go. Inns and Greenhouses have a cool-down period after you gather supplies, much like a PokeStop does. And as in Pokemon Go, you will be able to buy supplies if you want.
When is it coming out?
We still don't know for sure. All Niantic and WB Games San Francisco would say is the mobile game is coming this year. Sorry, we also don't know if it would be available first in beta.
When it does come out, Jonathan Knight, Studio Head of WB Games San Francisco, promises that Harry Potter: Wizards Unite will be a deep role-playing "forever game," with the Calamity forming a multiyear story arc.
At the event, I may have seen a bit of the arc. During the briefing I saw a quick reference to "The London Five," four Ministry of Magic workers and one "Daily Prophet" reporter who are missing. The missing five didn't appear during gameplay but may show up at some point in the story.
Can it be as big as Pokemon Go?
Uniting the wildly popular Harry Potter and Pokemon Go franchises looks like a solid bet for a hit game. The game developers also have done a good job of building excitement in the Harry Potter community, providing community members with early access to promotional videos and hints.
This isn't Warner Bros.'s first shot at creating a game for Potter fans. Last year, Portkey Games worked with Jam City on Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, a roleplaying game set in the 11 years between Harry's birth and his entering Hogwarts. While players seemed to enjoy the story and gameplay, they kicked at how much of the game was driven by microtransactions. In the year since its release, Jam City has worked to make the game less dependent on transactions.
Hopefully, Niantic learned from Pokemon Go's launch three years ago. The company was wildly unprepared for how quickly the game blew up in the summer of 2016 and spent months just catching up with the needs and requests of the passionate and vocal player community. After early stumbles with wobbling game servers and an inauspicious first festival, Niantic has over the last year done a better job of rolling out updates players want.
Is this the game Pokemon Go and Potter fans want? Niantic has shown if players come and stick around, the company will create an experience players enjoy. And I was unexpectedly pleased that the Potter/Pokemon Go mash-up felt both comfortably familiar and fresh. I look forward to playing when the game finally ships.
- First Look: Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery Mobile Game
- Pokemon Go: Gyms, candy, pokeballs and everything else you need to know (CNET)
- Pokemon Go creator will sell its AR tech to spawn games like Harry Potter (CNET)
- Harry Potter coding kit teaches programming with a wand (CNET)
- Top 5 non-game AR businesses (TechRepublic)
- Reality shock: The #FakeWorld future of ubiquitous AR (ZDNet)