When developer Niantic finally launched their newest augmented reality (AR) game Harry Potter: Wizards Unite in North America last week, its opening numbers for both sales and unique installations were low. At least, in comparing them to the behemoth that was Pokémon GO.
Unlike those initial frenzied months of Pokémon GO where it seemed everyone outside was running around trying to catch their favorite first-generation Pokémon, there hardly seems to be any players looking to become a powerful Witch or Wizard. Why is it one game began so spectacularly, and another did not? It is not as though Harry Potter is some unknown character.
Fulfilling A Core Fantasy
When players pick up a game from a long-running game series, or from a series of books, they will have certain expectations of what the game should entail. Pokémon GO, for example, has decades worth of gaming material alongside television and movies to draw upon when creating the world that their players can immerse themselves into.
In this regard, the core aspects of the Pokémon series have always been to explore the world, find all sorts of Pokémon, trade them, train them, and engage in epic battles. Although Pokémon GO did not perfect all these points right at launch, it had most of them fulfilling the solid foundation of its player experience.
In other words, the game is exactly what we as players expected it to be, and that one reason why its success was so explosive at first and continues today.
What Is The Player Fantasy For Harry Potter: Wizards Unite?
Here is where we face a problem in the very foundation of the game from the start. With seven books written by J.K. Rowling that built an expansive universe for Witches and Wizards, what is the core fantasy of being a Witch or a Wizard?
If one were to ask different people what they would do at a place like Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, they would probably get different answers from everyone. Some would say learning magic, others might focus on herbology and brewing potions, some will demand to play Quidditch all day long, others would ditch the school and set out to be a dragon tamer with Charlie Weasley, while others would say no thank you to any of that excitement and apply for a job at Gringotts Wizarding Bank.
Any of these activities could be developed into a core aspect of the Harry Potter universe, but none of them exist in the game.
Instead, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite presents players and fans of the franchise with an entirely new activity, one we have never heard of in any detail before, which is the search for Foundables... and that is about it. For the unfamiliar, Foundables are items that have been found, as our in-game narrator tells us, being far too proud of a name that sounds as though it were unironically chosen by a five-year-old child.
Each Foundable, which takes the spending of Spell Energy to save, then takes a spot in what appears to be a massive Sticker Book. Stroll through the world saving Foundables? In your book they go. Engage a Fortress in high-level combat against Dark Wizards and other magical creatures? Have a few more stickers.
Therein lies the long-term issue for Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Whereas Pokémon GO gives players exactly what they have dreamed of in an AR game, Wizards Unite gives players nothing remotely similar to the Harry Potter universe.
Spell Energy Shatters Immersion
There is also the issue of how Niantic monetizes the two games. In Pokémon GO, all a player needs to play the game are Pokéballs which are found easily by walking around and visiting Pokéstops. These can also be purchased in the store using currency, however, for the most part, they are never so scarce as to be a concern. In this sense, players can pick up and go, and the game feels as it should.
Meanwhile, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite fails in this area for two reasons. First, when the game first launched, it was incredibly restrictive with Spell Energy, which is the basic unit needed to perform most actions in the game, similar to Pokéballs.
Players would soon run out, and then be asked to pay real money to cast the most basic of spells. Quickly, Niantic added a fix to the game that provides more Spell Energy, but it is still something that players need to keep an eye on all the time. This leads to the second issue, which is that it feels absolutely ridiculous having Spell Energy in the first place.
Does this mean that our Witch or Wizard character is too exhausted to cast a simple charm or curse, but suddenly feels reinvigorated after spending $4.99 to purchase gold currency and in turn buy more Spell Energy?
Niantic could instead monetize the equivalent of incubators from Pokémon GO and cosmetics, which they do with keys and distinct Hogwarts House robes and scarves, but keeping tabs on Spell Energy all of the time has become more and more annoying, to the point where this writer wonders what the point of it all is.
Pokémon GO continues to fulfill the core fantasy of an AR game from the series, but Harry Potter: Wizards Unite has yet to strike a single resonating chord, and if that does not change, it likely won’t be long for this world.