Niantic last week offered a few members of the gaming press a chance to take in the magic of its upcoming Harry Potter: Wizards Unite augmented reality game. The game, which is being developed as part of a joint effort with WB Games San Francisco under the Portkey Games label, promises to build on Niantic"s hugely popular Pok�mon Go mobile phone game.
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, first announced in 2017, will use a mobile phone to blend augmented reality with the real world, much like Pok�mon Go.
Android users can preregister for the upcoming game on the Google Play store. It will be released later this year for both Android and iOS devices -- with an iOS preorder coming soon.
Given Niantic"s involvement, it is a given that the gameplay will resemble that of Pok�mon Go, but it also will take AR gaming in a new direction. Players won"t just gather collectible creatures via their handsets. This time around, there are role-playing game (RPG) elements, including the ability to cast spells, discover artifacts, and encounter icon beasts and characters from the Harry Potter universe.
To get started, players will be able to choose their wizarding houses. Gryffindor likely will be a fan favorite, but don"t rule out Slytherin, Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff. Potter purists, who believe they shouldn"t choose, can go to the Harry Potter official website and have the enchanted Sorting Hat place them in the house best suited to their magical background.
The next step will be to choose an appropriate wand for casting spells. As any would-be wizard knows, this can take some consideration. However, both wands and houses can be switched at any time. This is the era of self-expression, so clearly the game"s developers don"t want to lock players into anything.
Where this game takes a notable turn from the more simplistic gathering gameplay of Pok�mon Go is in the ability to assume a profession, such as professor, auror (an officer with the Department of Magical Law Enforcement of the Ministry of Magic) or magizoolgist.
Players also can snap a selfie and edit the photo to outfit themselves with witch or wizard attire. Then, like magic, it is time to play.Magic the Ungathering
Whereas Pok�mon Go was built around finding and capturing creatures and then battling in game-world gyms, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite takes it up a notch with the RPG elements, as well as the ability to "unite" with other players in team-based challenges.
Here is where Niantic could fail to catch lightning in a bottle the way it has done with its past AR games. Die-hard Harry Potter fans may appreciate the ability to create character. Still, the leveling up of said characters -- dealing with skill trees and then the turn-based combat -- could bring the real-world adventure to a grinding halt if it means constantly looking down at the screen to engage in activity.
Yet, for legions of Potter fans, this might not be an issue.
"People loved going out for Pok�mon hunting, and there is pent-up demand for a location-based augmented reality game," said Ted Pollak, game industry senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research.
"It might not have the same impact as Pok�mon Go, as it was partially the new technology of location-based AR gaming itself that caused some of its success, but this could still have mass appeal," he told TechNewsWorld.
"Adding the RPG element is probably a good thing to keep people engaged," added Pollak. "That was one of Pok�mon Go"s weaknesses, as the novelty of the hunting wore out eventually."AR Magic
Perhaps the greatest selling point of the game is that Harry Potter: Wizards Unite promises an adventure in the real world. Of course the "real magic" will come not from spells or a wand, but from the power of AR and a handset screen.
In J.K. Rowling"s world, the magical realm exists side-by-side with the non-magical world, and through AR players are able to cross over.
"Since Pok�mon Go first launched in 2016, we"ve seen a number of other AR games launch as well," said Kristen Hanich, senior analyst at Parks Associates.
However, none have risen to the same level of success, and even Pok�mon Go was "successful mainly because of its tie-in to the extremely popular Pok�mon brand, as well as its core gameplay elements," she told TechNewsWorld.
The question is whether this game could be too ambitious for today"s AR technology.
"AR games should be best with AR glasses, but most of those suck or are targeted at industrial applications, and playing AR Harry Potter on a phone or tablet won"t have the same level of magic," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.
"Pok�mon Go lent itself to using a phone, but if you want to do magic, then truly engaging with the content would, I think, be more of a requirement," he told TechNewsWorld.
"So, while I think it has a lot of potential, the lack of AR glasses and high expectations set by the video -- that likely won"t be met -- will make this a problematic game to bring to market," Enderle added.
Of course, venturing into the world with today"s VR headsets is not practical, and even the now-defunct Google Glass really wasn"t up to the task of allowing for an AR experience that could simulate the magic of Rowling"s world effectively.
"The big issue with this game is that the video sets expectations at a level that we just can"t execute yet, and disappointment tends to wipe out the advocates you need to get to a critical mass of regular players," noted Enderle.Magic for Muggles
In the context of the Harry Potter series, a Muggle is a person lacking any magical ability or who was not born in a magical family. The game certainly could give our real world Muggles the ability to feel a bit magical.
"Like Pok�mon, Harry Potter is a highly popular media franchise, particularly among millennials," Parks" Hanich added.
"The brand does not have quite the same universal appeal as Pok�mon, but it does have a core group of fans who are deeply involved in the lore of the world," she pointed out.
"A complex role-playing game is likely to appeal to this group and also keep them more deeply engaged over the long run than a more simplistic game aimed at casual players," Hanich noted.
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite could succeed, but it probably will not become a sensation on the level of Pok�mon Go, she suggested.
In fact, the RPG element might deter some gamers who are not the most hardcore fans.
"Harry Potter fans are legion, so getting people to try the game won"t be hard, but it will depend on how much fun the game is," said Enderle.
Its success could come down to "gotchas, like in game purchases -- or personal information sharing -- and overall game play dynamics," he added.More AR Worlds to Come
The game"s biggest impact might be in highlighting how AR could be used with other properties -- everything from superhero franchises to Star Wars.
"This game type could translate into hundreds of different genres, and this would allow the games to appeal to people of many different interests -- from cars to toys to hunting and fishing," said Jon Peddie Research"s Pollak.
"Augmented reality gaming that is accessible to the mass market will only get better over time, and these games are leading the charge," he added.
Given the success of Niantic"s past games, even if this one isn"t a smash hit, it could serve as a portent for how AR could be used for future titles.
"Consumers and developers are becoming more familiar with AR and its possibilities," said Hanich.
"However, we"ve seen that the most successful AR apps to date offer AR as an optional add-on. Niantic"s games -- Ingress, Pok�mon Go, and now Wizards Unite -- are much more location-based games than AR-based," she noted.Casting Future Spells
The AR features are optional, meaning that players can disable or ignore them without impacting the core gameplay experience.
"Developers have chosen to implement AR this way for two main reasons: First, AR is still relatively new -- a significant percentage of smartphones do not currently support this technology, and requiring it means losing these consumers as potential users," Hanich explained.
"Second, while gamers are much more interested in AR than non-gamers, they don"t find it universally appealing," she added.
In U.S. homes with broadband, roughly half of the heads of household who played games for an hour or more per week rated "seeing and interacting with game characters as if they were in front of you in the real world" as appealing (rating 5-7 on a 7 point scale), while a third found it unappealing (rating 1-3), Parks Associates found.
"In the future, AR-first gaming may prove to be wildly successful, but before that happens, AR-capable smartphones need to become more widely adopted, and game developers need to figure which AR features most strongly resonate with their players," said Hanich, "and as always, the core gameplay experience will be king."
Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and FoxNews.com.