- "Harry Potter: Wizards Unite" is the new game co-developed by Niantic, best known as the creator of "Pokémon Go."
- I spoke with Niantic CEO John Hanke ahead of the launch of "Wizards Unite" to talk about the lessons learned from "Pokémon Go" as it made this new game.
- "Everything that works in ‘Pokémon Go,’ we’re looking to take that and improve upon it in ‘Harry Potter’ and add some new stuff as well," Hanke said.
- Hanke also said that Niantic’s collaboration with WB Games in making "Wizards Unite" is the sort of thing he sees the company wanting to do more of, as it tries to push these "real-world games" further into the mainstream.
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When "Pokémon Go" first launched in 2016, things did not exactly go smoothly. The servers melted down under the crushing weight of so many would-be Pokémon trainers all signing up for the game at once, and developer Niantic had to scramble to keep up.
This time out, with the new "Harry Potter: Wizards Unite," co-developed by Niantic and WB Games, things seem to be going a little bit more smoothly — perhaps reflecting the relative maturity of Niantic in the years since, as it’s now valued at $3.9 billion as of a recent funding round.
At the time of writing, the game has been out for a few hours — and apart from a few stray hiccups here and there, everything appears to be proceeding as planned.
Speaking at a preview event for the game earlier this week, Niantic CEO John Hanke said that this is no accident, and that this is a sign of things to come: His team learned a lot from its experiences with "Pokémon Go," and Niantic intends to put all of those lessons to work in "Wizards Unite."
"Everything that works in ‘Pokémon Go,’ we’re looking to take that and improve upon it in ‘Harry Potter’ and add some new stuff as well," Hanke said.
Improving on a good thing
That spans from the game itself to the way that Niantic and WB Games got it ready for primetime.
"Everything from the way that we are preparing to launch it, the way that we are testing the infrastructure, the things that we’d added to ‘Pokémon Go’ over the last two and a half years to improve that product and address things that we felt like it needed," have been reconsidered for the new game, Hanke said.
For instance: "Pokémon Go" only added social multiplayer features last year, after it began adding Pokémon trading and battling. "Wizards Unite," however, lets you add friends right out of the box — though, in these early days of the game, it’s not clear what benefits doing so confers.
There’s also the fact that "Wizards Unite" actually has a plot: Players are cast as investigators of the Great Calamity, where magical artifacts, creatures, and personages have been scattered across space and time. This is in very deliberate contrast to "Pokémon Go," which mostly gives players little direction beyond "catch ’em all," Hanke said.
"We found that that worked for a lot of people, but there were certainly people who wanted a little more structure to understand what to do next and to really measure their progress, so there’s a lot more of that in ‘Harry Potter,’" said Hanke.
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Technologically speaking, too, "Wizards Unite" is benefiting from the work done on "Pokémon Go." The addition of head-to-head Pokémon battling required Niantic to totally redesign its multiplayer code to allow for faster response times.
Those improvements went straight into "Wizards Unite," Hanke said, where it enables a faster-paced experience in Wizarding Challenges, where players team up to fight Dark Wizards and magical beasts.
"You can cast spells and use potions which help the other people in your group, you can split up and tackle different opponents at the same time," Hanke said. "There’s a lot more nuance to the multiplayer that’s facilitated by that tech change."
The bigger picture
Similarly, "Wizards Unite" owes a lot to "Pokémon Go" in terms of its augmented reality features, which uses your phone’s camera to overlay the game’s graphics over the real world.
Hanke said that as part of its Real World Platform, a set of tools for Niantic’s customers to build their own games, it’s unified its AR tech into one development kit, using "Pokémon Go" as the base. As it improves that AR development kit, he said, the augmented reality in both games will get better.
On the subject of the Real World Platform, Hanke said that actually building "Wizards Unite" was much different than the process for making "Pokémon Go."
Whereas Niantic built (and continues to build) everything in "Pokémon Go" from the ground up, "Wizards Unite" benefited from the collaboration with WB Games, Hanke said. This time out, "the animations, the art, the [user interface], a lot of that is coming from their team, and we’re building more of the server and platform type stuff."
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It’s reflective of where he sees Niantic’s future heading, said Hanke. The ultimate goal is for Niantic to provide the tooling and platforms to help the rest of the industry build their own location-based, multiplayer, augmented reality games. The Real World Platform hasn’t been released broadly to customers, yet, but the collaboration with WB Games is indicative of how Niantic’s business could work.
"For us, it’s a step on that journey to becoming a platform company where third-party developers can take our platform and independently build full games with us just providing the platform itself," Hanke said.
And more broadly, a big part of Niantic’s mission statement is to get people off their couches and out exploring the real world, ideally making friends along the way. "Wizards Unite" is the latest manifestation of that goal, Hanke said, but it’s much bigger than either of its mega-franchise crossover games.
"My take on it is that real-world games are a genre. It’s not a game, it’s not ‘Pokémon Go’ and ‘Harry Potter,’" said Hanke. "It’s a whole family, a whole world of games that can exist and our goal is to build the tools and technology that will let people go out and play that all the way out, explore all of the different permutations of what that can be."
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