Behind the sign-in desk and next to the Tardis, a Niantic employee peeks into small, ornate drawers — a wall of wooden catalogue cabinets, ones you’d find in an old library. I know it’s in here somewhere, she mumbles. She calls me over. I want to show you something. A tiny, plush rodent with a fluffy black fur, human-like fingers, and a platypus beak is tucked away in a corner, curled up as it is sleeping.
The tiny creature, a stuffed toy niffler, is burrowed in a nest of shiny things: tangled strings of costume pearl necklaces and small mountains of red and purple gemstones. Of course, nifflers typically keep their treasure — they love shiny things, as it were — in a kangaroo-like pouch that holds much more than what appears possible. But this one appears to have made its home at the Niantic offices in San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building, a long way from Great Britain, where they’re typically found.
Indeed, magic is everywhere, even in the most ordinary of spaces. Nifflers are creatures that are likely most familiar to Harry Potter fans. They’re little magical furballs that fans have only seen in movies or read about on TV. Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is a game that’s hoping to bring tiny bits of that magic into everyday life. And for that, Harry Potter is perfect.
Wizards Unite is a location-based augmented reality game from Pokémon Go creator Niantic, Inc. and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment label Portkey Games. Like Pokémon Go, Wizards Unite uses Niantic’s Real World Platform, what the developer calls a “planet-scale real-world AR” system, as the game’s base layer, what everything is built on-top of.
“[We’re] finding worlds that can be tilted 10 degrees and lined up with our world,” Niantic CEO John Hanke tells Polygon. “At least in the muggle part of Harry Potter, the world looks like the world. But there’s Diagon Alley you can sneak into, the portkeys, a dementor flying above. They’re augmentations that are discreet and limited in scope, and that’s a really good fit for where we are with what we can do in AR today.”
Wizards Unite begins somewhere after author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ends. After the Battle for Hogwarts, after the franchise’s heroes — Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermoine Granger — join the Ministry of Magic and a period of calm settles over the wizarding community. But then magic starts appearing in the muggle world, which risks violation of the International Statute of Secrecy, a hundreds-of-years old law that’s kept magic a secret from non-wizards and witches after witches and wizards were persecuted in the 1600s.
“There’s four Ministry officials and a journalist who’ve gone missing at the time this calamity happened,” Warner Bros. studio head Jonathan Knight says from a conference room at the developer’s San Francisco office. “In the meantime, in order to protect the Statute of Secrecy, all wizards globally have been called to action to join this Statute of Secrecy Task Force to make sure the magic isn’t seen by muggles. It’s an existential threat to the wizarding world and a call to arms.”
Knight describes a visit to an area of southeast England called Leavesden where Harry Potter films were shot: Leavesden Film Studios. Fans of the franchise can visit the studio and walk amongst the sets and props used for the films — Hagrid’s hut, Diagon Alley, and Godric’s Hollow, among other areas. Guests can board the Hogwarts Express, which shuttles Hogwarts students from Platform 9 ¾ to its namesake school.
“There’s this place on the tour where you can get your photo pretending as if you’re going through the brick wall at Platform 9 ¾,” Knight says. “People queue up all day long to get their picture doing what the actors do. The fantasy is not necessarily about seeing the universe or watching it, but being in it.”
After all, Harry Potter exists in a version of our world. It makes it easy to keep this little thought that magic’s real. There’s a little spark inside Harry Potter fans, especially the kids, that lets them linger on the thought that their Hogwarts entrance letter — or the Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, for North Americans witches — got lost in the mail. For Warner Bros. and Niantic, Wizards Unite is the device that reveals the magical world that’s been here all along. But more than that, it’s a key piece in the future of AR games, a step in the future of games.
“You’ve known this whole time that it’s lurking there in plain sight,” says Niantic product manager Alex Moffit. “It’s just tapping the bricks in the exact order and maybe this time Diagon Alley will appear.”
How it works
Like Pokémon Go, Wizards Unite is overlaid on a Google Maps-like interface. At first glance, the game doesn’t look too different from its Pokémon-themed predecessor. But calling Wizards Unite a reskin Pokémon Go would be a mistake; the two games are developed by the same company, and have location-based gameplay, but the experience is wholly different. Instead of Poké-stops and gyms, magical buildings are overlaid on the map: greenhouses, inns, and fortresses. Each of these is embedded with its own little minigame — the greenhouses operate with a social potion-growing game, while the inns pass out food dishes that will, naturally, replenish spell energy. Ingredients needed for potion-making are scattered around the map, too, mixed in with different landmarks tied to magical items, ones that need to be hidden from the muggles around. Magical traces oten pop up around these landmarks, which adds to the treasure hunting elements of the game; you’ll know you can collect certain items near a corresponding landmark: a golden snitch by the magical games and sports landmark, or a flesh-eating slug at the dark arts monument.
To collect these items or defeat the memories of bad guys — like Tom Riddle! — and keep them from muggle eyes, players cast spells by tracing movements on-screen, watching as AR images interact with the world around them. Layered on top of that is a system that’s tied to time-of-day and weather. Knight notes that there are “real-world data layers” that impact player experiments and content that’s happening in-game.
“For instance, werewolves can appear on the map as combat encounters, and those will only come out during a full moon,” Knight says. “Potion ingredients are [also] really affected by things like weather and time of day. You might go on a nature walk in your neighborhood and collect a bunch of Abraxan hair. Then in the morning when you wake, you might see morning dew out in the park because of the time of day.” (Abraxans are winged horses in the Harry Potter universe, and their hair can be used in potions.)
Moffit says the team spent a lot of time ensuring that the map feels dynamic and alive. Like the real world. “There’s a ton of stuff happening,” he says. “Everything happens for a reason. It’s not just random dice rolls. We were deliberate with every small thing, whether it’s a specific potion ingredient that has a real-world analog, all the way to something like a big towering fortress at your local clock tower in your small town.”
The challenge in that is due to the game world’s scale: it’s the size of the earth. Wizards Unite players, like Pokémon Go players, expect to be able to explore the game world wherever they are. Having the game built over something like Google Maps helps; there’s already a lot of information embedded in those maps. (Niantic was once part of Google and is led by CEO John Hanke, who played a major role in Google Maps.) But the nuances of the game require more precision to ensure the data is correct. That’s where Niantic’s broader community comes in. Before there was Pokémon Go, there was Ingress. Originally released in 2013, Ingress uses location-based gameplay to get players to battle for real-world monuments. Data from Ingress was essential in Pokémon Go; now it’s essential for Wizards Unite and other games created using Niantic’s Real-World Platform.
High-level Ingress players can apply to become “vanguards,” a level of player that’s dedicated to the community. Moffit says Niantic often leans on its Ingress vanguards to help create a better experience for those in the more rural areas, places that are hard for the San Francisco-based team to reach. But it doesn’t always work. A quick Google search for “rural Pokémon Go” pulls up tons of queries from players in less populated areas — tips for having more productive sessions, complaints regarding Pokéstop locations. Niantic is trying to account for these areas, now testing out a feature that lets players nominate new Pokéstops, but it’s a work-in-progress. And it’ll still likely be a point of contention for Wizards Unite players in smaller communities.
Part of why this crowdsourcing system with the Ingress vanguards and nominated Pokéstops has worked is because these two games continue to have player bases that are invested in the games. Sure, both have seen a drastically decreased number of active users per day, month, or year, but there’s no reason to suggest either is dead. Data from market analyst group Sensor Tower suggests that Niantic increased Pokémon Go revenue by 35 percent from 2017 to 2018, despite the major hype from the game’s release in 2016 dying down.
One step at a time
Pokémon Go set a standard for what an AR game could be; now, Wizards Unite will continue that legacy. Despite their differences, these two games will both continue to impact how fans expect to interact with and understand their favorite franchises. Pokémon Go put the cute creatures fans have loved for decades into our world. Wizards Unite is doing the same with a similarly beloved franchise, embracing the magic fans have always believed in.
Fandoms have always had their own ways to integrate the things they love into their life — writing Squirtle fan-fiction, getting a Deathly Hallows tattoo, attending a Star Wars convention. These location-based games extend those fandoms further into the real-world, bringing them even further off the screen or page. Video games already do this for franchises, whether its a mobile game that corresponds with a release or an Avengers tie-in for Fortnite. Location-based AR games let these franchises become even more intertwined into our day-to-day.
Niantic CEO John Hanke says that traditional games let players live in a world for a set amount of time: your 45-minute train ride, for five minutes in line, or with an hours-long gaming session. In AR, the game is always a part of the world you’re already existing in.
“If you think about an Instagram filter, something you apply to a static image at a particular point in time that makes an image look nostalgic, more beautiful, or brighter,” Hanke says. “I could think of these games as filters, in a broad sense, on the world. Everything suddenly feels a little more Harry Potter. I see glimpses of Hogwarts-style architecture embellishing the world around me. I might see a dementor circling above.”
Minecraft Earth, developed by Minecraft developer Mojang, is trying to do that with the block-building franchise — letting players build and then enter life-sized versions of their creations via AR. (Collecting resources in the real-world will also be an important part of the game.) Stranger Things, too, is getting an AR game, developed by Next Games, the team that created The Walking Dead’s own location-based game Our World, but there’s not much information on what, exactly, it’ll entail.
Wizards Unite, for its part, lets players insert themselves directly into a narrative that’s already beloved. Knight says Wizards Unite’s story will develop “non-linearly” as players progress through the game.
“It unfolds across chapters — again, non-linearly — and we hope and expect that different players are discovering different fragments and they’re coming together,” he says. “We want to drive community conversation and speculation for people who are curious about where it’s all going.”
The game’s narrative chapters will be added to Wizards Unite over time, across two tracks: one story that’s based on player progression as magical elements of the world are discovered, and another that’s based on the mystery everyone’s trying to solve, with “everyone on the same clock,” Knight says. He describes Wizards Unite as the “forever” Harry Potter game, with Warner Bros. and Niantic supporting it and growing the game for “many years.”
Because Harry Potter is already very narrative-driven — the franchise started as a series of books, after all — keeping the game in-line with that was important. Going further, that means letting players insert themselves into the world, not as muggles looking on, but again, as the wizards and witches they always knew they were. One of the new features that hasn’t been available to beta testers is a “character creation” menu that’ll give players their own Ministry of Magic badges. Knight calls it the “selfie avatar,” where you can dress yourself up — still images and video — and give yourself a wizard look. You want Hagrid’s beard? Luna Lovegood’s glasses? A Ravenclaw scarf? Players will be able to unlock more customization options through gameplay, or spend in-game coins, which’ll cost real money, to accelerate the process.
From there, this selfie avatar goes into the Ministry of Magic ID card that’s customized with your own information, including your magical profession — Auror, Magizoologist, or Professor — and house alliance. Knight, however, wants players to know this isn’t a game about being at Hogwarts. “It’s a game about wizards who went to Hogwarts or Ilvermorny or somewhere else and now are real, professional wizards in the real world,” he says. “It’s important to declare your house, but it’s not about houses. It’s really much bigger and more global than that.” Your Hogwarts house isn’t an important part of the game, but the developers recognize how important that can be to a Harry Potter fan’s identity. Profession, though, does impact gameplay, especially with the fortresses.
“This is where the game becomes a multiplayer, synchronous role-playing game,” Knight says.
Fortresses are where the rarest magical elements, like horcruxes, are found. The wizard challenges within these fortresses are multiplayer experiences with up to five players, all of which need to load up into a lobby. You’re not battling against other wizards, but instead, against the evil stuff. Each group of wizards and witches — or lone wizard or witch — will face waves of enemies. Each player will pick an enemy, or choose a more supportive role in healing or buffing friends. Professions impact what choices you’ll make here; aurors take on more offensive roles, for instance. Each branch has its own skill tree to further specialize.
“There’s a tremendous about of depth and it’s affecting all of these core stats for your combat game,” Knight says.
Having players take on this fully-realized role and then finding themselves inside the game itself is one of the developers’ big breakthroughs from Pokémon Go and Ingress, Niantic CEO Hanke says. The selfie avatar, and the ability to interact with other players ever so slightly in the wizarding challenges, is the first start to getting people in the games. Wizarding challenges are particularly interesting, not only as they stand now, but because of where the technology is headed.
“There’s a lot under the hood to make it responsive and scalable,” Hanke says. “In Pokémon Go, for example, you can fight in a raid together, but you all do the same thing. In a wizarding challenge, you have different roles, different skills. That opens up this whole collaborative team-play dynamic that we didn’t have in Go. There’s a lot of depth that’s going to be fun to explore over time.”
The future of augmented reality
Breakthroughs with Wizards Unite are creating the foundation for a more fully-realized view of AR gaming, a future that is, of course, a ways off still. Hanke notes that he’s been in meetings even on the day we meet thinking about the future of AR. And ultimately, there are a couple prongs to Hanke’s vision of the future in AR — creating a compelling vision of virtual- and real-life where multiple people can experience the same environment and see other players in that world, as well as creating “deeper and more real” intersections of AR into life.
Wizards Unite’s portkey system is one of the game’s more successful realizations of AR integration, using Harry Potter franchise lore to create an immersive experience within the game. Portkeys are objects — a boot, a bucket, a worn-out tire — in the Harry Potter world that are used to transport witches and wizards around the world. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, attendees of the 1994 Quidditch World Cup used portkeys to securely transport tons of fans to the event, without drawing suspicion from the muggle world. (Another famous portkey is the Triwizard Cup trophy, also in Goblet of Fire, which transported Harry and fellow student Cedric Diggory to the Little Hangleton graveyard where Diggory was killed by Voldemort’s command.)
In Wizards Unite, portkeys bring players into fully-realized AR environments, like Hagrid’s Hut or Dumbledore’s office. They’re found in portmanteaus, which are like eggs in Pokémon Go in that they’re attached to a walking distance. From there, you need a key to open one. There are different locations that can be reached from portkeys, and those vary depending on what distance portmanteau has been opened and what key’s been used. Once it’s used, a portal is opened and you’re able to see into it, viewing it through the phone.
“You actually feel like you’re in Hagrid’s hut,” Moffit says. “It’s pretty darn cool considering that, as powerful as these little pocket computers are, it really is just one lens on the phone. We’re maxing these out as much as we can. But there are some cons to this. [The phone] is actually heavy to hold over a period of time. It isn’t one of the cooler human postures possible as you’re walking around.”
Hanke says that Niantic’s multiplayer demo, Codename: Neon, which is a shared AR experience that lets players shoot neon objects at each other, is just one piece of technology that’s started to impact the company’s suite of games. A next obvious step would be allowing users over multiple phones, or other devices, to experience the same portkey, to interact together within it.
“[Technical breakthroughs] take us down the pathway that will lead us to being able to visualize those things with AR glasses in the future, in a way that’s even more persistent and immersive,” Hanke says. “Rather than it being something where you peer through this tiny looking glass into this virtual world, once we’re able to present that through glasses, then it really lets us exist in this environment that combines the virtual and the real all the time.”
That includes the other people playing the game, too. It’s a future where, in this AR world, everyone else that’s playing the game is envisioned as their Wizards Unite character. Of course, it’ll be a challenge to transform a real-life player into their character. “That involves a whole set of technologies for understanding humans and movement, and building software systems in order to be able to transform not just your face, but your whole body into something that you can see in that world,” Hanke says.
Each of Niantic’s games is part of a process of mapping out our intimate worlds — public spaces that we’re closely connected to, the smaller details that aren’t necessarily mapped out on Google Maps. Hanke says Google Maps is information compiled and presented for human consumption, whereas maps for AR are processed as part of an “AR cloud.” It might look like a bunch of dots for us, but it’s a representation of the world that the computer can read and interact with.
It’s a larger mapping process that’s bringing technology into the places we walk, run, shop, or hang out. By creating this system, games and other programs — by Niantic or otherwise — can create and adapt to the real world that’s just existing as its own thing as a base layer, not only running when you’ve opened it up. “It should be very natural for you to pivot into it, like taking a drink of whatever,” Hanke says. “It’ll be less of a stop [and] start, and more just like it’s there all the time.”
There are plenty of game applications for these systems to be used for, but there’s other platforms it could benefit too. The larger question, then, becomes less of can we do it and more of should we. Data is more valuable than ever, and a game that maps out the smaller details of our own world would be worth a lot of money.
Hanke reiterates that Niantic’s goal is to create immersive game systems that bring people together and into the real-world, and that privacy is something it’s always thinking out. “From a user privacy point-of-view, I think we’re at the forefront there in terms of being protective of users and not taking on data that isn’t necessary for the game,” Hanke says. “We’re most interested in augmenting the public plaza, the public park, these areas that are designed for public access.”
There’s still plenty of technology that needs to be invented before we get there, though. Hanke says there will be “many generations” of games that will see these sorts of technical breakthroughs.
“We’re trying to knock off a few of those [technical breakthroughs] with every game that we ship, then roll that back into the platform so that every next game starts from that same foundation and builds up the next layer of the building,” he says.