Game Design

on wizards unite and games as fantasy fulfillment

When I started playing Harry Potter: Wizards Unite in June, I knew I would have a lot to say about it.  I wasn’t wrong.  My list of critiques for this game grew as I played it constantly for the next month or so, but I struggled to find a cohesive theme around which to structure a blog post.  And so I put my collection of screenshots and false starts aside for a good while.

There’s a lot I could say (and maybe will say in another article) about the problems that Wizards Unite has – it’s confusing to pick up, it’s messy, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  There are plenty of reviews online that slam it, whether for having a “contrived premise [and] clumsy mechanics”1, or for being “a sad, uninspired clone of Pokémon Go”2, which I agree with for the most part.

However, I don’t want to repeat these criticisms about why specific mechanics made the game the opposite of fun and engaging in this article.  I want to get to the heart of why this design was poorly executed in the first place.

Games are meant to fulfill our fantasies

The purpose of games, in particular ones based on existing franchises, is the fulfillment of the player’s fantasy.  Those who come to a game based on a beloved book or movie or even a previous game (in the form of a remake or sequel) have specific expectations about what they want from the game.

And this is where the premise of Wizards Unite falls to pieces.  As a long-time Harry Potter fan, I know the potential of JK Rowling’s universe has for developing supporting entertainment experiences, as evidenced by the successes of the film and theme park adaptations.

These are some common fantasies associated with the Harry Potter world:

  • I want to be a wizard
  • I want to cast spells and duel other wizards
  • I want to explore Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, or the Ministry of Magic
  • I want to play Quidditch
  • I want to meet and battle with or against some of my favourite characters

Wizards Unite falls short on all of these points, because the main goal of the game has you wandering the world trying to find pieces of things to add to a wizarding sticker book.  Mark my words, this is no Harry Potter fan’s fantasy.

Sure, there are some hints in the story of you being a wizard, but you don’t feel very wizard-like when you’re collecting a fragment of a Daily Prophet newspaper stand or a fragment of a portrait of Voldemort.  The game forces me to do things I don’t want to do – collect a fragment of this terrifying hag if you please, or save this Flobberworm from a bubble.

Casting spells in duels gets boring and are always against copies of the same opponent, with copies of the same spell that, in what may be the game’s biggest crime of all, you can’t select.  You’re pretty much forced to duel without strategy in spellcasting, using whatever spell the game gives you to trace on the screen.

There’s a plain, anonymous man who shows up and I’m not sure who he is or why I’m casting a spell at him to perform mundane tasks like retrieving a Bludger.

Any interaction with my favourite characters has me saving them from strange situations that make no sense.  Why is Snape trapped in a bottle?  Why do I have to save Luna from a chicken?  Aren’t these powerful wizards in their own right who should be able to find their way out of these silly messes?

Matching mechanics with the fantasy is essential

The problem with layering the Harry Potter theme on top of Pokémon Go’s mechanics was that it did not fulfill the fantasy of Harry Potter fans.  Everything done to craft a Harry Potter-esque story around the existing, immutable mechanics was a moot point.

Duplicating the mechanics as a “winning formula” was a mistake.  In fact, Ingress, Niantic’s original AR world-exploring game that was the mechanical basis of Pokémon Go, failed to gain traction despite being one of the earliest AR GPS-tracking games on the mobile market.

It wasn’t the mechanics of Pokémon Go that made it successful.  Pokémon Go’s explosive success was due to the perfect marriage of the mechanics of collecting things to the fantasy of Pokémon fans – wannabe Pokémon trainers who “gotta catch ’em all”.

When designing games based on existing stories, I would start with the fantasy.  Game designers should ask themselves, what do fans dream of doing?


Games that deliver on living the fantasy

When the player’s fantasy goes hand in hand with the game’s mechanics, the result is a more immersive experience.  Here are some of my favourites.

1. Pokémon Go

Image from: Niantic, Inc..

Developed by: Niantic, Inc. (2016)

Based on: Pokémon games franchise

The fantasy: I want to be a Pokémon trainer like Ash Ketchum, travelling the land, catching Pokémon, trading with my friends and training my Pokémon to win in battles.

How the game delivers on the fantasy: Pokémon Go allows you to wander the real world and catch all the Pokémon you want, fight to control gyms, trade Pokémon with friends and work together to catch rare Pokémon in raids.  It further allows players to fulfill their fantasy by letting them take photos with Pokémon they catch and find in the real world using AR.  Everything about living your Pokémon fantasy is so well aligned with the mechanics of this game because they are both based on the main idea of Pokémon, “Gotta catch’em all!”

2. The Walking Dead

Image from: Telltale Games via Steam.

Developed by: Telltale Games (2012)

Based on: The Walking Dead comics published by Image Comics (later popularized as a television series on AMC)

The fantasy: I want to be a survivor in the zombie apocalypse like Rick Grimes, fighting to stay alive and being a hero who protects others from the zombies.

How the game delivers on the fantasy: The Walking Dead video game provides a fantastic structure for living the post-apocalyptic, gritty fantasy of running from zombies and surviving with a group of rag-tag individuals.  It further elevates the medium by forcing interesting choices that affect the story and requiring the player to navigate complex relationships between characters, which is exactly what the comics are about.

3. Batman: Arkham Asylum

Image from: Rocksteady Studios.

Developed by: Rocksteady Studios (2009)

Based on: Batman comics published by DC

The fantasy: I want to be a superhero like Batman, fighting enemies by stealth, keeping Gotham safe, and using cool gadgets.

How the game delivers on the fantasy: Batman: Arkham Asylum allowed you to feel like Batman on many levels.  From using cool gadgets, to scouting the world in “detective mode”, to the incredible stealth and combat systems, players get a feeling of power without losing the essence of feeling like the tortured hero that is Batman.  Arkham Asylum was so popular it inspired a slew of game sequels and the movie trilogy remake of a darker Batman that made box office records.


4. Spider-Man

Image from: Insomniac Games.

Developed by: Insomniac Games (2018)

Based on: Spider-Man comics published by Marvel and its many film/television adaptations

The fantasy: I want to be a superhero like Spider-Man, slinging webs and fighting crime while swinging through the streets of New York City.

How the game delivers on the fantasy: I wanted to include a second superhero game in this list to illustrate the differences between two distinct franchises.  While being like Batman is about stealthily approaching and accosting your enemies, and tactical hand-to-hand combat, being like Spider-Man is all about one thing: slinging webs.  The 2018 Spider-Man video game is centered around the feeling of swinging from building to building, and it does an incredible job.  At GDC 2019, Doug Sheahan, lead gameplay programmer, described the process of developing the building traversal with the team’s goal in mind, of allowing players to “play like a superhero movie feels”3, which perfectly captures the spirit of matching mechanics with the player fantasy.

5. Nancy Drew Mystery Adventure Series

Image from: Her Interactive.

Developed by: Her Interactive (1998-)

Based on: Nancy Drew mystery novels

The fantasy: I want to solve mysteries like Nancy Drew, by using my investigative skills, detective intuition and daring.

How the game delivers on the fantasy: The Nancy Drew video games are very focused on solving mysteries, allowing you to explore areas, find secret passageways, interview suspects, dust for fingerprints, crack safes, pick locks, decipher codes, and so on.  The actions and mechanics in the game are everything to do with letting you live out your detective fantasy, and a great example of bringing a book-based franchise to an interactive medium.

References Cited

  1. Foreman, Alison. “‘Harry Potter: Wizards Unite’ is a poor wizard’s ‘Pokémon Go’.” Entertainment. Mashable, 20 June 2019. Web. 3 September 2019.
  2. Baker, Harry. “Hands-On: Harry Potter – Wizards Unite Is One Of The Least Engaging Mobile Games I’ve Ever Played.” Gaming. UploadVR, 17 June 2019. Web. 3 September 2019.
  3. Sheahan, Doug. “Concrete Jungle Gym: Building Traversal in ‘Marvel’s Spider-Man’.” Game Developers Conference, 22 March 2019, Moscone Center, San Francisco, CA.