July 4, 2019

The Problem With ‘Harry Potter: Wizards Unite’

Players use augmented reality to interact with creatures from Harry Potter’s world, but the game is too complicated and doesn’t bring enough magic

David PierceJune 30, 2019 9:00 am ET — The Wall Street Journal

Last Friday I had a fight with a vampire in the mailroom of my apartment building—and lost. In retrospect, I never had a chance. I was 45 minutes into playing “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite,” the new augmented-reality game from Niantic, maker of “Pokémon Go.” I had achieved only level 2.

Over the next few days, I practiced whenever I had a minute or two to spare. I sent my first Patronus to ward off Dementors in a park on Long Island. I saved Ron Weasley from a spider-shaped boggart outside an airport coffee shop in San Jose. I rescued hippogriffs and owls, vanishing cabinets and self-playing harps. (If you don’t know what any of these words mean, I have seven great books you should read.) When I encountered another vampire, I’d reached level 8. I took him down with three spells.

“Harry Potter: Wizards Unite,” a straightforward successor to “Pokémon Go,” takes most of what made that game a smash hit and turns it up a notch. There’s more to do, more to see, more to remember, and the breadth of the game teeters constantly between challenging and overwhelming.

But something just feels off here, which might explain the Pokémon game’s cold reception at launch. While the concept—collect, train, combat—perfectly suited the game platform that Niantic built, it doesn’t make as much sense for the Potter-verse.

No matter how you feel about the Hogwarts gang, “Wizards Unite” is an important game. “Pokémon Go” exposed millions to the idea of augmented reality, in which digital objects are combined with real-world backdrops to create something that feels distinctly like the future.

Three years later, Niantic had a chance to show how far the technology has come—and what it has learned about what works in AR. Hidden in “Wizards Unite” are clues about the future of gaming and entertainment.

More than a week in, I am still playing, but “Wizards Unite” hasn’t yet given me the Potter fix I was hoping for.

Your job in “Wizards Unite” is to capture “Foundables,” magical objects that have been strewn around the world by a mysterious curse, by casting spells that you trace on your phone screen. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal

‘Wizards Unite’: A History

When you start “Wizards Unite,” you are a new task-force recruit at the Ministry of Magic. Your job is to rescue “Foundables,” various magical objects that have been cursed and strewn about the world. As you walk around, looking at the in-game map on your phone, you’ll come across Foundables of all sorts, which you rescue by casting spells to defeat the “Confoundables” holding them hostage.

You cast a spell by tracing its path on your phone’s screen. The faster and more accurately you trace, the more powerful your spell becomes. You can also brew and use potions to help you win. You visit inns and greenhouses to fuel up and replenish supplies. Sometimes, rather than trying to undo a spell, you battle a creature. And the fortresses that dot the earth are where the biggest, scariest combatants await.

As you complete challenges, brew potions, battle baddies and capture Foundables, you begin to learn the back story. Who cast the spell called “The Calamity” that made all this happen? Why? And why is it so important for you to rescue all these Foundables? There’s a lot to learn, most of it revealed in short text-conversation bits as you play. It could be more reading than some players like, and honestly you don’t need to know it to play the game, but I like it.
Everything in ‘Wizards Unite’ is set in the real world: Things pop up near you on a map, and you capture or battle magical creatures, or pick up potion ingredients or walk to fortresses, in augmented reality. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal
When it comes to game play, you’re in the deep end the minute you open the app. Like “Pokémon Go,” the best thing about “Wizards Unite” is simply wandering the world and seeing who and what pops up around you. But you also have to think about professions and fragments and spell energy, before you even know what any of it means. As you pick up ingredients to make your spell-improving, health-giving potions, you constantly have to delete others from your vault, or else you’ll have a ton of honey water and not much else.

I can get over most of that. My biggest frustration with “Wizards Unite” is that it doesn’t feel like the Harry Potter world so many of us know and love.

I don’t want magical creatures strewn around my world; I want to go to that world. I want to train at Hogwarts. I want to choose my house—Ravenclaw forever!—and have that actually matter. Right now, it’s just a section of a profile page that apparently exists only to be shared on social media.

The plot of the final books, the epic search for Horcruxes, would be a perfect setup for a real-world game. I want to go on a classic Potter adventure, not do magical-creature street cleanup.

To continue leveling up in ‘Wizards Unite,’ you have to think about growing plants, brewing potions and managing your professional development—often before you understand what any of it means. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal

Put Down the Phone

From a technical perspective, “Wizards Unite” is more polished than “Pokémon Go” was at first. The camera-based AR tech works well, laying in-game characters and scenes over the world in front of you.

There’s something called a Portkey, which—as any Harry Potter fan can guess—transports you from where you are to another place, like Hagrid’s hut. A virtual scene surrounds you, and you can look around to find the magical object that’s waiting for you. Think of it as a VR effect in an AR game. As cool as it is, though, it’s a reminder that phones really aren’t the right device for this kind of immersive gaming.

A game like this ultimately belongs on glasses or headsets like the Microsoft HoloLens or Magic Leap One. Eventually, when headsets get better, the Foundables might appear to be truly on your street, and you might be able to cast spells by flicking your own wand in the air. (Wait, you don’t have a wand??)

For now we’re stuck in our phones, so the game feels that much smaller.

Besides, keeping your phone on and unlocked, with the app open at all times, is brutal on your phone’s battery and data cap. The game is heavily reliant both on GPS and a fast data connection. If you’re going to play a lot, I recommend an external battery pack: I like the $80 Mophie Charge Stream Powerstation Wireless. You should also get a PopSocket, which makes playing the game one-handed much easier.