Pokémon vs Potter

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Adam looks at two similar games to consider why one succeeds, and the other doesn’t.

I have relatively little shame in admitting that I’m a Pokémon Go player. I will admit that I do have some shame, but it is manageable. I started playing back when the game was new, exciting, and popular, and kept playing as everyone else I knew slowly dropped away, leaving just a small group of serious players who refuse to move on. Those players include my wife and one of our children, (the other having given up a year or so ago), so I guess I can use them as an excuse for my interest, but that would be lying. I’m simply addicted, and not very good at giving up on games.

For those who haven’t played, there are two key mechanics to Pokemon Go. The first is that the game is played in the real world. As you wander around watching the phone instead of where you are going, every so often you will see a Pokemon appear. If it does, it will also appear for everyone in the area, and thus you can share the enjoyment of catching something that you are all looking for. The type of Pokemon is also somewhat dependent on the real world location, and thus if you are looking for “water” Pokemon it is worth a trip to the beach, while “grass” Pokemon are more likely in the local park. The second mechanic is the raids, which happen periodically and can be too difficult for one person to achieve, and reward the player with rare Pokemon.

Combine these two mechanics and you end up with a surprisingly social experience. Players share sightings of rare Pokemon online and congregate to catch them together – there is no competition as such, as everyone can catch the same Pokemon, but there is a lot of cooperation. Similarly, when a raid is going to happen nearby, players organise to meet at the location so that they can work together. In the early days, when it was at the height of its popularity, you could join hundreds of other players at your nearest beachside suburb as you look for Pokemon, or randomly form mobs of 20-30 people who will wander the city together going from raid to raid. Today, even with the drop in overall players, I still find myself joining 60 other people on a Wednesday night, or just catching up with a group of 5-8 players at lunch to quickly complete a raid before we get back to work. 

I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting online that the reduced number of players in Pokemon Go shows that the game is failing. I don’t see why this should be the case. Pokemon Go is a “free to play” game, which means that it doesn’t cost anything to start, but the developers make their money by encouraging players to make in-game purchases. Unlike many such games, Pokemon Go’s encouragement is very mild – there is no need to spend money to play, and doing so provides you with only small advantages. Nevertheless, Niantic made over $600 million revenue (USD) in the first three months that the game was in operation. It is three years since launch, but while I don’t have access to recent figures, I suspect that profits are still solid. The people most inclined to spend money on free-to-play games are the serious players, and they are pretty much all that is left in Pokemon Go. With the reduced overheads from the smaller player base, their dedication should be enough to keep things running for quite a while.

That said, Niantic recently launched their third game built on this platform: Harry Potter: Wizards’ Unite. It follows the same basic mechanics established in Pokemon Go and its predecessor, Ingress. Players wander around the real world searching for artifacts from the Harry Potter movies, occasionally congregating to complete difficult tasks which require more than a single player. To catch an artifact you cast a spell by tracing a pattern on the screen, while to gain an advantage you drink a potion. (Pokemon Go’s equivalents are throwing Pokeballs and feeding berries to your target). Like the other games, you can only carry a limited amount, and are encouraged to purchase extra space to carry more energy for your spells, more potions and more ingredients. It even shares the same map – the locations of interest in Pokemon Go are also locations of interest with Harry Potter.

Harry Potter is, to put it simply, beautifully designed and made. It comes across as a very polished game, with attractive graphics, carefully considered mechanics, and excellent overall design. The first thing that struck me was just how well made it all was. This was a game that was the product of considerable effort, attention to detail, and internal testing. The main mechanic, casting the spells, is very nicely implemented, leading the player to make a difficult choice between speed and precision, and the feel of the game matches the overly polished and heavily produced feel of the movies.

The problem is that none of this really works. When playing Pokemon Go you are trying to find a rare Pokemon in order to complete your collection, and when you see it appear on the map you feel an initial surge of excitement is you try to catch something you have been looking for. With Harry Potter you see a marker that doesn’t indicate what lies behind it except in the most general terms (“something to do with sports”, or “something to do with Hogwarts”) and when you do “catch” it all you get is a point towards finally getting a sticker for your virtual sticker book. When we catch a Pokemon, we can show it off – “Look Ruth, I just caught a Whismur!”, but how do you show off a single point out of a required 15 that you need before you even get a picture to show?  Meanwhile, there are no time-specific events, so there is no real push to meet with random groups of players and try to achieve something. If you like, you might want to wander up with a friend or two – all the mechanics are in place to create a fun group experience – but that doesn’t give you the same feeling of being in something bigger when 20 people randomly turn up at the same place and time to share an experience with you.

Perhaps the problem is that Pokemon provided the perfect framework for this sort of game, and Harry Potter simply didn’t. But I think the main problem is that Niantic didn’t spend enough time designing mechanics that would encourage the social aspects of the game style, and spent more time on the polish to make it look like a Harry Potter experience. It is still fun to play, but ultimately it isn’t able to pull me into the world the same way that Pokemon Go did, and from what I can tell I’m not alone in having a hard time fully embracing the new game.

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