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From Pokémon to Harry Potter: Niantic's hopes for Wizards Unite

CEO John Hanke on the "huge potential" of this week's big mobile release, and the untapped potential of location-based games

Three years after Pokémon Go, Niantic is gearing up for its next major attempt at capturing the world's attention with Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

The developer's excursion into the Wizarding World releases this Friday (June 21), and tasks players with searching the world for magical objects and creatures that must be collected, captured or defeated to keep them secret from muggles.

Even with the power of the Potter licence, Wizards Unite is following in some daunting footsteps. Pokémon Go became a worldwide phenomenon at launch, has since generated well over $2 billion in revenue, and still has a solid and healthy community eagerly awaiting each update or Pokémon Go Fest event.

Of course, the Harry Potter game has a distinct advantage (and not just the fact that it's based on one of the biggest entertainment franchises of all time). It draws on three years of learning and improvements from Pokémon Go, as well as last year's Ingress 2, and has a much larger team behind it -- both at property holder Warner Bros and the greatly expanded Niantic. In fact, CEO John Hanke tells us the developer is now ten times bigger than it was in the months leading up to the launch of Pokémon Go.

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John Hanke, Niantic

We caught up with Hanke earlier this year to find out more about the company's expectations for Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, and whether he believes it can surpass the achievements of its Pokémon-themed predecessor.

"We think the game has huge potential," he told GamesIndustry.biz. "It's one of the most popular franchises in the world, I think it's a great game to tackle in AR because of the way the fiction works. We're excited about it. Beyond that, we'll launch it and go from there. We're just focused on the quality part, I'm not too hung up on shooting for this [target] or that."

In the wake of Pokémon Go's launch, a hoax video of Harry Potter Go did the rounds on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. While the execution wasn't too convincing, the notion that Niantic could build on its game concept with a Harry Potter game certainly made sense -- which other property could possibly lend itself to Niantic's formula and be bigger than Pokémon? Hanke agreed that J.K. Rowling's fiction was a natural fit for the company's approach to games.

"Harry Potter's a bigger franchise in terms of global awareness and fanbase than Pokémon was, so there's huge potential there," he said. "It's one of the only big franchises that has more female than male fans. When you look at Star Wars or Avengers or IP like that, they tend to skew male. Harry Potter is the only one that really pulls against that.

"We want these things to appeal broadly, and I think that's the key to unlocking the social opportunity -- to have a good mix of people. You want male and female, and also diversity in age. Potter has that cross-gender appeal, and then you've got kids and parents. You've got kids who grew up with it -- my daughter's in college now, and she was in the heart of it when she was eight or nine years old."

"Harry Potter is one of the only big franchises that has more female than male fans. When you look at Star Wars or Avengers or IP like that, they tend to skew male"

Unlike Pokémon, with its cute critters and bright, vibrant colours, Harry Potter doesn't appear to be trying too hard to appeal to children. That fits with the overall strategy for the franchise; while the books (particularly the first three) are geared towards children, the movies grew darker as the series progressed -- a styling that continued with the Fantastic Beasts films.

The mere association with Harry Potter will get children interested, but Wizards Unite's aesthetics also seem to lean into the darker side of the later films, thus appealing to adults as well (and not just the original Potter fans that have now grown up). Hanke reiterated that the game has been designed to be enjoyed by entire families, so the more mature visuals have been crafted to achieve this.

Of course, Harry Potter isn't the only famous IP out there trying to capitalise on the popularity of Pokémon Go. Jurassic Park, Ghostbusters and The Walking Dead all got the location-based treatment last year, although none seem to have had the impact of Niantic's title.

Far from decrying this wave of copycats, Hanke actually welcomes them, although he hopes to see more developers actually advance the premise rather than trying to recreate Niantic's success.

"I feel like the genre is so new and there's so much untapped potential," he said. "Games that follow in the wake of Pokémon Go feel like a waste to me, because there's so many other things that haven't been tried yet. I'd love to see people explore the genre and push the envelope in new directions.

"I want the whole concept to succeed. The more people that play games this way, it makes it easier for all of us because it becomes more and more socially acceptable and commonplace for people to do it. We imagine a future where going out and playing a game together outdoors with other people is just as common as going to a movie, going for drinks or going for dinner. For that to happen, the whole industry has to grow. Competition is competition, but it's good for the industry. It's good for the world for these games to exist, so hopefully we'll see a lot of fun creative stuff out there."

Expanding the genre has certainly been the goal with Wizards Unite. In addition to mechanical improvements, the game has more of a narrative focus than Pokémon Go, and the spirit of competition is replaced by cooperation. Players are no longer split into teams (or Hogwarts houses) fighting for territory -- everyone is working for the Statute of Secrecy Task Force, making the entire game one joint effort to protect the Wizarding World.

As our sister site Eurogamer reported when it playtested the game earlier this year, Wizards Unite is not just a reskin of Pokémon Go, with more activities than just battling and collecting creatures. And, as with any games-as-a-service offering, the gameplay is likely to expand and change in the years to come.

"Games that follow in the wake of Pokémon Go feel like a waste to me, because there's so many other things that haven't been tried yet"

Another key message around Harry Potter will be how responsibly the monetisation is handled. Pokémon Go was praised for this, in that microtransactions felt in no way forced or essential to progress in the game. Instead, the items you purchase enabled you to accelerate your progress or kit out your trainer with cosmetics.

Hanke said a "deliberate design goal" for all its titles is to allow players to enjoy the full experience without ever having to buy anything, and this will be true for Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. This is especially important given that the game will still target a younger audience -- we recently spoke to Jam City about the challenge of balancing monetisation in its own Harry Potter title, Hogwarts Mystery.

"The monetisation is there, and [Pokémon] monetises pretty well," Hanke said. "On an ARPPU basis, there are games that are much higher up because they've turned up that dial and they go after every last penny for every user. We like to appeal to a very broad audience and have a good conversion rate, so that a fair number of those people are paying, but to not try to design the game in a way that there's pressure to pay.

"It's about making your users happy, building a game that's going to attract a lot of users. That just doesn't match up with highly aggressive monetisation. It's a good business decision and it's a good thing for our users to be light on the monetisation."

So what lies beyond Wizards Unite? The company has been steadily growing, with five acquisitions in the past four years -- most recently, picking up UK developer Sensible Object (and you can read more about that in our interview here). With this and the acquisition of Seismic Games, Niantic is now able to build more games in parallel, while still supporting Pokémon Go, Ingress 2 and Harry Potter.

Naturally, some of these projects will be original IP, but Niantic would be foolish not to consider more licensed titles given the success of Pokémon and the expected popularity of Harry Potter. But the company will choose carefully as simply applying a licence to the Niantic game formula does not an instant success make. There's a reason why Pokémon Go worked so well, and why so many people are looking forward to Harry Potter: Wizards Unite finally arriving this week.

"Certain IPs definitely work better than others," said Hanke. "IPs that are set largely in the muggle world, the world that we live in, usually works better than something that's not. It'd be hard to do Guardians of the Galaxy in an AR game -- that takes place in another solar system. Ideas that are fantasy but put it into the real world, that's the sweet spot."

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