Geek confession incoming: I’ve been a Pokemon Go player since the week the game came out.
I didn’t expect to be; I hadn’t expected to play the game. But I was traveling, and my wife and first grade son convinced me to give it a shot while visiting out of town sites. I was hooked immediately.
Over the next three years, I’d catch Pokemon in downtown Chicago and show them off to my son when I got home. We bonded when we caught a Victrebeel, and he gave his first school presentation about how it evolved from Bellsprout. We did community days, and attended Pokemon Go Fest a few times. Even the disastrous one.
But Pokemon was never really my geek. I was too old to be psyched about the TV show, Gameboy franchises, and cards in their heyday. The low entry point of Pokemon Go meant that wasn’t a problem, but I still felt wrapped in other people’s passions.
Harry Potter, though. That’s another thing entirely.
I’ve adored the Harry Potter novels since my days working in a bookstore, when I helped referee the midnight release of Goblet of Fire, and I’ve been salivating about a Harry Potter mobile game since I first heard about Niantic using some of that sweet, sweet PoGo money to purchase the Harry Potter AR rights way back in 2016.
When Wizards Unite finally dropped, the lukewarm response surprised me. In fact, a lot of criticisms of the game reflect what I like the most.
WIZARDS UNITE IS NOT POKEMON GO
On its debut, players shorthanded Wizards Unite as, “It’s like Pokemon Go, but with Wizards”. That’s a decent elevator pitch, but it’s also an oversimplification.
Yes, both games are built on the same AR platform–the tagged worldmapping that Niantic has used since its Ingress days–and both involve hunting down iconic franchise bits, but there are critical differences.
PoGo is a collection game, as players catch ‘em all. Wizards Unite is a quest based game. The collection serves as a mechanism to advance the story, not merely as a way to amass game sprites.
The initial pushback Wizards Unite got wasn’t surprising, since it debuted in a tricky spot. If it was too much like PoGo, it’d get criticized. If it was too different, it’d get criticized. Personally, I give the developers a lot of credit for trying to push the AR gaming medium beyond, “Ooo, I don’t have that one yet.”
But all those differences were complicated by another simple truth…
WIZARDS UNITE IS COMPLICATED
As mentioned, part of PoGo’s appeal is its low entry point. There are Pokemon in your world, and you catch ‘em by swiping your finger. Off you go.
Wizards Unite is more complex. There’s potion making, collection categories, professions, seeds. There are inns, which are different than greenhouses, which are different than fortresses.
A battle in Pokemon Go means gathering fellow trainers, surrounding a sometimes worthy foe, and bashing the living ditto out of it. A Wizards Unite battle involves selecting the right opponents, timing retreats, spells, and potion use, and knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. That’s probably why there are skill trees.
Did I mention there are skill trees? There are skill trees.
This all takes time to grasp, and even longer to leverage into success. With that complexity, though, comes nuance, and an in-game world whose intricacies reward exploration. If you just want to geek over finding a Murtlap, and of knowing what that means, you’re welcome to do so. But you’re also invited to do more than that.
Which brings me to the final strength…
WIZARDS UNITE SEEMS LIKE A SINGLE PLAYER GAME
Part of the PoGo appeal is community. You gather in public places and rejoice in shared effort. In 2016, my local town square had hundreds—yes, hundreds—of trainers all summer. At one point, there were vendors. And street musicians. The game encourages that group dynamic, and there are limits to what you can do without it.
Wizards Unite, though, can be soloed just fine, thank you. Since collection advances the story, you’re essentially working through an asynchronous, open-world RPG, which balances AR mechanics with narrative dynamics.
That setup requires more user attention than a swipe and grab type game, so Wizards Unite feels more like my experience, rather than a shared experience. Even though you can team up with fellow wizards for things like fortress battles, you don’t really need to, at least as far as I am through the game.
This puts the focus on your personal growth in a much more involved way than the simple drive to be the very best. It also solves one of the biggest challenges facing Wizards Unite as an intellectual property: IP synergy.
In Pokemon Go, the IP synergy was built in. You want to be a trainer like Ash? Boom. Off you go.
Wizards Unite, though, doesn’t emulate its source material; it extends that source material. The game takes place with Harry and others as adults, and the shifts in the wizarding world are part of what you learn as you play.
Is the story considered canon? Will it collapse under its own weight as the gameplay stretches out? Who cares? I still play Pokemon Go occasionally, but the bulk of my EL platform time goes to Wizards Unite. For now, it’s several Butterbeers worth of fun.
Also, the game has convinced my son to read the books, which we now do as a family.
Here’s hoping the fun continues.