niantic

‘Harry Potter: Wizards Unite’ reaches 400K downloads, $300K in consumer spend in UK and US

Posted by | App Annie, Apps, games, Gaming, harry potter, harry potter wizards unite, Mobile, niantic, sensor tower | No Comments

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, the highly anticipated new mobile game from Pokémon GO makers Niantic and Warner Brothers’ games division, is off to a good start, but it’s not breaking Pokémon GO records. According to preliminary estimates from Sensor Tower, the new game has been installed some 400,000 times in its first 24 hours in its launch markets of the U.S. and U.K. — where the game arrived ahead of schedule on Thursday. Gross player spending in these markets hit around $300,000 across both iOS and Android during this time.

This is not the full picture, however.

The game was also available in Australia and New Zealand during a pre-launch beta trial of sorts, and is only now rolling out to worldwide users on a country-by-country basis. During its beta test period, Sensor Tower estimates the game grossed around $80,000.

But in the same number of days, Pokémon GO grossed $1.6 million in those two markets.

Following its U.S. launch, it took Harry Potter: Wizards Unite around 15 hours to reach the No.1 position on the iOS App Store. This ascension is also going a bit slower than Pokémon GO did when it arrived. That game was an immediate hit, debuting at No. 1 on its launch day of July 6, 2016. It was then installed 7.5 million times in the U.S. during its first 24 hours. And it didn’t reach the U.K. until seven days later.

In its first 24 hours, Pokémon GO became the No. 1 app by revenue in the U.S., as well. The new Harry Potter title is ranked No. 102 overall for iPhone revenue and No. 62 among top grossing games, Sensor Tower says. It’s also No. 48 for U.K. revenue. (It’s not yet ranked on Google Play.)

App Annie hasn’t yet put out numbers related to Harry Potter: Wizards Unite’s revenue, but the company tells us it hit No. 1 in the U.S. for downloads as of 12 AM on June 21, 2019. And for consumer spending, App Annie says the game broke into the top 100 grossing games by hitting No. 63 as of 7:00 AM June 21 on iPhone in the U.S.

The new game’s lesser demand compared with Pokémon GO could be attributed to a number of factors. Pokémon GO was hugely anticipated, had a massive fan base ready to download and was one of the first compelling use cases of AR in gaming.

Harry Potter’s fan base is active as well, but they’ve also had other games to play before now.

For example, Jam City has a Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery game that’s been getting a huge boost since yesterday’s news of the new Niantic title. That points to a case of mistaken identity or perhaps clever App Store SEO… or both.

It’s also worth noting the App Store itself has changed in the years since Pokémon GO’s launch.

In September 2017, Apple introduced its brand-new App Store that took the emphasis off its Top Charts as a means of discovery, and instead features apps in editorial “stories” on its Today tab. Within the dedicated apps and games section, the revamped App Store points users to editorial collections, with Top Charts only found upon scrolling down the page quite a bit.

We’ve heard from some developers that these changes reduced their downloads, as getting into the Top Charts doesn’t drive numbers like it used to. They said getting into the Today tab’s feature editorial doesn’t send as many installs, either. But this is all anecdotal — and of course, Apple doesn’t talk about numbers like this. Further investigation is needed.

In any event, the two app store intelligence firms — App Annie and Sensor Tower — both predict big numbers for the new Harry Potter title over time.

Sensor Tower estimates the game will pull in $400 million to $500 million in revenue in its first year. However, the firm notes that Harry Potter isn’t as popular in Asia — a market that delivers Pokémon GO over 40% of its revenue.

App Annie, meanwhile, predicts the game will hit $100 million in consumer spend in its first 30 days. (Pokémon GO hit this milestone in two weeks.)

“Pokémon GO shattered mobile gaming records, clearing $100 million in its first two weeks and becoming the fastest game to reach $1 billion in consumer spend,” noted App Annie. “While we don’t expect it to surpass Pokémon GO’s launch, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is set to clear $100 million in its first 30 days — which is no small feat.”

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A chat with Niantic CEO John Hanke on the launch of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Gaming, Google, harry potter wizards unite, ingress, interview transcript, john hanke, Media, Mobile, mobile gaming, niantic, Personnel, pokemon, Pokémon Go, Social, Startups, Talent, TC, universal studios, Virtual reality | No Comments

Just shy of three years ago, Pokémon GO took over the world. Players filled the sidewalks, and crowds of trainers flooded parks and landmarks. Anywhere you looked, people were throwing Pokéballs and chasing Snorlax.

As the game grew, so did the company behind it. Niantic had started its life as an experimental “lab” within Google — an effort on Google’s part to keep the team’s founder, John Hanke, from parting ways to start his own thing. In the months surrounding GO’s launch, Niantic’s team shrank dramatically, spun out of Google, and then rapidly expanded… all while trying to keep GO’s servers from buckling under demand and to keep this massive influx of players happy. Want to know more about the company’s story so far? Check out the Niantic EC-1 on ExtraCrunch here.

Now Niantic is back with its next title, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Built in collaboration with WB Games, it’s a reimagining of Pokémon GO’s real-world, location-based gaming concept through the lens of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter universe.

I got a chance to catch up with John Hanke for a few minutes earlier this week — just ahead of the game’s US/UK launch this morning. We talked about how they prepared for this game’s launch, how it’s built upon a platform they’ve been developing across their other titles for years, and how Niantic’s partnership with WB Games works creatively and financially.

Greg Kumparak: Can you tell me a bit about how all this came to be?

John Hanke: Yeah, you know.. we did Ingress first, and we were thinking about other projects we could build. Pokémon was one that came up early, so we jumped on that — but the other one that was always there from the beginning, of the projects we wanted to do, was Harry Potter. I mean, it’s universally beloved. My kids love the books and movies, so it’s something I always wanted to do.

Like Pokémon, it was an IP we felt was a great fit for [augmented reality]. That line between the “muggle” world and the “magic” world was paper thin in the fiction, so imagining breaking through that fourth wall and experiencing that magic through AR seemed like a great way to use the technology to fulfill an awesome fan fantasy.

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Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is now available in the US and UK, one day earlier than promised

Posted by | Gaming, HPWU, niantic, Pokémon Go, TC, wb games | No Comments

Earlier this week, Niantic announced that Harry Potter: Wizards Unite — the company’s Potter-themed followup to Pokémon GO — would start rolling out to the world on June 21st.

Looks like they decided to get the ball rolling a bit early, though. The game just went live on the iOS and Android app stores in the U.S. and U.K., one day earlier than advertised. Wands at the ready!

As expected (and as with Pokémon GO), the launch is being rolled out on a country-by-country basis, rather than going live for the entire world all at once. It has spent the last few weeks in a kinda-sorta beta phase, available in Australia and New Zealand to those who didn’t mind dealing with some pre-launch bugs. Today it rolled out to the U.S./U.K., and it’ll open up to more countries as Niantic determines its servers are up for it.

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Harry Potter: Wizards Unite will launch on June 21st

Posted by | Gaming, harry potter, niantic, TC, wb games, wizards unite | No Comments

After a year of teasing out Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, Niantic (the company behind Pokémon GO) and WB Games have at long last announced an official release date for the game: June 21st.

The news came this evening at a press event held just outside of Universal Studios’ Wizarding World (where else?). Though details were light, Niantic also confirmed plans to hold events similar to its Pokémon GO Fests for this new Potter title.

The game first rolled out in a limited “beta” phase in early May, available only in Australia and New Zealand. I asked if the June 21st date was for a worldwide release, and was told that June 21st marks the beginning of a wider country-by-country rollout, with the U.S. and U.K. getting access first.

Curious as to what Niantic’s Potter-themed follow-up to Pokémon GO is like? We went hands-on with an early build about three months ago, and you can find our impressions here.

Update: The launch trailer just dropped (embedded below) and sure enough, the video description confirms that it’ll arrive in the U.S. and U.K. first.

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Pokémon GO will soon use sleep data to ‘reward good sleep habits’

Posted by | Gaming, niantic, pokemon, Pokémon Go, TC | No Comments

Well, here’s a bit of surprise news this evening: At some point in the future, Pokémon GO is going to wrap the player’s sleep habits into the gameplay.

It’ll come as part of a wider initiative by The Pokémon Company to — as CEO Tsunekazu Ishihara put it in a press conference this evening — “turn sleep into entertainment.” Which… well, we’ll see how that goes.

Niantic CEO John Hanke took the stage at the press conference for a moment, but didn’t really offer much in the way of details. Said Hanke:

Niantic pioneered a new kind of gaming by turning the whole world into a gameboard, where we can all play and explore. By creating a new way to see the world and an incentive to go outside and exercise, we hoped to encourage a healthy lifestyle and to make a positive impact on our players and on the world. We’re delighted to be working with The Pokémon Company on their efforts to encourage another part of a healthy lifestyle: getting a good night’s rest.

At Niantic, we love exploring the world on foot. And that can’t happen unless we have the energy to embark on these adventures. We’re excited to find ways to reward good sleep habits in Pokémon GO as part of a healthy lifestyle. You’ll be hearing more from us on this in the future.

Ishihara also announced that The Pokémon Company is working with SELECT BUTTON (the company behind the 2017 mobile title Magikarp Jump) to make a separate game called Pokémon SLEEP. Next to no details on that one yet, though, besides a launch window of sometime in 2020 and the logo:

All of it will tap a just-announced device called Pokémon GO+ Plus (Yeah. Two plusses, one written. Go Plus Plus.) It’s a follow-up to the original GO+, which was built primarily to let you play Pokémon GO without actually looking at your phone’s screen. The GO Plus Plus will do everything the GO+ did (letting you tap a button to spin Pokéstops, or catch nearby Pokémon) but also has a built-in accelerometer allowing it to be laid on your bed to track sleep habits and send ’em back to your phone via Bluetooth.

And here’s a screenshot of a video that played alongside the announcement, showing the device as it’s meant to be used:

 

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Minecraft Earth makes the whole real world your very own blocky realm

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Gadgets, Gaming, Microsoft, Minecraft, Mobile, niantic, TC | No Comments

When your game tops 100 million players, your thoughts naturally turn to doubling that number. That’s the case with the creators, or rather stewards, of Minecraft at Microsoft, where the game has become a product category unto itself. And now it is making its biggest leap yet — to a real-world augmented reality game in the vein of Pokémon GO, called Minecraft Earth.

Announced today but not playable until summer (on iOS and Android) or later, MCE (as I’ll call it) is full-on Minecraft, reimagined to be mobile and AR-first. So what is it? As executive producer Jesse Merriam put it succinctly: “Everywhere you go, you see Minecraft. And everywhere you go, you can play Minecraft.”

Yes, yes — but what is it? Less succinctly put, MCE is like other real-world-based AR games in that it lets you travel around a virtual version of your area, collecting items and participating in mini-games. Where it’s unlike other such games is that it’s built on top of Minecraft: Bedrock Edition, meaning it’s not some offshoot or mobile cash-in; this is straight-up Minecraft, with all the blocks, monsters and redstone switches you desire, but in AR format. You collect stuff so you can build with it and share your tiny, blocky worlds with friends.

That introduces some fun opportunities and a few non-trivial limitations. Let’s run down what MCE looks like — verbally, at least, as Microsoft is being exceedingly stingy with real in-game assets.

There’s a map, of course

Because it’s Minecraft Earth, you’ll inhabit a special Minecraftified version of the real world, just as Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite put a layer atop existing streets and landmarks.

The look is blocky to be sure, but not so far off the normal look that you won’t recognize it. It uses OpenStreetMaps data, including annotated and inferred information about districts, private property, safe and unsafe places and so on — which will be important later.

The fantasy map is filled with things to tap on, unsurprisingly called tappables. These can be a number of things: resources in the form of treasure chests, mobs and adventures.

Chests are filled with blocks, naturally, adding to your reserves of cobblestone, brick and so on, all the different varieties appearing with appropriate rarity.

A pig from Minecraft showing in the real world via augmented reality.Mobs are animals like those you might normally run across in the Minecraft wilderness: pigs, chickens, squid and so on. You snag them like items, and they too have rarities, and not just cosmetic ones. The team highlighted a favorite of theirs, the muddy pig, which when placed down will stop at nothing to get to mud and never wants to leave, or a cave chicken that lays mushrooms instead of eggs. Yes, you can breed them.

Last are adventures, which are tiny AR instances that let you collect a resource, fight some monsters and so on. For example you might find a crack in the ground that, when mined, vomits forth a volume of lava you’ll have to get away from, and then inside the resulting cave are some skeletons guarding a treasure chest. The team said they’re designing a huge number of these encounters.

Importantly, all these things — chests, mobs and encounters — are shared between friends. If I see a chest, you see a chest — and the chest will have the same items. And in an AR encounter, all nearby players are brought in, and can contribute and collect the reward in shared fashion.

And it’s in these AR experiences and the “build plates” you’re doing it all for that the game really shines.

The AR part

“If you want to play Minecraft Earth without AR, you have to turn it off,” said Torfi Olafsson, the game’s director. This is not AR-optional, as with Niantic’s games. This is AR-native, and for good and ill the only way you can really play is by using your phone as a window into another world. Fortunately it works really well.

First, though, let me explain the whole build plate thing. You may have been wondering how these collectibles and mini-games amount to Minecraft. They don’t — they’re just the raw materials for it.

Whenever you feel like it, you can bring out what the team calls a build plate, which is a special item, a flat square that you virtually put down somewhere in the real world — on a surface like the table or floor, for instance — and it transforms into a small, but totally functional, Minecraft world.

In this little world you can build whatever you want, or dig into the ground, build an inverted palace for your cave chickens or create a paradise for your mud-loving pigs — whatever you want. Like Minecraft itself, each build plate is completely open-ended. Well, perhaps that’s the wrong phrase — they’re actually quite closely bounded, as the world only exists out to the edge of the plate. But they’re certainly yours to play with however you want.

Notably all the usual Minecraft rules are present — this isn’t Minecraft Lite, just a small game world. Water and lava flow how they should, blocks have all the qualities they should and mobs all act as they normally would.

The magic part comes when you find that you can instantly convert your build plate from miniature to life-size. Now the castle you’ve been building on the table is three stories tall in the park. Your pigs regard you silently as you walk through the halls and admire the care and attention to detail with which you no doubt assembled them. It really is a trip.

It doesn’t really look like this but, you get the idea

In the demo, I played with a few other members of the press; we got to experience a couple of build plates and adventures at life-size (technically actually 3/4 life size — the 1 block to 1 meter scale turned out to be a little daunting in testing). It was absolute chaos, really, everyone placing blocks and destroying them and flooding the area and putting down chickens. But it totally worked.

The system uses Microsoft’s new Azure Spatial Anchor system, which quickly and continuously fixed our locations in virtual space. It updated remarkably quickly, with no lag, showing the location and orientation of the other players in real time. Meanwhile the game world itself was rock-solid in space, smooth to enter and explore, and rarely bugging out (and that only in understandable circumstances). That’s great news considering how heavily the game leans on the multiplayer experience.

The team said they’d tested up to 10 players at once in an AR instance, and while there’s technically no limit, there’s sort of a physical limit in how many people can fit in the small space allocated to an adventure or around a tabletop. Don’t expect any giant 64-player raids, but do expect to take down hordes of spiders with three or four friends.

Pick(ax)ing their battles

In choosing to make the game the way they’ve made it, the team naturally created certain limitations and risks. You Wouldn’t want, for example, an adventure icon to pop up in the middle of the highway.

For exactly that reason the team spent a lot of work making the map metadata extremely robust. Adventures won’t spawn in areas like private residences or yards, though of course simple collectibles might. But because you’re able to reach things up to 70 meters away, it’s unlikely you’ll have to knock on someone’s door and say there’s a cave chicken in their pool and you’d like to touch it, please.

Furthermore adventures will not spawn in areas like streets or difficult to reach areas. The team said they worked very hard making it possible for the engine to recognize places that are not only publicly accessible, but safe and easy to access. Think sidewalks and parks.

Another limitation is that, as an AR game, you move around the real world. But in Minecraft, verticality is an important part of the gameplay. Unfortunately, the simple truth is that in the real world you can’t climb virtual stairs or descend into a virtual cave. You as a player exist on a 2D plane, and can interact with but not visit places above and below that plane. (An exception of course is on a build plate, where in miniature you can fly around it freely by moving your phone.)

That’s a shame for people who can’t move around easily, though you can pick up and rotate the build plate to access different sides. Weapons and tools also have infinite range, eliminating a potential barrier to fun and accessibility.

What will keep people playing?

In Pokémon GO, there’s the drive to catch ’em all. In Wizards Unite, you’ll want to advance the story and your skills. What’s the draw with Minecraft Earth? Well, what’s the draw in Minecraft? You can build stuff. And now you can build stuff in AR on your phone.

The game isn’t narrative-driven, and although there is some (unspecified) character progression, for the most part the focus is on just having fun doing and making stuff in Minecraft. Like a set of LEGO blocks, a build plate and your persistent inventory simply make for a lively sandbox.

Admittedly that doesn’t sound like it carries the same addictive draw of Pokémon, but the truth is Minecraft kind of breaks the rules like that. Millions of people play this game all the time just to make stuff and show that stuff to other people. Although you’ll be limited in how you can share to start, there will surely be ways to explore popular builds in the future.

And how will it make money? The team basically punted on that question — they’re fortunately in a position where they don’t have to worry about that yet. Minecraft is one of the biggest games of all time and a big money-maker — it’s probably worth the cost just to keep people engaged with the world and community.

MCE seems to me like a delightful thing, but one that must be appreciated on its own merits. A lack of screenshots and gameplay video isn’t doing a lot to help you here, I admit. Trust me when I say it looks great, plays well and seems fundamentally like a good time for all ages.

A few other stray facts I picked up:

  • Regions will roll out gradually, but it will be available in all the same languages as Vanilla at launch
  • Yes, there will be skins (and they’ll carry over from your existing account)
  • There will be different sizes and types of build plates
  • There’s crafting, but no 3×3 crafting grid (?!)
  • You can report griefers and so on, but the way the game is structured it shouldn’t be an issue
  • The AR engine creates and uses a point cloud but doesn’t, like, take pictures of your bedroom
  • Content is added to the map dynamically, and there will be hot spots but emptier areas will fill up if you’re there
  • It leverages AR Core and AR Kit, naturally
  • The HoloLens version of Minecraft we saw a while back is a predecessor “more spiritually than technically”
  • Adventures that could be scary to kids have a special sign
  • “Friends” can steal blocks from your build plate if you’re playing together (or donate them)

Sound fun? Sign up for the beta here.

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Nine lessons on how Niantic reached a $4B valuation

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, best practices, Customer Service, EC-1, Gaming, harry potter, harry potter wizards unite, john hanke, Mobile, niantic, Phil Keslin, pokemon, Pokémon Go, product, scaling, social networks, Startups, TC, user growth, Virtual reality | No Comments

We’ve captured much of Niantic’s ongoing story in the first three parts of our EC-1, from its beginnings as an “entrepreneurial lab” within Google, to its spin-out as an independent company and the launch of Pokémon GO, to its ongoing focus on becoming a platform for others to build augmented reality products upon.

It’s not an origin story that serves as an easily replicable blueprint — but if we zoom out a bit, what’s to be learned?

A few key themes stuck with me as I researched Niantic’s story so far. Some of them – like the challenges involved with moving millions of users around the real world – are unique to this new augmented reality that Niantic is helping to create. Others – like that scaling is damned hard – are well-understood startup norms, but interesting to see from the perspective of an experienced team dealing with a product launch that went from zero to 100 real quick.

The reading time for this article is 21 minutes (5,125 words).

Build on top of what works best

Everything Niantic has built so far is an evolution of what the team had built before it. Each major step on Niantic’s path has a clear footprint that precedes it; a chunk of DNA that proved advantageous, and is carried along into the next thing.

Looking back, it’s a cycle we can see play out on repeat: build a thing, identify what works about it, trim the extra bits, then build a new thing from that foundation.

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Harry Potter, the Platform, and the Future of Niantic

Posted by | Apps, AR, augmented reality, DigiLens, EC-1, Escher Reality, Gaming, geolocation, harry potter, harry potter wizards unite, john hanke, matrix mill, Mobile, niantic, Phil Keslin, Pokémon Go, Startups, TC, Virtual reality, VR | No Comments

What is Niantic? If they recognize the name, most people would rightly tell you it’s a company that makes mobile games, like Pokémon GO, or Ingress, or Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

But no one at Niantic really seems to box it up as a mobile gaming company. Making these games is a big part of what the company does, yes, but the games are part of a bigger picture: they are a springboard, a place to figure out the constraints of what they can do with augmented reality today, and to figure out how to build the tech that moves it forward. Niantic wants to wrap their learnings back into a platform upon which others can build their own AR products, be it games or something else. And they want to be ready for whatever comes after smartphones.

Niantic is a bet on augmented reality becoming more and more a part of our lives; when that happens, they want to be the company that powers it.

This is Part 3 of our EC-1 series on Niantic, looking at its past, present, and potential future. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here. The reading time for this article is 24 minutes (6,050 words)

The platform play

After the absurd launch of Pokémon GO, everyone wanted a piece of the AR pie. Niantic got more pitches than they could take on, I’m told, as rights holders big and small reached out to see if the company might build something with their IP or franchise.

But Niantic couldn’t build it all. From art, to audio, to even just thinking up new gameplay mechanics, each game or project they took on would require a mountain of resources. What if they focused on letting these other companies build these sorts of things themselves?

That’s the idea behind Niantic’s Real World Platform. This platform is a key part of Niantic’s game plan moving forward, with the company having as many people working on the platform as it has on its marquee money maker, Pokémon GO.

There are tons of pieces that go into making things like GO or Ingress, and Niantic has spent the better part of the last decade figuring out how to make them all fit together. They’ve built the core engine that powers the games and, after a bumpy start with Pokémon GO’s launch, figured out how to scale it to hundreds of millions of users around the world. They’ve put considerable work into figuring out how to detect cheaters and spoofers and give them the boot. They’ve built a social layer, with systems like friendships and trade. They’ve already amassed that real-world location data that proved so challenging back when it was building Field Trip, with all of those real-world points of interest that now serve as portals and Pokéstops.

Niantic could help other companies with real-world events, too. That might seem funny after the mess that was the first Pokémon GO Fest (as detailed in Part II). But Niantic turned around, went back to the same city the next year, and pulled it off. That experience — that battle-testing — is valuable. Meanwhile, the company has pulled off countless huge Ingress events, and a number of Pokémon GO side events calledSafari Zones.” CTO Phil Keslin confirmed to me that event management is planned as part of the platform offering.

As Niantic builds new tech — like, say, more advanced AR or faster ways to sync AR experiences between devices — it’ll all get rolled into the platform. With each problem they solve, the platform offering would grow.

But first they need to prove that there’s a platform to stand on.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Niantic’s platform, as it exists today, is the result of years of building their own games. It’s the collection of tools they’ve built and rebuilt along the way, and that already powers Ingress Prime and Pokémon GO. But to prove itself as a platform company, Niantic needs to show that they can do it again. That they can take these engines, these tools, and, working with another team, use them for something new.

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The definitive Niantic reading guide

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Book Review, Cloud, Collaborative Consumption, Developer, EC-1, funding, Gaming, Google, google cloud, harry potter, ingress, john hanke, mobile gaming, niantic, Niantic Labs, Pokémon Go, reading guide, Social, Startups, TC, Venture Capital, Virtual reality | No Comments

In just a few years, Niantic has evolved from internal side project into an independent industry trailblazer. Having reached tremendous scale in such a short period of time, Niantic acts as a poignant crash course for founders and company builders. As our EC-1 deep-dive into the company shows, lessons from the team’s experience building the Niantic’s product offering remain just as fresh as painful flashbacks to the problems encountered along the way.

As we did for our Patreon EC-1, we’ve poured through every analysis we could find on Niantic and have compiled a supplemental list of resources and readings that are particularly useful for getting up to speed on the company.

Reading time for this article is about 9.5 minutes. It is part of the Extra Crunch EC-1 on Niantic. Feature illustration by Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch.

I. Background: The Story of Niantic

Google-Incubated Niantic, Maker of Ingress, Stepping Out on Its Own | August 2015 | In August of 2015, Niantic announced that it would spin out from Google and become an independent company. As discussed in WSJ’s coverage of the news, Niantic looked at the spin out as a way to accelerate growth and collaborate with the broader entertainment ecosystem.

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Niantic’s Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is a sorcerous smorgasbord for the Pokémon GO generation

Posted by | augmented reality, Gadgets, Gaming, harry potter, harry potter wizards unite, Mobile, niantic, TC, Warner Bros, warner brothers, wizards unite | No Comments

Niantic’s follow-up to the absurdly popular Pokémon GO, the long-awaited Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, has one major drawback: unlike its predecessor, you can’t explain it in a single sentence. There’s so much to do in this game that it may repel some casual players — but while its depths of systems and collectibles may be nigh endless, don’t worry: you still basically just walk around doing wizard and witch stuff.

We first reported the news that this was coming back in 2017. Last week I got to spend a short time playing the game at Niantic’s office in San Francisco, and while they didn’t reveal all their secrets, I saw enough to convince me that HP:WU (I await a catchier nickname, like PoGO) will be a huge time sink for any Harry Potter fan and will probably convert or cannibalize many players from GO.

If you were worried this would be a slapdash cash-in effort like some of the HP tie-ins we’ve seen… don’t be. This is legit. Rowling isn’t involved, and the voice actors are sound-alikes, but still legit.

And just to get some of the major facts out of the way before we move on: it’s coming out sometime in 2019 (I’d guess before Summer but they wouldn’t say), in 17 languages (listed at bottom; actual countries where it’ll be offered unknown), there’s no wand accessory yet (I asked and they all looked nervous), minimum specs are reasonable and AR is optional, and it’s free but there are in-app purchases.

So what is this game? While it would be misleading to say it’s just HP:GO, the similarities are deep. But there’s a lot more going on. Perhaps I’d best summarize it in bullet point form before I embark on the many details. In HP:WU you:

  • Walk around a wizarding-themed version of the real world looking for locations at which to resupply and “foundables” to encounter
  • Dispel, battle, or otherwise deal with the “confoundable” associated with these
  • Earn reward items from encounters and for entering foundables in your registry
  • Use reward items to level up in various professions, brew potions, and battle alongside others at “fortresses”
  • Find rare foundables that advance the overall plot of why this is all happening anyway

So let’s take that piece by piece.

(By the way: The few images I have here were provided by Niantic and Portkey Games, the studio under WB Games who co-developed the game; I actually saw much more than what the shots show, so if something I describe isn’t illustrated directly, don’t worry — it’s in there.)

Walkable Wizarding World

Yes, this was the only image of the map we got.

“For Harry Potter fans, the line between the real world and the wizarding world is paper thin,” said WB Games’s Jonathan Knight. So they wanted to make it seem like, as with the pervasive hidden nooks and secrets of the HP world, “magic is all around you.”

The plot that enables all this is that, in a post-Deathly Hallows HP world, a macguffin event has caused magical items and creatures to appear all over the muggle world, threatening to expose the existence of magic; Witches and wizards are being recruited to track these things down and deal with them.

Conveniently, the event snatched these things and people from all throughout history and the world, laying them down willy-nilly — so you’re just as likely to find Fleur Delacoeur as Hermione Granger, or a young Dumbledore as an old one.

As a member of the SOS squad (enforcing the “Statute Of Secrecy” mandating separation between the magic and muggle worlds, you know), you’re tasked with tracking down these various things wherever they appear and reporting back to the ministry.

The map is, like in Pokémon GO, where you’ll be spending most of your time.

As before, it reflects the streets and features nearby: streets, parks, landmarks, and so on. It’s decidedly busier this time, however, both with gameplay elements and set dressing. Brooms and owls zip overhead, potion ingredients clutter the ground around you, and locations to visit sprinkle every block. (Although I’d hoped they’d use the Marauder’s Map aesthetic, they were probably right not to: it would probably get old fast.)

You interact with these locations as you would spin Pokéstops in GO, with “inns” and “greenhouses” giving you a semi-randomized reward every time (and starting a 5-minute cooldown). Encounters and ingredients pop up like Pokémon did, appearing semi-randomly but with some tendencies or affinities — for example, you’re more likely to find school-related foundables by actual schools, and so on. These places are helpfully noted by a little flag that highlights the affected area, such as: “Golden Gate Park – you’ll encounter more magical creatures here.”

The equivalent to lures are “dark detectors,” which will cause encounters to pop up with more frequency around the location you attach it to — and you can stack them! These will no doubt be a popular purchase.

One nice touch: when you move quickly, your character flies on a broom. No more “running” along the highway. That always did bug me.

Of course you’ll also be able to customize your appearance, and you even get to make a (non-public) “wizarding passport” complete with a moving photo you can outfit with various AR props. Your Hogwarts house is just something you select and which has no gameplay effect — for now.

Swish and flick

When you tap an encounter, you enter an AR minigame where you may, for instance, have to cast a spell to free Buckbeak the gryphon from a magical ball and chain, or defeat a monster threatening a character from the books.

You do this generally by tracing a shape with your finger on the screen to cast a spell. You don’t get to choose the spell, unfortunately, it’s built into the encounter. The more accurate and quick your trace is, the better the power of the spell — a bit like throw quality in Pokémon.

It’s similar in combat except you’ll also have to quickly cast protego when the enemy attacks you. That’s right, there are hostiles in this game! And although you can’t “die,” running out of stamina will fail the encounter or mission. More combat options open up later, though, as you’ll see. Encounters also vary in difficulty, which can be determined from the map or within the encounter — you may find some foes or rescues are beyond your power until you pump up a bit (or quaff a potion).

There are other little twists on the formula, though — the team said they have over 100 unique encounters, all fully realized in AR. And although you can only interact with them from a sweet spot that appears on the ground in AR, you can take your time to walk around or closely inspect the scene.

Foundables and confoundables and the other 20 things

There are a ton of these little pages.

Everything you’ll encounter is a foundable, and falls under one of numerous categories: magic zoology, dark arts, oddities, magical games and sports, Hogwarts, and so on.

And every foundable is listed in a sort of sticker book you’ll fill in bit by bit as you encounter them. Free Buckbeak however many times and it’ll be fully filled in, giving you various bonuses and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to take AR photos with the creature or character in question.

The creatures and characters range from common to very rare, of course, and you’ll need to get dozens of the former to fill in the book, but only one or a handful for certain plot-related items. They only shared the bare bones of the story, which will be revealed through in-game text and events, but a “deep, multi-year narrative arc” is promised. You can probably expect new foundables and ingredients and such to be added regularly.

One detail I found highly compelling was that weather, time of day, and even astral phenomena like moon phase will affect what you encounter. So for instance, werewolves may only come out on the full moon, while certain potion ingredients only appear (or appear more) when it’s raining, or in the evening. This kind of real-world involvement is something I’ve always appreciated and one that Niantic’s games are uniquely suited to take advantage of.

Potions will be necessary for healing and buffing yourself and others, so you’ll want to collect ingredients all the time; you mix them in a sub-screen, and can follow recipes or try your luck making something new.

One very cool thing they showed off that doesn’t really show well in images is a Portkey — you know, the objects in HP that transport you from here to there. It’s not exactly a canon treatment in the game, as they create portals instead, but it makes for a great AR experience. You put the portal down and literally step through it, then look around at a new scene (for instance, Ollivander’s shop or Dumbledore’s office) in which you can find items or presumably encounter monsters and other stuff. Portkey “Portmanteaus” are a bit like egg incubators in that you charge them up by walking, and can find or buy more powerful ones.

Min-maxing managed

What perhaps surprised me most in the team’s presentation of the various systems of the game was the extent of the stats and professions. There are three “professions,” they explained: auror, magical zoologist, and professor (“if you’re a bit of a goody-goody” — I resent that).

I figured these would be a bit like a play style bonus — one gives you more combat prowess, another is better for taming creatures, and so on. Boy, is there a lot more to it than that!

First of all, you should know that you have stats in this game. And not weird hidden ones or a relatively meaningless one like your trainer level in Pokémon GO. No, you have a straight-up stat screen filled with all kinds of stuff.

And your profession isn’t just a bonus or special ability — it’s a whole skill tree, and one to rival those of many a “serious” RPG.

As in many other games, some nodes are simple things like an increase in stamina or spell power — some you can even upgrade several times to increase the effect. But others are entirely new abilities you’ll be able to use in various circumstances. I probed through a bunch in my limited time and found things that, for instance, healed allies, debuffed enemies, improved potion effectiveness, etc. These are definitely going to have a significant effect on gameplay.

You can advance in any of the professions you want, however you want, though of course the further you progress down a tree, the more powerful abilities you unlock. You do this with tokens you earn from encounters, leveling, and challenges, so you get a steady trickle. It should take a good while to fill these out, though no doubt we’ll have some real tiresome types who’ll do it in a week.

Fortress of Jollitude

(It’s a portmanteau of solitude and jolly cooperation, because this is the teamplay part… let me have my fun.)

The last major aspect of the game is Fortresses. These are a bit like Gyms from Pokémon GO, in that they are multiplayer focused, but for now they’re strictly player vs enemy.

Fortresses are large, obvious locations on the map where you and up to four other players can join battle against a host of enemies in order to receive rare foundables and other rewards. How it works is that you and whoever else wants to play get within range of the Fortress and tap it. (They didn’t provide any images of one, inside or out, but you can see the roof of one just at the top left of the paw circle in the map image above.)

You’ll then have a chance to join up with others by presenting a special item called a runestone. You’ll be getting these from normal encounters now and then or a few other sources, and there are 10 different kinds with multiple rarities — and depending on which you use, or which combination your team presents, the Fortress will have any of a variety of challenges and encounter types. (I only saw combat.)

This is where the combat complexity comes in, because all the enemies are presented to all the players at once, and you can take on whichever you choose. Have you leveled your magical creature taming? You better take on that hippogriff. Do extra damage against human foes? You’re on Death Eater duty. Stocked up on spells that hinder opponents or heal allies? You can use them from the select screen in real time, for instance if your friend is about to be knocked flat by a high-level Dementor and needs a hand.

I only got to test a small amount of this, but the possibilities for actual strategy and team synergy were very exciting, especially compared to the extended slugfests of Pokémon GO raids.

“Your forever Harry Potter game”

That’s how the team described Wizards Unite, and although a small-screen experience will never equal the immersion or magic (so to speak) of the cinema or the richness of the books, this does look like a dandy game and it will certainly be a heck of a time sink for countless players worldwide.

I only got to see a few minutes of the game in person, so there are parts I missed and parts that weren’t being shown; for instance, your Hogwarts house will likely figure later in multiplayer games, and more abilities are on the way.

I worry a bit that the simplicity and casual serendipity that defined Pokémon GO have been abandoned for a level of complexity that may be daunting for some. Yet at the same time I worry that the grind of collecting however many Buckbeaks you need to complete a page of the registry isn’t as satisfying as catching (and grinding up) a dozen Charmanders to power up your favorite ‘mon. And the AR experiences so far exhibit much visual variety but (that I saw) didn’t differ much from one another except in the trace you had to draw.

But there’s a great deal here and a great deal to like. It’s new, it’s fun, and it’s HP. I know I’m going to be playing.

(Lastly, the game will be released in the following languages: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Brazilian and European Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Danish, Turkish, Simplified and Traditional Chinese, Japenese, Korean, and Latin American Spanish.)

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