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My Money’s On Potter

Justin Webb Posted:
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In this article I’m going to recap some news from a few weeks ago. I’ll then point out some potential misdirection in the press release and hint at what Warner Bros may really be up to. Hint: it’s Harry Potter. Then I’m going to talk about how Hogwarts would make a really good MMO, and give some examples. I’ll be channeling UO throughout. The fact that “it pretty much designs itself” will be mentioned, along with some of the pitfalls that go along with the license. I may then twitter on about “transmedia” a bit, probably as a lead in to next week’s article.

The big news from two weeks ago was that Warner Bros bought Turbine. The accompanying news articles concentrated on the fact that Warner Bros now owns all the Lord of the Rings video-game licenses … finally! There was also some talk about how this would enable WB to seamlessly integrate microtransactions into their other games. While this is all fine and dandy (and ultimately hogwash), I think the press release has some details that are conspicuous by their absence, namely no mention of Harry Potter, which is the studio’s most bankable license. With the final Potter film releasing in 2011, Warner has been scrambling to try and prolong the life of its aging cash cow by turning it into an evergreen brand.

Now, whether you personally like the Harry Potter IP or not, there are millions of people out there who definitely do. And they spend a lot of money on their Potter hobby. When the world’s biggest film studio, who owns one of the world’s most profitable licenses and who has only a marginally successful internal video-game division of their own, suddenly buys one of the industry’s few reputable MMO companies (who they have done business with in the past), it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s. On top of the fact that Warner is pushing the Potter license in all kinds of new directions (for example, the upcoming Harry Potter theme park), I’m sure there are some serious Potter-related-MMO discussions happening at “the frog” right now.

Harry Potter is one of those IPs that is particularly amenable to being turned into an MMO … and the type of MMO that the industry has been clamoring for for years. Every English developer I’ve talked to about Potter has said without fail that “it pretty much designs itself doesn’t it?” Now that sounds a bit arrogant out of context, but I will explain. What that statement really means is that the Potter series naturally contains setting elements that immediately provide answers to a lot of the questions that you have to ask when making an MMO. And the answers given result in a game that would play much more like UO than WoW. Virtually every MMO system you might need has an analog already described in the IP. As examples:

  • Pupils can be boys or girls and come from all kinds of different social, magical, and economic backgrounds. Sounds like a robust human-centric character creation system to me.
  • Pupils are distributed loosely into Houses upon their arrival at Hogwart’s. Consider this as a basic class system, where each house bestows pupils with slightly different characteristics (kind of like racials in WoW).
  • Pupils progress through each year (grade) by attending lessons (classes). Pupils, once they are old enough, get to decide what lessons they take (within reason). No need for levels. Instead players complete each year by accumulating a certain amount of lesson credits. Completing a lesson gives that player +1 in that lesson’s skill. Each player graduates from each year with the same amount of skill points. When a player goes up a year, they get taller.
  • Each lesson corresponds to something pupils need in later wizarding life. Lessons = skills. Want to learn how to make potions, take some Potion Making lessons. Some lessons could be completed by getting a certain score in a mini-game; some by completing an instance (or a combination of both). Regardless, when you complete a lesson you get a skill-up.
  • Along the way, pupils learn how to do spells. Spells = abilities.
  • Hogwarts can be a place of danger, with lots of lessons to learn, places to explore, secret passages to discover, and hidden rooms full of peril and ancient artifacts to uncover. Each lesson is its own mini-game/quest/instance. Players can also explore Hogwart’s to find extra stuff.
  • Hogwarts is also a social hub, where pupils attend class and socialize. It’s a “city” containing all the social functionality of the game. It also doesn’t hurt that players have to hang out with each other between classes/lessons.
  • There are pets. Players get an owl and a familiar. Pets are customizable. Familiar pets modify certain skills and abilities.
  • There is mail. You use your owl.
  • There are items. Each player needs a wand. Each wand is unique – it can modify certain abilities (kind of like LoTRO’s legendary weapons). There are also special items to be found (for example, invisibility cloaks, magic maps, etc.).
  • There are shops … where you get your wand from, and also other fun stuff like sweets, butterbeer, practical jokes, every-flavor beans, wizarding cards, etc.
  • There is a bank. Where players do their … er … banking. An MMO staple. Bonus: it’s run by goblins.
  • Pupils collect things. Wizard Cards (with chocolate frog) sound like a great thing to turn into a TCG metagame – SOE has been very successful at this. Collecting every flavor of every-flavor bean might be fun too.
  • There is a built-in sport. Allow players to form teams and let them play Quidditch matches (kind of like WoW’s Arena League).
  • There is an epic storyline permeating the setting. Allow players to help out Harry Potter through his heroic journey (kind of like they do in LoTRO).
  • It’s all about teamwork. Harry overcomes adversity, but only through the help of his friends. Harder challenges require groups.

As you can see from the bare-bone examples above, the Harry Potter setting lends itself to an UO-like (skill-based, level-less) MMO without the need for much design heavy lifting. If the fit is so good, why hasn’t it been done already?

It kinda has. EA, SOE, and Turbine have all worked on prototypes for a Harry Potter MMO in the past as proofs of concept. The fact that none of those companies managed to finalize a deal after completing significant amounts of work says something. It can’t be that it’s too difficult – the examples above show that (design-wise) Potter is a relatively easy IP to work with. My hunch is that it comes down to money and/or artistic vision. Money, in that the owner(s) of the IP want too much; and vision, in that the stakeholder(s) of the IP are very uncomfortable having things that are not explicitly mentioned in the books happening in a game. Given the potential revenues at stake over such a deal, I’m guessing the latter.

The Potter license does come with problems though. The setting is arguably very juvenile. Players pretty much have to play as children, with all the accompanying weirdness that that implies. Is the market that adores Harry Potter also one that has access to a PC (or console) and a credit card … and does that market want to play an MMO? Possibly not.

What is especially important, however, is the speed at which a Harry Potter MMO could be completed. The final “golden window” would appear to be at around the time of the launch of the final movie (2011). That’s less than 18 months ... tops. That alone might be the nail in the coffin … unless the theme park is a massive hit; other licensed products (like LEGO Harry Potter) become mega successful; or if J.K. has another book up her sleeve. Pummeling the IP with a sufficient amount of transmedia (instead of just merchandising) could turn Potter into an evergreen brand – one that is not dependent on an annual book or novel to keep it alive (it worked for Disney) – in which case, coordinating a simultaneous movie/MMO release becomes less important. Maybe Turbine (or Warner themselves) has enough prep work already done to shave off a year or so of production. If this ends up being the case, and the Harry Potter phenomenon continues to have legs, then a Hogwarts MMO could be very successful indeed.


Justin Webb