The Game Archaeologist: Harry Potter Online

If all goes well, later this year we will finally be treated to an actual Harry Potter MMORPG in the form of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. While that will be a mobile ARG in the vein of Pokemon Go, it will still be a big step into the online space that MMO fans have been craving for nearly two decades now.

Obviously, Harry Potter continues to be a mammoth franchise for J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., and Electronic Arts, which has handled the video game license over the years. While there have been single-player Harry Potter titles, especially on consoles, no MMORPG emerged even at the height of the IP craze that swallowed up Star Trek, Star Wars, Warhammer, and more. So why not?

The truth is that Harry Potter Online almost did happen. Its brief existence and development isn’t too well-known, even today, but the wasted potential has always tantalized me with what could have been. Using a time-turner, we will go back to the late 1990s today and peek in on a possible future that came to fruition.

Ultima’s children

Our story here begins with 1997 and the break-out hit of Ultima Online. It was during this year that the pivotal moment happened when the developing MMO genre tapped into a strong IP, a brilliant team of developers, and a fan base that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Defying any scoffing and doubt by the industry (including its own publisher), Ultima Online’s near-instant success caused whiplash as other studios, developers, and publishers realized the revenue potential of large-scale online games.

That same year, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published by a previously unknown British secretary. The young adult book about a boy wizard who attended a school of magic and thwarted the plans of a dark lord took the world by storm, selling millions of copies and kicking off a seven-book series. Warner Bros. began work on a movie series that would start in 2001, and video games became an inevitability.

In the wake of Ultima Online’s popularity, Electronic Arts started pushing many other MMORPG projects through the pipeline. Some of these we have already covered in this space, including Ultima Worlds Online Origin and Wing Commander Online. The mega-publisher then secured the rights (including online rights) to make Harry Potter video games in August 2000, and so it commissioned the development of an MMO based on new, hot franchise.

Origin down

Richard Garriott’s Origin Systems was tapped for this and the other MMOs, but the situation reversed in a heartbeat. Origin and EA did not see eye-to-eye on many details, most of all the potential of MMORPGs. EA had misgivings about these games prior to Ultima Online, then whirled around in support of them when Ultima Online had racked up a quarter-million subscribers, then almost as fast lost faith with the concept and especially the team behind this particular online game.

EA pulled the plug on several of Origin’s projects almost as quickly as they were greenlit. Garriott had already left the studio in 1999 to found his own company and work on Tabula Rasa while Origin was gutted and eventually dissolved by 2004.

The publisher obviously liked using licensed properties to push its products as much as possible, and so Harry Potter — especially at that time — seemed ideal for exploitation. But the loss of faith in MMORPGs led to a very short lifespan for the original project, which was only in development for about a year (perhaps less) before it was canned in 2001.

There is a fascinating post-script to the short-lived development saga of Harry Potter Online, which is that Electronic Arts apparently took another stab at an MMO set in this universe. One of its subsidiary studios, New Pencil, was assigned the task of working on Hogwarts Online a few years later. This project also went nowhere and was canceled by 2005.

A vanishing charm

By now you are probably champing at the bit for information about the actual game, and normally, I would comply. Except that for this column, I cannot.

The fact is that extremely little exists on Harry Potter Online other than confirmation of its existence and cancellation. Concept art and screenshots were never released, interviews were never conducted, and anyone who might have worked on the project has never piped up to talk about it since. Due to the timeline, there might not have been much development at all, considering that the rights were secured in August 2000 and the project canceled by 2001.

Perhaps the time or the IP was simply not right. MUD creator Richard Bartle postulated that a Harry Potter MMO might have struggled due to its premise. “Some mainstream entertainment properties would make poor virtual worlds. The Harry Potter universe, for example doesn’t really allow for more than one Harry Potter in it,” he wrote in his book Designing Virtual Worlds.

We will see how it goes when Harry Potter: Wizards Unite comes out in 2018, and perhaps you may speculate in the comments as to what a 2000-era Harry Potter MMORPG might have looked like.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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13 Comments on "The Game Archaeologist: Harry Potter Online"

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Mewmew
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Mewmew

“Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. While that will be a mobile ARG in the vein of Pokemon Go, it will still be a big step into the online space that MMO fans have been craving for nearly two decades now.”

I have to disagree with you there. A mobile device online ARG is not a step towards what most MMORPG fans have been craving. It has online features but that’s about it. That’s like saying temporal nature and eternal nature are steps in the same direction because they both are of “nature”.

A mobile online ARG just isn’t remotely the same as an MMORPG, they are traveling very far apart on different paths. Getting an online ARG isn’t satisfying to MMORPG cravings as far as I would consider things. It’s practically like craving true self and getting ego. Harumph Good Sir!

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kgptzac

An AR game in the veins of Pokemon Go is by technical definition, an MMO. You can hope for the AR game to succeed and maybe a more traditional MMORPG will spawn.

Pepperzine
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Pepperzine

Do a write up on Fury for next game archaeologist!

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Ian Wellock

LOTRO solved the problem of unique characters and a private scenario quite handily: a Harry Potter Online player could easily be a classmate of Harry’s (perhaps there should be a few Tutorial levels where you’re in class at Hogwarts) who gets drafted into Dumbledore’s Army, or the Order of the Phoenix, or as a Death Eater, or any of the special-interest groups in the world.

Plenty of missions that interact with Hogwarts and potentially other schools and famous locations, Voldemort was never the only Dark Wizard to threaten the world as Fantastic Beasts is showing. Dozens of ways to interact with the book characters and to expand in the way Newt Scamander’s story has.

The Time-Turner could send people back to interact in prequel-time a la Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (and Star Trek Online did so well with the Guardian of Time), and Dumbledore and other Headmasters or the Minister of Magic could call on you to help discover information – legilimens being an awesome support class on most any quest.

Alternatively, set it in Marauders time: plenty of opportunity for a tie-in TV show that fans have been clamouring for, for a decade and more: lots of things happening to get involved in. Or during the four Hogwarts founders’ time, help build Hogwarts itself connecting to the founders to clear the way.

Of course, with official support, you also have access to JKR, who is known for enhancing canon at need. Allowing the player to have roots in another wizarding school is viable, or even to have their school life ignored – McGonagall had a long life before becoming a Professor and knows a great number of wizards and witches and could easily draw on her contacts to get people involved in quests.

The potential for side-quests, too, is truly enormous when you consider the Pokemon-like acquisition of magical creatures as well as clearing infestations of pests (kill 10 rats even becomes more interesting if you have a few different magical means to clear them rather than one sword stroke), and the large number of canon characters who need favours on both Light and Dark sides.

EA was never going to do this game justice at the time; SWTOR only worked because it was a decade later and BioWare’s talent was high. But as well as that, in ’97 without the whole story being written down, there would have been many conflicts/missing pieces, similar to how Chris Columbus wanted to drop Dobby from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, until JKR told him how important he would become in the later story.

Personally, I think the real reason HPO has never been made is money. License costs, development times, sheer scale of resources needed, and the variability of a world where magic is used for everything and so there are vast number of spells, would end up needing more than the GDP of most countries to build, and would kill any company that didn’t make it perfect.

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Jack Pipsam

As much as I would have loved one, i’m afraid I don’t know how they’d really do it in a traditional sense.

If you’re playing a kid in Hogwarts, then you’re stuck too Hogwarts really as you aren’t meant to do magic outside of it, even in the greater Wizarding World (of course you can just ignore the lore and say ‘screw it, you can now’ problem solved).

But if you’re playing an adult who is allowed to use magic in the Wizarding World unaware of Muggles… then you can’t really go and visit Hogwarts can you. You can’t just wander about Hogwarts if you’re not a student there and if you can’t run around Hogwarts, frankly don’t bother making an MMO in the Harry Potter universe.

But if you do a kind of thing where you are a kid, then you’d run out of things to do at Hogwarts quickly, it would be like all mini-games like Star Wars: Clone Wars MMO made by SOE (remember that?).

I do remember fan MMOs using 2D sprites, but I don’t think they’re around anymore, or they might be who knows.

So yeah, how I would do it is you’re a kid at Hogwarts, but due to ‘reasons’ you can now use magic outside of school.

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Chosenxeno .

Wizard 101 is Harry Potter Online.

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Witches

My guess is Bartle maybe watched the HP movies and thinks that’s the whole universe, it’s like watching the Warcraft movie and trying to make an MMO out of that.

The rights holders don’t know anything about gaming and they sell the rights to people who are incapable of doing them justice, EA have a bunch of sports games and that’s it, they can’t make anything else, sometimes they buy a studio that makes good games and with some luck they squeeze one good game out of them before they mismanage the studio into oblivion.

The Wizarding World would actually be a great fit for an MMO, like Final Fantasy or ESO it has enough of that mediaeval vibe most MMO peeps like, until SC and the three superhero games launch and depending on how successful they are, MMO means swords and sorcerery and the WW has 50% of that equation covered.

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Amorey

I am patiently awaiting for a true MMORPG set in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World and my Hogwarts letter to arrive . In the meantime I shall play Harry Potter: Wizards Unite . This is one IP that truly deserves a great MMO so I remain hopeful :)

Amorey of Ravenclaw
“wit beyond measure is man’s greatest treasure”

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Sally Bowls

TYVM! That was news to me; quite interesting.

I hope (but don’t really expect) the current attempt works. It is a shame to waste such an IP. But I also share the concern as to how many want to be student#1476352 instead of a named lore figure.

P.S.: I hope you will cover HPWU a lot in spite of the “not an MMO” police and the “I like to pretend the mobile game market is smaller than PC” drive-bys.

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2Ton Gamer

I remember when people on the LOTRO forums were swearing that Turbine were secretly working on a MMO based on the Harry Potterverse.

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Jack Pipsam

I remember reading something from an ex-Turbine employee that they were in fact prototyping a Harry Potter MMO as a pitch to WB which just never got green-lit.

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Bryan

There can be only one Harry Potter while a true statement misses the point most fans of the property only want to be in the world so to be a student wizard going to school at Hogwarts and using magic would be the goal and in theory a MMORPG would be perfect for that endeavor.

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Sally Bowls

You should be right. I hope you are right. But I think the survivor stories I read said that Jedi being rare in canon did not slow down LucasArts, and some players, pushing them to be a lot less rare in SWG. Lincoln said “God Must Love the Common Man, He Made so Many of Them” but lately mass-market MMOs tend to want to make the player kind of a big deal.