The Game Archaeologist: Harry Potter Online

Please let this stay far away from Rowling's endless retcons.

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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