Harry Pottermon and the Massive Waste of Potential

If you were born or raised in the 90’s, then it’s nigh-certain that you are intimately acquainted with either Pokemon, Harry Potter or both. Even if you aren’t, there’s no way you haven’t at least heard of them. So other than their popularity and timing, what do these two multi-media multi-billion-dollar franchises have in common? And what is the secret to their success?

Other than that JK Rowling is a Legilimens and split her soul into 7 Horcruxes, of course.

Other than that J.K. Rowling is a Legilimens who split her soul into 7 Horcruxes, of course.

Beginning with the obvious, they both began with the same demographic. Kids aged 6-12, with a slant towards males but not exclusively so. The Harry Potter books attempted to grow up with their readership, ending with material more suitable for 14-20 year-olds. On the other hand, Pokemon has kept its kiddie tone. Despite this, many aged Pokefans maintain an interest in the franchise.

For some, interest might not be a strong enough word.

For some, interest might not be a strong enough word.

Moreover what’s similar is the way their demographics were represented within the stories themselves. Now, this is nothing new, children’s storytellers have been doing it for ages – just think Pippi Longstocking or Alice in Wonderland.

But the difference is that in the Harry Potter and Pokemon universes its not just Ash and Harry who turn 11 and get to have adventures. Instead there’s a whole wave of new wizard kids and new trainer kids beginning their adventures too. An entire generation of children who gain special powers, get to hang out with magical creatures, and more importantly, don’t have to go to public school, eat brussel sprouts, or listen to their parents.

Instead they got to eat wizard candy and drink butterbeer - which always sounded so friggin' delicious!

Instead they ate wizard candy and drank butterbeer – which always sounded so friggin’ delicious!

When kids read/watch these stories, it’s not just Ash and Harry they follow along with. They imagine themselves in the fantasy world, imagine how they would stack up in the trials, the kind of spells they would learn, or the Pokemon they would raise. It’s a very potent escapism, to see yourself not just in a story, but in an entire universe, awash with potential and surrounded by others having their own adventures.

I’m sure the marketing genius of having to “collect them all” helped Pokemon along. And I’m sure that parents desperately trying to get children to read helped Harry Potter along. But the key difference between them and other colorful anime or fantasy novels is that they provided the reader with a backdrop for their own stories.

Which admittedly, may have spiraled a bit out of control.

Which admittedly, may have spiraled a bit out of control.

The other thing these franchises have in common, is that they both have video games which poorly reflect this potent escapism. You’d think that video games, being a strong form of escapism themselves, would be on the ball. But instead the games follow the actual plots of the books/manga, rather than their spirit.

The Pokemon games are fun, and do allow you to choose which Pokemon you raise, but your adventure is linear. The gym leaders you battle and the towns you visit are (largely) in a set order. Similarly, the Potter games have you follow Harry’s quest to a T. Occasionally you may free-roam the castle, but nothing interesting can happen while you do.

There's no shortage of Harry saying "Flipendo", however.

On the plus side, you do get to hear Harry say “Flipendo” a lot.

Both video game iterations of the franchises have you following a single quest in a linear fashion. This does not stack up with what our imaginations craved.

Imagine a moment if you will, a Harry Potter or Pokemon game, where you begin by creating a character (No, choosing your gender in a Pokemon game doesn’t count) . Where you can choose your own classes at Hogwarts or your path around Kanto. A free-foaming game, with optional quests, random events, places to explore and tons of distractions and mini-games to get caught up in. Perhaps even an online game, where you’re surrounded by other players each having their own adventures.

One of the many mock-up box covers for such a game.

One of the many mock-up box covers for such a game.

I’m not the first to suggest this. In fact non-linear Pokemon or Potter games are probably the most frequently dreamt-up dream games. And of course I’m not naive enough to think EA or Nintendo will ever bother, since they can make enough money without the work or risk involved.

But I find it interesting that video games have the potential to be what a generation of kids spent days imagining. And I find it tragic that the ‘obvious’ way to turn these beloved franchises into interactive experiences is the exact wrong one.

How would you make these franchises into games? Or are they fine as they are?


2 thoughts on “Harry Pottermon and the Massive Waste of Potential

  1. Ryan

    You’ve outlined some elements I’d want to include in the game I’d create within the Pokemon realm: free-form adventure that’s playable on or offline. Let people make their own adventure and then share their experiences with friends–that’s what’s fun. I don’t want to get bogged down in semantics in an idea I’m conceiving on the fly, but I’m imagining the game would open like this: you pick your region and start with rocks (& pocket-sand, if your lucky) and make your way to the nearest patch of tall grass. You find a level 2 Pidgey and bust it up, like a boss. After developing a bond together you take your bristling team, of one level 9 Pidgey, to your local gym and promptly loose. What were you thinking? Even the lowly trainers greeting you at the door have wicked-strong teams of at least 3-5 level 30 pokemon.

    Tape your pokemon back together and pick a new, achievable, path. Maybe you want that rare, first-form, level xx Electric-Dragon-Bug type that takes 11,999 coins at the casino. Or maybe you dream, less masochistically perhaps, of creating a player-helping network that guides newbies or brings items to players in remote locations. Cool, whatever, just make some fun.

    I think what I’m imagining is a game that allows players to create or shape their own experience. Put more concretely, I would include a new feature (item, organization, skill/move, Pokemon, etc.) creation environment that lets people, with or without technical skills, create something that they think the world’s missing. If it passes the community’s tests (i.e. doesn’t break/distort the game), fantastic–welcome to the world alternative badge system based on territory/cave/underwater exploration.

    More generally, I would make central all players’ ability to contribute and improve the game. Who hasn’t played a game and after coming upon an underdeveloped section thought, “shitgoddamn I know what would work here.” Maybe it actually wouldn’t, but at least let people put their ideas, and themselves, to the test.

    Ideas yaaay

    1. zanderwarren Post author

      I definitely like the idea of an MMO with some level of user-created content. It’s also a good model financially because it means your game will continually be gaining content without you having to fund expansion packs and the like. And while the idea seems pretty bold, games like Little Big Planet have already shown that user-created experiences, when tempered with some sort of filtering system (upvote/downvote/report etc), can provide fun, challenging and memorable experiences.
      I don’t know if PKMN would be the best venue for such an MMO, but we’re just day-dreaming anyhow, so why not?
      Having very hard trainer battles / gym leader is something that appeals to me, but probably would turn some people off. But I don’t think having players choose a difficulty would work well with online play (Would you have separate servers? Or would every encounter have to be personalized for your difficulty?), and even if you got it to work it still seems artificial and old-fashioned.
      Maybe instead the non-linear nature of the game could allow people to control their challenge level. For example, the game could suggest you travel and fight gym leaders in a certain order, but you can skip ahead to the harder areas if you want. And if you do, then gym leaders that you skipped all ‘level up’ to the point that they are even harder than gym leader you just beat. So there’s no disappointing return to the ‘easy’ gym leaders and your quest maintains a sense of rising intensity, but anyone wishing to breeze though can still just do the suggested routine (but they won’t get as much exp, probably.).
      Considering how many different kinds of Pokemon players there are it would probably be wise to, as you have suggested, include a huge variety of potential quests, goals and play modes.

      And thanks for reading!



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