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Harry Potter vs Pokémon: The battle of Niantic’s location-based games

by Lewis Leong on Feb 28, 2019

In 2016, we all saw Pokémon Go arrive on mobile and take off like wildfire, but did anyone expect its popularity to continue three years down the line? Many thought the game was just a fad, which is unsurprising. Typically, mobile games are fast and furious in terms of popularity, dying down after time as move on to the next game. This hasn’t been the case with Niantic’s giant with recent figures showing that Pokémon Go has grossed over $3 billion in worldwide revenue.  

With such massive and continued success, what game could possibly knock Pokémon Go off its perch? The answer could be Niantic’s next title—Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Let’s take a deeper look to see how things could play out for Niantic.

The rise of Pokémon Go

Despite its ongoing success, Pokémon Go garnered mixed reviews upon release in 2016. Much of that was down to technical issues that were gradually corrected. It went on to be downloaded over 800 million times by May 2018 with an impressive 147 million monthly active users—a striking retention number.

Much of that success is down to Pokémon Go‘s potent mixture of fan service and strong community. It encapsulates the idea of ‘gotta catch ‘em all’ more than any other Pokémon game in recent times. It also popularized location-based gaming with players as proud of showing off the number of steps they’ve taken as they are of the number of Pokémon they’ve found.

Timing was also everything in Pokémon Go‘s success. Released in the summer of 2016, it was the perfect season for grabbing the attention of young and older audiences alike. Students had more free time while older players excited to relive the nostalgia of Pokémon playing could embrace the exercise element of the game, thanks to better weather and longer days. Once hooked, it meant that winter number tail offs weren’t so drastic.

The game also enjoyed a staggered release, with Niantic careful to ensure that server strain didn’t negatively impact the experience too much. This wasn’t entirely successful with some major issues along the way, but it did additionally help artificially inflate hype and anticipation. Its very nature meant that Pokémon Go was everywhere, both geographically and in the media with even comments from then Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton about the game. Clearly, Pokémon Go is a tough title to follow.

Battle of the IPs

Which name is more powerful and more successful? Harry Potter or Pokémon? It’s a question that’s tough to answer as it depends on who you ask. It’s impossible to say how many people are fans of both, but given Harry Potter is the third highest grossing film franchise of all time, and the original Pokémon series is the second best selling video game franchise of all time, it’s clear that both are prominent forces in media. Both franchises also enjoy incredibly loyal fanbases who will happily discuss their love of the IPs for hours on end. These fans will undoubtedly enjoy spending time ‘in’ each fictional world via an augmented reality game.

Will success be determined by how the games stand out separately than the much-treasured IPs they utilize? There are strengths and weaknesses of each so let’s go over them.

Pokémon Go‘s advantage: time

Being first out of the gate is often an effective move in mobile gaming. Pokémon Go has the edge in terms of being established. It’s been part of its players’ lives since July 2016 and many of them are intensely loyal and likely to stick around, no matter how much they might adore Harry Potter.

Something like Pokémon Go becomes part of one’s daily routine and it’s going to take a lot to shake that off. After all, after spending potentially hundreds of hours playing one game, does anyone really want to cast it aside in favor of something different yet similar? That’s an even bigger issue for those players that have invested money in the game.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite‘s refinement of a formula

Pokémon Go wasn’t Niantic’s first foray into augmented reality mobile gaming. Ingress in 2013 was its first attempt, with an original science fiction-based story rather than utilizing a familiar franchise. The game shared similar mechanics to Pokémon Go but without the world famous IP and key gameplay refinements. It was still a success at the time, with 20 million downloads overall, but not quite the runaway success that Pokémon Go demonstrated.

Essentially, Niantic’s strategy has to improve its games by learning from its past successes and failures. Constant iteration means that the newest product ends up more polished and cohesive than the last—in theory, at least. This could well be the case for Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

It’s well documented that Pokémon Go isn’t the most intuitive of games when first starting out. It’s all too easy to be confused by the interface or cryptic error messages. There are plenty of mobile games that do a better job of onboarding new players. Sure, there are guides online but casual players, in particular, would undoubtedly rather have all the information contained within the game.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is the perfect opportunity to correct past mistakes and a little refinement can go a long way. Not much has been revealed about the game other than a vague release date of “2019.” No trailer has displayed the actual gameplay, although there is speculation that Niantic’s purchase of Escher Reality could mean the addition of persistent worlds to the game, giving it a technological edge over Pokémon Go.

Is there room for both?

It’s likely that Harry Potter: Wizards Unite will be of similar or higher quality than Pokémon Go, but quality isn’t the issue. The bigger problem is whether there’s enough room for players to enjoy both games. I argue no, as loyalty is paramount for this type of game. After all, regular play sessions are how players are best able to progress in the game and it seems unlikely that they’ll want to combine the two in their daily walks.

Where Harry Potter: Wizards Unite may succeed is when you look at the numbers of players that tried Pokémon Go and moved on quickly. Within a few months of launch, it was reported that Pokémon Go had lost 79% of its players since launch. Given its phenomenal success, that wasn’t catastrophic by any means but it is interesting to understand why those players left. Some may have left due to Pokémon Go not being their sort of game, but what about those that weren’t hooked by the Pokémon story? Or were confused by unwieldy game mechanics? Those are the players that Harry Potter: Wizards Unite could draw in.

Recent statistics for who’s still playing Pokémon Go are hard to find, but back in 2016, an Adweek report found that the core demographic of the game was the 21-27 age group with 29% of women in that group having it installed on their phones, along with 43% of men. Demographic information for Harry Potter fans is also hard to come by, but it stands to reason that many fans are also in their 20s, coming out around the same time. Obviously, not all people in their 20s love both Pokémon and Harry Potter. Instead, it’s likely that Niantic will focus its efforts on enticing players who failed to be gripped by Pokémon Go, as well as those who adore Harry Potter but have no interest in catching ‘em all in Pokémon. After all, these are two very different fictional worlds. Pokémon is more likely to attract fans of video games, anime, and Japanese culture, while Harry Potter has always found its fans in avid book readers and lovers of fantasy.

The mechanics of both games may be similar but it’s likely that Niantic will be taking a different approach to how it portrays the world of Harry Potter over Pokémon. It’s that form of world building that could make the difference in attracting a new audience.

Lewis Leong is AppLovin's Content Marketing Manager.

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