Thursday, January 22, 2009

Building a Better Potter

The Harry Potter license is wasted on high-budget, low-quality, rushed movie tie-ins, but it doesn't have to be.

2007's Order of the Phoenix game wasn't awful, but I'm also not sure I'd call it good.

I've got a confession to make. I've been a big Harry Potter fan since around the same time the first movie was released and the fervor hit a high pitch. I tore through the books as fast as I could, watched the movies multiple times. While I'm hardly as fanatical as some, the fiction affects me in a way I can't explain. I even played a few of the games, and that, dear readers, is where the rub lies, where there is an itch I must scratch. The raw potential of the IP in gaming form is utterly misplaced. EA's handling of the series has been disappointing on multiple levels, but what if things could around, at least in a perfect gaming world?

Seven years old and still the best amidst a clutter of lackluster, Chamber of Secrets succeeded where others failed by taking lessons from Zelda.

Almost unquestionably the best game released under the banner has been the one tied to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. While the first movie had an odd assortment of games (including a well-intentioned but mostly just bizarre RPG on Game Boy Color), its PSone iteration, sort of a Zelda-clone, seemed to me to be the most successful gameplay-wise. Eurocom's Chamber of Secrets took this and ran with it on Xbox, PS2 and GameCube, ripping off Zelda: Ocarina of Time more than anything and really to excellent effect. From the get-go there were "dungeon" levels filled with puzzles, completely reminiscient of what has gone on in Zelda games since the original. Hogwarts was almost entirely explorable, and it used that standard Zelda practice of allowing the player more and more freedom as abilities were gained, doo-dads acquired, and new obstacles could be cleared, opening the path to more areas. There were even stealth scenes where Harry would have to sneak past prefects while he was getting his naughty on. It was short a somewhat short game, but it was a desperately-needed, quality experience, and it brought great ideas to the table. They made the best of their short production cycle by taking what they knew worked in other games and applying it brilliantly. Hardcore gamers who weren't interested in Potter might not have liked it, but for a licensed game, it satisfied more discriminating fans of the series.

Believe it or not, the Sorcerer's Stone RPG on Game Boy Color was a step in the right direction. Where is that innovation now?

And it remains the best Potter game because, apparently, EA didn't know a good thing when they had it. The third movie released, and a weird, lukewarm action game was the sad follow-up. It seems to be the standard format for fantasy movie games now; the Narnia games, Golden Compass games and most of the Potter games have all adopted it and been extremely bland and, frankly, that's all they need to be. They still sell, regardless, and I can't help but think EA knows this, knows little time or effort are needed at all. This might be great for EA, who likes money, but it's bad news for gamers, who want something to sink their teeth into. And whether the legions of acumen-lacking casual gamers emerging from theaters with big grins and $50 to blow on terrible movie tie-ins know it or not, it's bad for them, too. (I know. I'm the taste police. Plus, I'm sure bad games release cancer-causing carcinogens in their bloodstream.)

Therefore, what could happen if the franchise was truly given the care it deserves? What if EA took their unlimited resources and put someone like Bioware (EA does own Bioware, technically) to work on it? They made a Sonic RPG, and it's the best Sonic game in years. Would it really be so bizarre to see them do Harry up right? What if someone like Bethesda Softworks (Fallout 3, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) took the franchise under their wing?

The Sorting Hat is the perfect excuse for a "choose your class" kind of character creation setup.

I picture the player being sat under the sorting hat as a first-year student at Hogwarts (that's right--we'd be acting out the role of our own, created character, not Harry), and aside from just being a fun ritual from the fiction, being sorted, it would also work as a fine method to make the "class choice" for the character and set the stage for the type of game that would be played. Gryfindor is courageous and strong (paladin?), Ravenclaw is scholarly (perhaps a full mage), Hufflepuff hardworking (the fighter to Gryfindor's paladin), Slytherin is sneaky (thief class) though not necessarily vile, and from these bases, the player would springboard into whatever kind of skill trees they wanted to go into (herbology, potions, the dark arts--the list is really endless, and it's all there in the Harry universe).

Imagine this stats screen from Oblivion had skills on it like "herbology," "potions," "dark arts," and "countercurses", and your very own Hogwarts witch or wizard character in the corner to play dress-up with and guide through seven years of magic-learning, and you've got a sense of the Harry Potter game I want to play.

In fact, the Four Houses could form the backbone of the player's choices throughout the game. Maybe dialog and story would have branching paths, a la Mass Effect, based upon the color-coded Houses. In conversation, one would choose between Gryfindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff or Slytherin responses to dictate how events would proceed, and depending upon the situation, each approach would have different effects (maybe you'd want to use the Gryfindor method when Malfoy's younger brother is harassing your new lady friend, but you might need the Slytherin approach to keep her from finding out about the other gal you keep on the side, you letcher).

The dialog wheel from Mass Effect could be used to, well, massive effect in a good Potter RPG.

As for the setting, it could be after the fall of Voldemort, after Harry and everyone have graduated, leaving plenty of room for cameo appearances and lots of space for a non-linear, sprawling game full of options. If the Japanese got ahold of it, they might even add some dating sim elements (see above parenthesis). Why not? And like in Oblivion, there could be plenty of room for the player to pursue the "main quest" (which needn't even be of the "save the world" variety; that's gotten so cliche in games, and even one year of a "normal" life at Hogwarts is certainly spicy enough to carry a 50+ hour game), numerous side quests and guilds (a quest chain for each of the Four Houses, for instance, which would encourage replayability since the player can only be in one house each game), or just piddle around with whatever they please, taking classes, exploring, interacting with Hogwarts' inhabitants, and bettering their character as they persue their wizarding education.

Oblivion's Mages' Guild quests, and the Arcane University (pictured here) were a blast, probably partly because they reminded of Hogwarts.

Alternately, it could certainly work as a more linear experience, either set after Harry Potter puts Voldemort to rest, or, if you please, running concurrently with the main Harry Potter story. For instance, in Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, another EA licensed title, the player acted out not the role of Frodo and the Fellowship but rather a party running through side events. Maybe it irritated purists, but it certainly made for a fun, interesting play in what turns out to be one of the best Western takes on the Japanese-styled console RPG.

Lord of the Rings: The Third Age is Tolkien meets Final Fantasy X in an innovative, interesting movie license game. It was great, so naturally there were no sequels or attempts to do anything similar.

But then again, Lord of the Rings: The Third Age has yet to get a sequel, which is a shame. It was, by far, the best of all of EA's Lord of the Rings games. The rest have all been rather uncreative real-time strategy affairs or hack and slash tie-ins with the films. Yawn.

EA CEO John Riccitiello has recently been stating that he wants EA to adopt a new quality over quantity approach. I see no better place to demonstrate this than in their fabulous fantasy movie IPs: Lord of the Rings, and, as we've been discussing, Harry Potter. I do think the audience is there. While Harry certainly has wide appeal, whether his game is "hardcore" or not, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Mass Effect were so well constructed that even many non-core gamers were attracted to them, even able to enjoy them (gasp). I don't think the idea of making a truly excellent game with the Harry license should be ruled out, even for the sake of corporate convenience. Sure, you can put crap in a box, label it Harry Potter House Elf Poo', and it'll sell more copies than the Bible, but what if we had a really phenomenal game that appealed not just to franchise fans but gamers in general? Maybe it would really be the holy grail of big-selling software, capturing a wider appeal than Quidditch World Cup ever did.

If Fallout 3 is "Oblivion with guns" (it's not, actually), why can't Bethesda do Harry Potter as "Oblivion at Hogwarts"?

And the building blocks are all there, right at EA. There is the precedent of Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, being a great movie game not based particularly on any of the movies at all, and there is even the talent at EA's Bioware, which could at least be consulted if not tapped outright.

The potential is immense. Maybe after the final three Harry movies (year 6, then two year 7 movies), and a final three crappy tie-in games, EA will need new ideas for the franchise, and maybe they'll turn to something more interesting than a sequel to Quidditch World Cup.

Quidditch World Cup didn't catch this seeker, but it was a nice idea.

Jesse Dylan Watson is certainly not holding his breath for the Half-blood Prince games, but maybe, just maybe we could get a second coming of the quality seen in Eurocom's Chamber of Secrets adaptation. Then again, you know what they say about lightning. "It prefers money to quality," or something like that.

1 comment: