Harry Potter looks to mobile gaming’s past, while Fortnite looks to the future

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, a newly released mobile game set in JK Rowling’s magical universe, is not inherently a bad game. On paper, a Hogwarts RPG where you can take classes, sling spells, make friends with fellow students, and experience a new Harry Potter story is a great thing. The issue with the game isn’t that premise; my biggest problem with Hogwarts Mystery is actually Fortnite.

This will take some explaining. Three or four years ago Hogwarts Mystery would have fit comfortably in the Play Store and App Store. During an era when free-to-play games like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans (and the many, many clones) ruled the roost, and players were first introduced to the punishing idea of patience or payment systems, where you’d essentially hit a wall in gameplay until a timer ran out, allowing you to pay again. And of course, the farther you progressed in a game, the longer the mandatory toll booths would start to be, inviting the players to spend a couple real-world dollars to expedite the process.

That structure doesn’t dominate the mobile space the way it once did — but Hogwarts Mystery is still stuck in the past. Want to interact with almost anything in the environment? That’ll cost energy, which players only have a limited amount of, and can take up to an hour to fully refill once exhausted. (This can happen after just a few minutes of gameplay.) Players can, of course, spend a second currency — gems — to refill their energy, but gems are rewarded sparingly. Unless you’re willing to pay up some actual money, in which case you can continue on your adventure. Story missions are also time-gated, requiring hours-long waits to start unless you’re willing to invest the gems to activate them immediately. Plus, gems and coins (a third in-game currency) are also needed to customize your in-game character with new outfits and items, making it all the more frustrating to be forced to use the limited supply of free ones to actually play the game. Alas, developer Jam City hasn’t done much to address the balance, with users still constantly complaining about it on the game’s subreddit, weeks after launch.

And again, for a certain era of mobile gaming, this would have been par for the course. Years ago, I would have likely praised Hogwarts Mystery for offering a strong, story-based spin in a world of mobile free-to-play games that focused more on competitive pay-to-win multiplayer or endless identical puzzles. But then there’s Fortnite, whose grinning mascot sits on my home screen, quietly damning almost everything about Hogwarts Mystery.

It’s a difference that can be summed up simply: Fortnite, first and foremost, encourages players to play, while Hogwarts Mystery seems more interested in getting players to pay. Much has already been written on the brilliance of Fortnite’s monetization scheme, which uses the Battle Pass concept to allow players to gradually unlock rewards for a fixed, seasonal price, along with additional cosmetic items that can also only be bought outright. The key part of this is that it never asks players to pay extra to enjoy the base game, or offers any competitive advantage to those who spend.

Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

Sure, your avatar may look infinitely cooler than my free, Twitch Prime awarded commando guy as you plummet off the bus in a technicolor rainbow dressed as a suspiciously John Wick-looking avatar, but it never affects anything that happens in the game. As it stands, I’m far more likely to whip out my phone to try to work in a quick round of Fortnite when I have a few free minutes than Hogwarts Mystery, because Fortnite doesn’t seem to want to punish me for the act of playing. It’s an ethos more familiar to console and PC gamers — who (in most cases) get to pay a single, upfront price for their entertainment, and then enjoy it without constant nickel-and-diming. It’s something that Fortnite has shown can be incredibly viable on mobile.

Some of this is just the nature of the game. It’s obviously much more difficult for Jam City to create compelling story content for Harry Potter that players will quickly consume than it is for the far more replayable Fortnite to add a few new skins and call it a day. But it also begs the question of why make Hogwarts Mystery free to play at all? It’s already closer to an interactive novel than it is an actual game, and if the Harry Potter franchise has proven one thing, it’s that fans will buy a lot of Harry Potter books. Or why not take a page from Nintendo’s book, and offer something like Super Mario Run, where the initial gameplay is free to try, and then offer the full, unlocked experience for a single set purchase? Give Harry Potter fans a taste of the few first chapters of a new Wizarding World story, and then charge for the rest once they’re hooked? It sounds like it would practically print money (although it’s worth noting Nintendo didn’t see “acceptable profit” from Super Mario Run.)

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Games with limited systems like this that put up barriers on how long people can play are inherently bad. I’ve played a borderline irresponsible amount of Fire Emblem Heroes over the past year, and that game checks almost every predatory free-to-play gaming box in the book — limits on earning rewards, limits on how long you can play, and a slot machine-esque gacha system that encourages spending money far more than Hogwarts Mystery ever does. The difference is that Fire Emblem Heroes has learned from the lessons of earlier free-to-play titles and seems to respect my time, with the developers doubling stamina, lowering costs of in-game actions, and recently, removing stamina requirements entirely for most of the game’s tougher battles, letting users try to solve the maps as many times as they want.

Right now, Hogwarts Mystery is stuck in an older era of mobile, one that’s content to make lazy, cheap cash-ins on popular franchises and use cheap monetization tricks to squeeze out some extra money from its player instead of offering a strong or compelling gameplay experience. But games like Fortnite are finally showing that mobile gaming is changing, and if Hogwarts Mystery wants to achieve some kind of endurance like the iconic books whose name it trades on, it’ll need to consider some changes of its own. The solution isn’t exactly magic.

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