One of the developers from the new mobile game walks EW through the design choices
Credit: Portkey Games

This week’s release of the mobile game Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery promises the kind of immersive gaming experience Harry Potter fans have been awaiting for years. Finally, there is a game that allows players to customize their own personal Hogwarts student and take them through classes, duels, and the kind of complex mystery that seems to pop up at Hogwarts every so often. Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery was developed by Jam City with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (under their new Portkey Games label). It’s available now for free download via the App Store or Google Play. A week before release, EW spoke with Jam City senior narrative designer Matt London about the choices that went into Hogwarts Mystery, and how the developers build a gaming experience worthy of Potter fans’ devotion.

Creating your character

After being greeted with a cinematic opening animation, Hogwarts Mystery players must set about customizing their character. There are a multitude of options to choose from for skin tone, hairstyle, and face shape, among other categories. As the game progresses, players unlock even more customization options for their clothes and hair.

“We want people to feel like this is their Hogwarts experience,” London told EW. “No matter who you are, you belong at Hogwarts.That’s why we have so much flexibility here.”

The main question at the forefront of most players’ minds will of course be choosing their character’s Hogwarts house. After picking up your textbooks at Diagon Alley, players arrive at Hogwarts for the Sorting Hat ceremony. They are given brief descriptions for Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff. But rather than answer a quiz or get a random selection, players get to choose which house their character will enter.

“It’s been controversial, but we’re happy with the way the sorting ceremony goes,” London said. “We think that a lot of Harry Potter fans know in their hearts what house they belong to, and we want a 100 percent success rate on people being sorted into the house where they belong. For fans who aren’t sure, they can take hints from our in-game descriptions of what kind of person goes to which house, but we also suggest people go to Pottermore and take the quiz. That’s the official source for finding out what house you are in.”

On top of that, the Jam City team also used Pottermore as a resource to figure out what each house looks and feels like. The Hufflepuff common room, for instance, has never been visualized before in the Harry Potter films, so London and other developers used J.K. Rowling’s description on Pottermore to create it in three dimensions for the first time — complete with the hanging plants, roaring fire, and barrel-shaped door.

Choosing your path

Whenever conversing with another character, Hogwarts Mystery players get to choose how they respond and act. Though they may seem like simple story choices, different options can give players different experiences and relationships with other characters. For instance, early on in the game, players will go wand-shopping at Ollivander’s. The eccentric old wandmaker will ask them a question about their mysterious older brother, and the player’s chosen response to Ollivander will help define their personality — and thus, determine the composition of their wand.

“There are a number of choices you can make that impact the direction the story goes,” London says. “Do you help this person? Do you betray them? Do you learn a spell that might help you in a fight, or a spell that helps you learn something? Things might be easier or more difficult depending on what you’ve chosen to do so far in the game.”

Credit: Portkey Games

Plenty of Easter eggs

Although Hogwarts Mystery is designed to be accessible to first-time Harry Potter fans, it also has plenty of nods and references for hard-core readers. For instance, because of the time period, several of Harry’s adult acquaintances show up in Hogwarts Mystery as young Hogwarts students themselves. Nymphadora Tonks and Charlie Weasley are classmates of the player, and Bill Weasley shows up as well to help the player learn dueling, explore the mysterious rooms, and advance the story. Hagrid’s dog Fang also appears in puppy form, bounding around the school grounds with a stick.

There are plenty of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references for eagle-eyed fans as well. In particular, London points to an element of attending Potions classes with Professor Snape.

“There are a lot of great little Easter eggs for established fans,” London says. “One of those is in Potions class where you look through the textbook and kind of scratching your head like, why do Snape’s instructions always differ from what’s in the textbook? It’s just a little nod that he has his own recipes that make the potions better.”

Credit: Portkey Games

A living, breathing story

The Jam City developers tried to give players the experience of moving through a Harry Potter novel. So though the game begins seven years before Harry arrives at Hogwarts (in that period between the two wizarding wars), players are soon faced with an intimidating mystery — along with plenty of smaller puzzles and challenges to keep them occupied in the meantime.

“In each book, Harry has smaller problems he has to solve and then there’s the greater arc as well,” London says. “We’re doing something very similar here, where as the game opens everyone at Hogwarts is buzzing about these mysterious rooms that have appeared in different areas of Hogwarts. What’s inside of them? We don’t know, we can’t find out. They’re sealed with powerful curses that threaten everyone who’s inside of Hogwarts. Then your own personal journey is your brother knew these rooms existed and was investigating them himself, but then got expelled and vanished under mysterious circumstances. So not only do you have to pick up his search and find these vaults, but unravel what happened to him at the same time.”

The game is meant to take players through seven years at Hogwarts, so there will be more story content uploaded and updated over time in order to keep the story going. London promises, however, that the story very much has ending(s) in mind. The saga of the mysterious rooms may not be the only Hogwarts mystery to solve in Hogwarts Mystery.

“Even though we will be unlocking story content over time and figuring out the story, the writing team knows in great detail where the story is going and also what comes after. This is not something where people are going to be teased along indefinitely,” London says. “We structured this like a novel, so people feel that narrative arc, have that complete experience, and then we can ramp up the next story after that. There’s a lot of story to tell, and we’re excited to get people reading and playing. The script is 200,000 words now, which is longer than a lot of novels. You’re definitely getting a major story experience when you play Hogwarts Mystery. We’re gonna be releasing more story updates and free content over and over: Advancing the main plot, adding new side quests. We want this to be a living, breathing game that people can stick with and experience for a long time. ”

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery is available to download now.