Creating a game based on a film based on a book series so popular it makes "Grand Theft Auto" look like an indie hit is no easy matter, even when you work for the biggest video game company on the planet.
For the team at Electronic Arts' U.K.-based studio, the first challenge in creating "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" was obvious: pleasing the tens of millions of Potter-philes.
The second was a little more tricky. Over the span of six books and four films, Harry Potter has matured from innocent tyke to a teenager with even more baggage than the typical adolescent. And to top it off, there's this evil wizard named Voldemort that wants to kill him.
How best to use game play to illustrate Harry's new maturity without alienating the youngest fans of the series?
After a year of play-testing with younger fans, executive producer Harvey Elliott said his team found the answer: A layered interactive experience; easy enough for the younger gamers to jump into and play, but with a depth of exploration and accomplishment for older gamers.
"The big focus is to offer something that kids could pick up from age seven. And also offer something for older kids to work out, things like getting better at casting spells," said Elliott.
A run through "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" reveals a simple enough game that religiously follows the film in plot as well as look and feel. (Sorry, fans of the 700-plus page book. No House-Elf Liberation Front here, either.)
"We took our visual look from the movie," Elliott said, "removing that slightly twee look of the earlier films and books."
Most of the game takes place at night around Hogwarts, the wizard school Harry attends, as well as the nearby Forbidden Forest, which is inhabited by all sorts of toothy reptiles and other creatures. It's a land of dark shadows and craggy, leafless trees.
Players can hop between playing as Harry Potter or as either of his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. The main goal of the game is to win the Triwizard Tournament, an international interscholastic grudge match that is the main focus of both book and movie. Secondary goals revolve around improving magic skills, exploring Hogwarts' rambling grounds and besting various beasties.
Everything is accomplished by using buttons on the controller to conjure up spells: "Carpe Retractum," for example, opens doors. "Wingardium Leviosa" levitates objects. "Inflatus" blows creatures up to the size of Thanksgiving Day parade balloons. As the players advance through the game, their spells become more powerful.
"Goblet of Fire" is relatively easy to start up and easy to finish, which makes it ideal for the young Potter fan. For older fans, Elliott's team tried to offer more.
"We've tried to give players a toolset," he said. "It's still easy to pick up and get moving but we added layer of mastery."
More experienced gamers may spend time taking advantage of the game's leveling-up system where it's possible to master the various jinxes for better effect. The more experience a player gains, the more spectacular the spells.
But it's in co-operative play where "Goblet of Fire" really shines. Spells become more powerful when players combine their powers. A particularly sticky drawbridge may require each player to conjure "Carpe Retractum" to pull it down. Spells directed at enemies take on new forms through player cooperation. While two players employ "Leviosa" to suspend a giant scorpion-like Blast-Ended Skrewt in mid-air, another may use "Avifors" to turn the enemy into a flock of birds.
Similarily, challenges are constructed so that a number of things are happening at any one time. In the Forbidden Forest, fire-breathing salamanders spawn from fiery pits. One character may tackle the salamanders, while others douse the pits using the spell Aqua Eructo.
One offshoot of this co-operative play is that it creates an opportunity for the older gamer to join the young Potter fan.
"We thought what if someone could just drop in and help it would add to the experience," said Elliott said describing episodes in "Goblet of Fire" where an older player could, in a sense, guide younger players through the scenes.
Creating games that encourage cooperative play is not new. But encouraging, or at least thinking about gaming that crosses more than one age group, is another matter.
"Goblet of Fire" may not be the first choice of the older gamer, but as a means to bond with the younger Potter fan, it beats watching Barney.
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