With this July's launch of The Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final installment in J. K. Rowling's unfathomably popular Harry Potter series of novels, excitement for the overall Potter franchise is sure to soon reach a fever pitch. This summer will also see the theatrical release of the fifth film in the series, The Order of the Phoenix, and Electronic Arts is hard at work on a tie-in action game that sounds as if it may be the most fully featured yet in the series.
To find out more about the direction EA is taking with its fifth Potter game, we spoke with executive producer Harvey Elliott to get the whole scoop.
GameSpot: Order of the Phoenix is the darkest book yet in the Harry Potter series. How has that influenced the direction you've taken in developing the game?
Harvey Elliott: Since we closely follow the story, our game definitely reflects those darker moments—Professor Umbridge taking over Hogwarts and doing her best to turn it into a oppressive and overcontrolled environment; most of the school thinking that Harry is just making up stories about Lord Voldemort; Sirius Black in exile; and, of course, the big finale at the Ministry of Magic, where one of our favorite characters dies.
Of course, it's not a game about doom and gloom—we have a load of humorous moments that still make me laugh, no matter how many times I see them. For example, when Professor Umbridge takes over the school, we have a series of missions that are designed to cause chaos, such as turning a courtyard into a swamp or pouring potions into a tannoy system, that Umbridge introduces to remind students that she's truly in control. And the scriptwriting this year is of a really high quality, with all the characters expressing their individual personalities—pretty much every time that Cho and Harry meet it's excruciatingly embarrassing watching them try to become "more than friends"; Fred and George take the mickey out of Ron at every opportunity; and the Slytherin students have great fun heckling Harry as he goes through the school and grounds.
We've tried to balance the story with real light and shade, so that we have the dark, serious moments balanced with a lighter side with humor and enjoyment that creates a fundamentally entertaining experience.
GS: How closely will the storyline follow that of the movie? How much freedom did you have to craft new fiction, and did J. K. Rowling have input in that regard?
HE: This is very much a game of Order of the Phoenix, and all the events we reflect in the game would have occurred during Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts. As a result, we followed the movie storyline very closely, supported by the fiction from the books as you explore locations or narrative threads that we don't visit in the films.
GS: How closely have you worked with the film's producers? Will the game feature any sort of assets or elements from the movie?
HE: Since the majority of the movie, and therefore the game, is set at Hogwarts, we have modeled the entire school on the Hogwarts we've seen in the movies. It was only possible by working really closely with the movie makers and literally taking the blueprints from the sets and building a castle that initially looked like a 3D architect's drawing—that way, we knew the exact dimensions of every room. Of course, the movie doesn't feature every single room in the castle, so we have also referenced the previous four movies to get it absolutely right. We're really fortunate that the movie studio is only about 45 minutes away by car, so every time they built a new set we could drop by to ensure we photographed every nook and cranny, and to make sure that we have the right lighting, the right props, and the right cameras. And as this is the fifth movie game we've made with them, you can imagine the reference archive we've developed over the years.
GS: What will the magic system be like? Will your abilities change as you progress through the story or move from one area to the next?
HE: We've created a brand-new, gesture-based magic system, which has really changed and enhanced the experience of casting magic. Instead of pressing buttons to fire off specific spells, we use each console's unique controls. So if you want to use "depulso" to push an object away from you, you press the right analog stick forward on the 360 and PS2, you push the Sixaxis controller away from you on the PS3, and, of course, you flick your "wand" away from you on the Wii. To ignite an object, you rapidly push the right analog back and forward, or slide the Sixaxis or Wii Remote from side to side as though you were lighting a match. In combat we use similar gestures for attacking and defensive spells, but also ensure they represent the action—to cast a knockback jinx you tap up on the analog stick, or shove them backward with the Sixaxis or Wii Remote. And each spell you find is upgraded as you discover secrets in the world.
GS: Are the film's actors involved in the game in any way?
HE: We're fortunate that pretty much all the kids in the movie love video games, so it doesn't take much asking to get them down to our studio to scan their faces or capture their voices. The adult actors have also been to visit us, but I think they're more intrigued by the whole process than the hardcore gamers! Just to give some insight into the complexity of the process, we are making the game in 22 languages this year (which I think is a games industry record), and that means that we not only have to get each of the actors into the studio to record their characters voice for the US and UK versions of the game, but we need to get each of their movie voice-over doubles from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and so on. All in all, across all the languages, we've had around 1,500 actors recording lines for this game!
GS: What unique features will the Wii, 360, and PS3 versions offer? In what ways will they be similar?
HE: The key differences between the consoles are the spellcasting methods. We often get asked why we haven't created exclusive elements to the various formats, but the reality is that every time we've added a mission or minigame to the design of one version, our tech team has just got it working across the other versions. It seems crazy to not make cool stuff available to everyone.
The most noticeable difference from boot up is the overall visual look that we've achieved on the next-gen consoles. In addition to getting more students in the hallways at the school, we can add extra passes to the geometry, not just adding more detail to the polygonal model, but extra visual passes adding polish, texture, or age; most noticeable is the way the portraits now have gilded antique frames, with a canvas print in them, or the shine and gloss of the tables in the Great Hall, with hundreds of years of wear giving it a really worn-in look.
The Wii and PS3 also get to take advantage of our spellcasting upgrades—both have fantastic new motion-sensing controls that we've mapped directly to Harry's wand, so you can shove, pull, lift, and manipulate everything in the world as though you were casting the magic yourself.
GS: Thanks for your time, Harvey.