Jonathan Smith Talks Wizards and Hogwarts
Q&A: The head of production at TT Games tells us all about working on Lego Harry Potter, flying broomsticks, and joining the Warner Bros. group.
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After releasing a string of successful Lego-themed games, including Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones, Lego Batman, and Lego Rock Band, the development team at Traveller's Tales has set its sights on the world of Harry Potter. Following the success of its block-based forbears, the upcoming Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 will focus on the boy wizard's formative years at Hogwarts. It will also feature plenty of wand-waving, spellcasting, puzzle-solving and broom-flying. We recently caught up with Jonathan Smith of TT Games to find out more about the game.
GameSpot UK: Why did TT Games decide to do Lego Harry Potter: Years 1 - 4?
Jonathan Smith: Lego Harry Potter is the most natural fit together. The world of Lego--of surprise and humour--with the world of Harry Potter--full of magic and these amazing characters and great drama--has bonded in the game incredibly naturally and it has been great fun. We started working with Warner Bros. originally on Lego Batman, and they were such fantastic creative partners that they did make it very easy for us to take the steps toward Lego Harry Potter.
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GSUK: What involvement did you have with the Harry Potter film crew?
JS: The team was incredibly lucky and thrilled to be able to visit the set of the recent Harry Potter movie [and draw] inspiration from the world that they were creating. To actually walk around it was really, really inspiring. So, the work that the movie teams have done over those years on Harry Potter…we have incredible respect for. And you'll see in the cutscenes that we echo it at certain points. But the world is fundamentally based on the books, and the movies come from the books as well. That's where Harry Potter comes from.
GSUK:You've talked about some of the new features in the game and the move to a more open-world design.
JS: I wouldn't necessary say open world. What happens is that the world of Hogworts unfolds as you grow and learn in it over the course of four full years. So by the end of the game, it's a huge environment, which you have become the master of. And you've learned its secrets and discovered all of its nooks and crannies. But at the start of the game, you should find yourself pretty well directed about what to do next in order to learn your next spell and move on through the story. It's not an open world in the sense of other games where you have to [complete] a series of fetch quests to get you to the map.
GSUK: Are the missions linear in the sense that they follow the story and there's a set order in which you would complete them?
JS: So, the story unfolds in the game through the four years in the order that it does in the books and the movies. But, you are free within each major story section to move around Hogworts and to discover some of its secrets there as well…plus to go back into previous levels that you've already played and take different characters in there as well. There are conventional level action sequences and an increasingly open Hogwarts level as well…at the heart of it.
GSUK: Are there side missions or minigames to discover around Hogwarts?
JS: The whole of Hogwarts and, in fact, all areas of the game are full of secrets and hidden challenges. Not minigames. We don't have minigames. We believe that our core mechanics enable you to do so many different things in different parts of the world and with different characters that we can deliver that sense of depth and replayability using our basic systems.
GSUK: How does Lego Harry Potter utilise the Wii Remote's motion controls? Did you consider support for Project Natal or the PlayStation 3 motion controller?
JS: We make our Lego games for the greatest possible audience. That means that we do work on multiple platforms simultaneously. Lego Harry Potter is particularly well suited to the Nintendo Wii in this instance because we're able to use the Wii Remote as a wand where--using it as a pointing device--you're actually able to manually build with Lego objects using our new spell and physics systems.
To the question about [whether] we would consider taking advantage of new motion control devices and systems…as people who love new games and innovation and are always trying to create new technology to deliver better experiences, we're always very actively interested in innovations like that. But this game comes out at the end of May before those devices are launched.
GSUK: You've spoken before about the importance of focus testing with children and getting them involved in development. What were the things that they wanted to see included in a Harry Potter game?
JS: For children, we found that it was particularly important that they have a sense of power in the spells that they learn…that they can go around and really wreak havoc by casting spells all over the place. And casting spells particularly on fellow people and--to a very, very great extent--the idea of being able to cast spells on teachers and turn them into animals--small animals really--was very, very compelling for children.
GSUK: Harry Potter, from the third year onward, starts to become quite dark and mature. How do you keep things fun and kid friendly?
JS: Everything becomes fun and kid friendly in a Lego world. You cannot present anything inappropriate in the Lego world because by its translation, it has become fine. And where in the non-Lego version, it could've been tense for young children or even inappropriate for young children, by translation into a Lego world, that is all stripped away. And, in fact, the more apparently difficult the material is at source, we often find that the funnier it becomes in Lego.
GSUK: How does your character progress in the game? Can you explain how that works?
JS: A major new innovation for Lego Harry Potter is the idea that all the characters will progress and learn different abilities as they go through the game. They don't just stay static in terms of their abilities at start. We have a graphical display of the abilities that you have, and your starting characters are limited to a single spell. And, then, as you complete the lessons and as you play through the story, new spells and abilities are added to that in quite a dramatic way that we think will be really compelling for the players.
GSUK: Are there any other Warner Bros. properties that you've thought about for future Lego games?
JS: No, we're focussed on Lego Harry Potter. Anything's possible in the future. We have every intention of making more Lego games; we love making Lego games. But right now, we're in the world of Harry Potter. That's where we're having all of our fun.
GSUK: But being part of Warner Bros. has given you a lot of freedom to consider those properties?
JS: Warner's been a fantastic family for us to join. It sounds a bit pat, but it's genuinely true. They're experts in all kinds of different areas of entertainment and media. They're incredibly supportive of what we've been doing, especially in video games, creatively. We couldn't wish for a better company to be part of.
GSUK: What one thing about the game are you most proud of?
JS: The dynamic split-screen is really, really great in Lego Harry Potter, and that's something we're extremely proud of. [Something] especially well suited to Harry Potter, as well, that is really fun to play with and could've been quite a tough design challenge is the implementation of broomstick flying. The control system for flying brooms is really elegant and really nice and straightforward but gives you great flexibility and the sense of really being in control of a flying object. And we're really pleased with that.
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