EA Games invited HPANA and other fan sites to their studios in the UK last week to review the upcoming Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix title, which will be released next year. The new game offers an improved interactive experience, allowing full exploration of Hogwarts and more.
EA also wants feedback directly from you! Visit HPANA's forums to leave comments and ideas that may be passed along to the game developers to help them create the best Potter games possible.
We sent Charlotte, a forum moderator at Immeritus who lives in England, to bring back the scoop:
Next summer looks like it's going to be a fabulous one for Harry Potter fans: the fifth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, will be released, and alongside it a brand-new video game. Electronic Arts (EA) and Warner Bros. (WB) wanted input from the fans at a very early stage of the game's development and so I found myself traveling to the EA studios in Chertsey to meet representatives from other fansites and the EA team!
I must admit that I had a few preconceptions about the video game team. It had been mentioned to me that they were HP fans and, although I thought they'd probably read the books and seen the films, I was sceptical that they'd have the same kind of knowledge and enthusiasm as we do (the kind that comes from analyzing a single sentence to several pages of discussion).
My day actually got off to a bit of a bad start. First, there was the early train to catch (although, as I later found out, some of the other reps had been up a good three hours before me!), there was the threat of rain, and then I couldn't find my taxi. After that, however, I'm pleased to say that the day just got better and better!
I arrived at the EA "offices" and that was my first surprise. I was expecting a rather boring red brick building but I was confronted with beautiful modern architecture. All glass panels and white columns, laminate flooring and stairs, and outside, a peaceful lake situated to the left of the building with tables and chairs set on the decking.
We were given our name badges, greeted by EA Marketing Manager Lisa Humphries, and taken through to the Sports Bar where all the fansite representatives were gathering (there were eight of us in total). EA provided breakfast of fresh fruits, chocolate muffins, pastries and tea and coffee and then we were off to the media centre to officially begin the day.
Cue the second surprise – four tables laid out in house colors! Five of the fansite representatives claimed to be Gryffindors (including me), with each of the other three houses getting one each. Slytherin managed to claim Louise McTighe, the WB Interactive Producer, and Lisa to their numbers though! The tables weren't laid out in our honor however. The team working on the OotP game (currently about 85 people) are all sorted into houses and they sit in those houses for regular meetings. Points are won for individual houses and collected in jars, and there's even a sorting ceremony whenever a new member joins the team!
After getting settled in at the tables it was time for producer Matt Birch's presentation. I think it took all of three seconds to realize that here was a true fan. Not only does he have boundless enthusiasm (the kind accompanied by frantic gesturing and foolish wand-waving), he knows the books and films inside out, and seems to be making a tour of all the HP locations. (I'm not joking about the wand-waving either; he has several wands, including one signed by the Phelps twins and Rupert Grint, and he held on to another one throughout his presentation.) He's even been known to do air-magic (as opposed to air-guitar) on the DADA classroom set despite receiving strange looks. All together now: "Expecto Patronum!"
As a little introductory piece, Matt told us which his favorite book, teacher and student are, introduced Chris Roberts (Game Designer) who spoke about his favorites, and then it was our turn. PoA did very well in the book category, as did Dumbledore for teacher and Harry for student. (Snape divided opinion, as always, and yes, Immeritans, I got a mention of Sirius Black in despite it not being strictly part of the question!)
Matt then showed us a scene from the new OotP game: Harry and Hermione in the Gryffindor Common Room (GCR). It was spine-tingling and spell-binding. Harry and Hermione are so realistic not just in terms of posture but facial expression too. The GCR itself is intricately detailed. The carpets, the tapestries, cushions and armchairs are so realistically textured that my fingers wanted to touch them. The portraits move, the fire dances and flickers, and the Wizard Chess moves of its own accord. Every item in the room can be interacted with so the books can be induced to fly around the room and into the fire before they frantically try to put themselves out and return to the bookshelves to recover. The armchair can be levitated with its cushion desperately trying to keep up. Crookshanks has not been forgotten either, and you can make him purr or spit depending on how evil you feel!
The GCR demonstrates some of the key themes for the OotP video game – discovering Hogwarts, magic, and interacting with the characters. Those of you who've played the previous HP games and were disappointed with not being able to explore Hogwarts in GoF will be thrilled to know that it's back with a vengeance. The team promise that you'll be able to spend hours just wandering around exploring Hogwarts, and getting rewarded for it! In terms of magic, there will be new spells and rewards for performing spells in a specific order – combination spells if you like – as well as magical items such as the Invisibility Cloak and the Marauder's Map. OotP will also allow you to get involved with games within the game – this will be your chance to play Wizard Chess and Exploding Snap, for example!
One of the most striking differences between OotP and previous titles is the number of characters. OotP will, in a large part, be about interacting with portraits, ghosts, fellow students and teachers - all of whom may give you tasks to complete. Indeed, one example that we saw was in the GCR: a Quidditch player portrait charges Harry with finding the snitch that Harry himself had let go in OotP Ch 19. (This is also an excellent example of how well the team know and use canon, this task being based on one sentence of canon text.)
Needless to say, all of the fansite representatives were extremely impressed by the extract we were shown. It was not the final version by any means, but it was much further in development than much of what we saw later and gave us a great indication of what the final product might be like.
Matt, in his enthusiasm, was threatening to overrun his time slot so it was agreed that he'd finish his presentation after we'd been on the tour of the studios and had lunch. For the tour we were split into groups of three and taken on three different mini-tours. I was in a group with Louise of WB and our first tour was a general overview of the storyline of the HP game. It was interesting to see how the different aspects of the game fit together. There is the discovering Hogwarts theme and the extra tasks, like the wizarding games, but there is also a very distinct canon OotP storyline as you'd expect. The game will start in Little Whinging [listens to cheers from those who really wanted to see that] before moving to Grimmauld Place where Harry will learn some magic from one Sirius Black [hears thunderous cheers from Immeritans]. From there the action moves to "Dumbledore's Hogwarts" where the first explorations of the school and grounds can take place. This is also the time when Harry starts to recruit members to Dumbledore's Army (DA). Action then starts to take place at the Room of Requirement (RoR) and, reflecting the significant change from previous books and games, Harry becomes the teacher. This is followed by the introduction of Grawp.
Christmas at Grimmauld Place is the next major setting and there is more interaction with Sirius. There is also the opportunity to explore Grimmauld Place. After that it's back to Hogwarts but this time it's Umbridge's domain. In direct contrast to DD's Hogwarts there will be no students hanging around in groups and the characters will be much less willing to talk to Harry. There will be Occlumency lessons with Snape but a major feature of this part of the game will be tasks rebelling against Umbridge's authority culminating, of course, in the infamous Fred and George leaving scene!
The action then moves to the Ministry of Magic (MoM) and the quest to find the Prophecy room before the showdown between the Order and the Death Eaters. At various points during the game there will be an opportunity to play a different character and the final battle between Bellatrix and Sirius is one of them. You'll get to hit Bellatrix with whatever you can throw at her as the most dangerous Marauder!
Next we move to the MoM lobby as Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort fight it out. The next scene(s) are classified and we haven't seen it/them so I can't tell you how the game ends! Not even the subtle questioning tactics of one of the other fansite reps could induce them to tell us whether there's an encounter between the Order and the Dursleys!
This mini-tour also encompassed the conceptual art (i.e. art that is produced using information from the books before any blueprints or photos from the film sets come in). I have to say that some of the art was outstanding. The Veil scene, in particular, was just as I'd imagined it and if the game (or the film) look similar I will be very happy indeed. The Dumbledore, Harry and Snake!Voldemort picture was extremely well done too but if I talk about them any more I'll be here all day.
Our second mini-tour was of the sound department. We went into one of the studios complete with recording booth. It was here we learned about all the different sounds that go into making just one scene. There's the dialogue from sound-alikes and actors (Ralph Fiennes voiced Voldemort last year), foley (sounds created by the team – the classic example being horse's hooves created using coconut shells), ambiance (sounds recorded on location such as in a forest) and music. We heard the difference between a piece of music put together by the team as an example of what they'd like for a scene and the finished version as performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and a 14 voice choir. As you can imagine, the latter was incredible – the clarity of the percussion sounds especially stood out for me. We also got the chance to listen to a scene from the upcoming game – the one in chapter 33 when Hermione and Co. are surrounded by centaurs and Grawp suddenly appears asking for "Hagger." The version we heard was an early recording with the sound team themselves performing the dialogue but it also featured music and sounds they'd created of themselves stomping around a forest. All we could see while this was being played was a piece of conceptual art depicting the scene. However, the soundtrack was so strong that it immediately took me to the scene and despite being a committed Grawp-hater I found myself going "Awww!" when he said "Hermy." I'm very hopeful, therefore, that the game and the film will succeed in making Grawp a likeable character to me.
Our final mini-tour was a tour around the open-plan office of the HP team. Accompanied by Art Director Kelvin Tuite, we wove our way around scores of desks each with its own computer. First of all, we saw how the characters themselves were being created. We saw the scans of the actors and then the layers that were added to give skintone, texture, detail and the right lighting. This process takes two weeks for each character.
We also saw the differences between the GoF, PS2 OotP and next generation (Nintendo Wii, PS3) OotP graphics. Even between the GoF and OotP Playstation versions there is a significant improvement in the graphics and the level of detail, but for the next generation, it was almost incomparable. The character-in-progress that we saw was Alan Rickman's Snape. With the PS2 version, a couple of layers were added to the grey scan giving the skin tone and more detail. For the next generation, however, there were further layers: the skintone gave colorr to the grey scan, the texture and detail gave the stubble (and, dare I say it, the lines under the eyes), and the lighting gave the hair a greasy tone.
From there we moved on to the scenes themselves. Hogwarts was initially based on information from the books and from the lateral fiction provided by JK. (This lateral fiction contains some of the information likely to be part of an encyclopedia if JK writes it.) As the films have been released, the layout of movie!Hogwarts has been continuously improved, so that the Hogwarts of the OotP game is now a hybrid of three to date. This time blueprints and photos of the film sets have been made available for the team by WB so that the two Hogwarts look the same. We took a grand tour of Hogwarts via computer, parts of it still in grey and extremely early in development, other parts more detailed and colored. We recognized locations from the films and it was fascinating to see how the team had linked up locations from the first two movies and those from the latter two. The team has also expended much effort in making sure that each room is located on the floor described in the books, so for the Room of Requirement head to the seventh floor in the game version.
The Gryffindor Common Room remained the most complete scene that we saw but the DADA classroom was not far behind. Here we were able to see the improvement in graphics again as the flooring, desks, stonework and metalwork all looked far more realistic. The rusting metal was particularly effective and had my fingers itching to touch again!
Lunch was provided for us and we had a chance to relax and speak individually to members of the team. While munching on sandwiches, salad vegetables and dips, scotch eggs, pumpkin pastries and those gorgeous chocolate muffins, we debated Harry as a Horcrux, Snape and the Unbreakable Vow and book seven theories. It was a pleasure to see that the team had thought about the books as much as we had!
The afternoon was dedicated to the rest of Matt's presentation which recapped the main OotP storyline points, and to a question and answer session for which Executive Producer Harvey Elliot had come in, despite it being his day off. This was our chance to give feedback on what we'd seen and answer some of EA's own questions. You've probably gathered from this report that our feedback was favorable! I think many of us had our preconceptions overturned and were impressed by the enthusiasm and dedication of the team. The attention to detail and use of canon was in evidence all the time. (This became apparent when there was a disagreement about canon – the book soon appeared and the issue resolved!) We were also delighted to see the re-introduction of exploring Hogwarts and the quality of the graphics.
They asked us to name the scenes which we felt had to be in the OotP game and our answers included the Fred & George escape, the LV vs DD showdown, the Veil, Snape's Worst Memory and the rooms at the MoM (with the brains and other goodies). We were also asked about our favorite rooms at Hogwarts and our favorite spells/magical items. The question on our least favorite parts of the book provoked some interesting discussions.
It was at this point that the team emphasised that they would like to keep receiving feedback from the fansites, so a new topic has been set up for you to leave more detailed thoughts about what you would like to see in the new game.
Finally, I'd like to say a huge thank you to EA and WB for getting the fansites involved and for giving me the opportunity to take part in the process. I had a fantastic day and was thrilled to see true HP fans working on the game. I'd also like to thank HPANA and Immeritus for allowing me to represent them – I hope I've done you justice!
Here's what some of the other fansite representatives thought:
"I've had such a great day at Chertsey, you really do feel the innovative spirit there at EA from the very first minute. And it is this spirit, their brilliant ideas and their pursuit to create the best HP game ever which will make EA's Order of the Phoenix a game full of new and inspiring challenges, containing so many surprising adventures and an exciting new structure in the game." Jonas (HP Fans)
"My reaction was that this is a great idea. Getting fans to actually have a say in how the game is made can only be positive. The EA team working on this have not only knowledge of the books, but an obvious respect for them too, and having WB, EA and the fans working together, should ensure the complete package is created." Donna (The Leaky Cauldron)
"The fact that EA enabled us to give them our comments and suggestions about the videogame, in order to make it better, proves that they are trying their best to make this videogame the one that is truly made for fans by fans. I left EA completely mesmerised by the attention to detail that the staff members have already put into the videogame and the amount of planning that actually goes into creating it. I truly have a lot of respect for everyone at EA and know for a fact that it will be a huge success!" Stefan (The Snitch)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will be available for the PSP, GBA, Nintendo DS, PS2, PC, Xbox 360, PS3 and the Nintendo Wii.