This is the second of three reports on the Electronic Arts (EA) Fansite Day which was held on April 26, covered by our UK correspondent Charlotte. This section contains interviews with key members of the EA team working on the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix video game.
As you may remember from my first report, the fansite representatives were split into houses for the afternoon. I was sorted into Slytherin along with Jessie from Dreuzels and Leanne from TheSnitch, both of whom were at the August 2006 fansite day.
Harvey Elliott, executive producer, oversees everything which goes into the game. A key part of a producer's role is to make the gaming experience the best it can be. He also looks after the business side of things: keeping an eye on where the developmental money goes and overseeing promotions.
Our first question, asked by Jessie, was: what's the most stressful experience you've had making the Harry Potter game? Harvey replied that he's actually going through the worst part now with so many things to be decided, the game to be finalized, and bugs ironed out. To illustrate his point, he talked about the number of e-mails in his inbox. In January this year he'd got his number of messages down to a fairly static 30 messages – at the time of our interview that number had gone up to a staggering 2200 messages which he was slowly wading through!
My first question reflected comments made on HPANA by owners of the Nintendo Gamecube and the original Xbox: how did they decide which platforms the game would be released on? It was a very difficult decision, Harvey said, but as it is they have 120 people working to produce the game for 10 different platforms - PSP, GBA, Nintendo DS, PS2, PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PS3, Nintendo Wii and mobile phone. When deciding which platforms to leave out, they considered which platforms were the most popular as well as which they could do justice to at their studios.
The next question was: could they recommend one portable and one full platform version of the game? Harvey said that the portables were very distinct. With the PSP you can join six-player battles so, if you have friends with PSPs and you want to duel with them, that is the one to go for. The DS, on the other hand, is more about mini-games including potions, transfiguration and O.W.L. revision. Harvey’s favorite version of the main platform game changes frequently so he couldn't give us a recommendation there. He did say that he thought that the PS2 version looked staggeringly good for a seven year old console!
Leanne then asked: does Harvey get the final say on everything that goes into the game? To which the short answer is yes! However the team contains some really good lobbyists who argue for their favorite bits to go in the game and Harvey reckons he always says yes.
Jessie wondered about languages: does Harvey have a say about which languages the game is produced in? Again, the answer is yes. Whenever a piece of dialogue is recorded in the UK studios, the localization group in Madrid, Spain receive copies and can then go about liaising with Warner Bros. representatives in various countries to make an alternative language version. They prefer to use official movie sound-alikes and currently over 1500 actors have been involved in doing voices for the Harry Potter games in various languages. Jessie also asked whether there would be an option to play the game in English (thereby hearing the movie actors' voices) but having the subtitles in an alternative language. This isn't something that will be available for OotP but the team will consider it for future games.
Our final question for Harvey was: will the PS3 version be able to connect to the PSP? No, and the reason is that it seemed to detract from the main storyline which is Harry's growth as a character and his transition towards becoming a leader.
Wayne Stables, CG supervisor, actualizes the vision which the art director has for the look of the game. He coordinates with the art team to align a proper style and with the engineers on the coding for the game. In short his role is a mixture of art, engineering and production.
Leanne asked the first question this time: what has been the most difficult thing to create? Wayne says without a doubt it's the characters. So many people have seen the movies and they want the characters in the game to look like the actors. The team have tried to accomplish this as much as possible and have worked hard to capture facial expressions.
Jessie then asked what Wayne was most proud of, to which he responded that there were a couple of locations he really liked. The third floor corridor was one – he loved the Hogwarts architecture and the 'old' feeling to the location. The other is a paved courtyard in which it's possible to stand and just admire the view of the sun shining between the distant hills.
I asked was there any way in which he'd say this game was breaking new ground? Although Wayne was very wary of using that term, he did say that he was immensely proud of what the team had achieved on the PS2. He feels that they've really pushed the platform to its limits in terms of sheer numbers of students included. He also thinks that they pushed the control systems for practical use of magic with the Nintendo Wii.
Wayne was then asked whether there was much difference between making the game for the various platforms. He replied that they author for all the platforms simultaneously and most of the models are basically the same but for some they add more detail. For example, surfaces are more complex for the next generation platforms. They also felt that if they could do something for the next-gen consoles they should try to push the PS2 to do it too.
Chris Roberts, game designer, explained that his job involved working with Matt Birch (fellow game designer) on the storyboards and coming up with missions using the books as inspiration. The ideas that they come up with are sent to JK Rowling, who has the final say. The mission to sabotage the clock tower in Umbridge's Hogwarts was adapted after JK recommended Dean Thomas as the protagonist rather than Neville Longbottom. But Chris is the proud creator of the rules for Gobstones which got the all-clear. On a day-to-day basis, Chris works with the programmers and designers to make sure the game is turning out as planned.
My first question was: how did they go about deciding which scenes would be included in the game and which would be cut? Chris replied that they read the book several times and broke it down into characters, locations and spells before producing a timeline. They also got to see the movie script and therefore which scenes would be emphasized on the big screen. The game will include aspects which don't feature strongly in the movie but the team still wanted to make sure that key scenes from the film were included in the game. In cases where the book and movie clashed, for example with the named members of Dumbledore's Army, the book has taken priority – there is no Nigel in the game, only Dennis.
Grimmauld Place was obviously a new, important location and provided the perfect place for Harry to learn spells. Umbridge's Hogwarts takes canon as its basis but ratchets up the tension into guerrilla warfare between opposing students. Fred and George's exit was another moment which the team absolutely wanted to include. Sadly, they realised that the Ministry of Magic was just too vast to get into the game so that has been pared down to key points of focus. One other thing that won't be included in the game is Snape's Worst Memory (although the other Occlumency memories will be there). As the scene is such a key part of the movie, the EA team were unable to get the assets for it and therefore couldn't feature it.
The next question was about potions: is it possible to make them at any time during the game? Chris replied that there is a potions lesson in the game but they haven't been able to do as much as they'd like. For future games, they're hoping to do more in terms of classroom games and potions.
Jessie then asked: what would you say to someone who wanted to become a game designer? Chris agreed that it is a great job and that the industry is opening up. There are more temporary contracts available and this can be a chance to show promise – and potentially be rewarded with a permanent position. The graduates working in the current HP team at EA qualified in a wide variety of subjects, from programming to technology, and from architecture to media and film. Chris added that game designers need to have a creative mind, be organized, and pay attention to detail.
Our final question to Chris was: what are you going to do once the game is finished? He answered that work on Half-Blood Prince had already begun – they're currently breaking the book down and looking at the themes. Chris noted that HBP is more relationship focused than OotP and that many of those relationships revolve around Quidditch, particularly Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Harry. He continued that it's almost like an American college movie but replacing football with Quidditch and he thinks that shows JK's awareness of popular culture. Chris did say he would be taking a break later though as it's his seventh official year at EA. That means it's time for a three month sabbatical before coming back to work on HBP feeling refreshed.
Kelvin Tuite, art director, explained his role by very simply saying "I create the art!"
Jessie kicked off the questions again by asking whether he'd ever thought of producing a book of concept art. Kelvin replied that the licensing was very complicated and that he could not do a book. For similar reasons a soundtrack of the game music would not be possible.
I asked whether there was a scene, either in terms of concept art or in the game itself, which he was most proud of. Kelvin mentioned two pieces of concept art he really liked. One was of Harry and Dudley in the underpass at Little Whinging and the other was of the GoF Quidditch World Cup teams. He and the art team had researched Japanese folklore and come up with some designs for the Japanese Quidditch team based on what they'd found out. The movie style does provide some inspiration for the game art and there are some freelance artists who have produced work for both the movie and the game.
As for scenes from the game itself, Kelvin likes the Grand Staircase and Hagrid's Hut. He also mentioned one part of the game which he used to be really pleased with. There's a statue which you'll be able to see in the movie but it won't be quite the same! Kelvin and the team went to visit the movie sets and took photos, including some of this statue, before returning and creating a perfect replica for the game. Later, however, a hat and the four house animals were added to the movie statue!
For the next game, Kelvin said the team would be building on what they'd already done for OotP but they'd like to add Quidditch and Hogsmeade among other things if they can. Again, the book storyline will determine which locations are prioritized.
Kelvin also mentioned that Matt Birch has really pushed to get classroom mini-games into OotP but that they still hadn't managed to do as much as they'd wanted due to time constraints. Kelvin concluded by saying his own aim for the next game is to improve the animation and the conversations, particularly by working on better facial expressions.
A little while after our interviews had concluded and we were gathering for the final Question and Answer session, Kelvin introduced me to Ross Dearsley, one of the concept artists. I asked him about his favorite pieces of concept art. He said that the Ministry of Magic had appeared in several pieces and he'd liked them. Hagrid introducing the thestrals was another favorite, as was Harry fighting the dementors in the underpass at Little Whinging. About fifteen minutes later I was clutching onto a superb piece of art by Ross as all of the fansite representatives were given a picture to take home. Unfortunately I'm not allowed to show it to you but it is a wonderful scene and it's just as I imagined it when I first read the book.
Next Friday, our third and final report will contain Charlotte's thoughts on the experience of playing the game itself. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will be released on the June 29, 2007 and will be available on the following platforms: PSP, GBA, Nintendo DS, PS2, PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PS3, Nintendo Wii and mobile phone.