Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery

25 April 2018


This game is a particularly bad case of the free-to-play mobile game stereotype. After the first three scenes, you run out of Energy and cannot progress the story without waiting at least fifteen minutes. You read that right.

The game gives you one free Energy gem every 3 minutes and 20 seconds. To unwrap the vines, you need 5 gems. So that’s fifteen minutes of doing nothing. You have no option but to sit on this screen; the game literally doesn’t let you do anything else. You can’t escape the ‘adventure’ until it completes. A force-quit and restart takes you back to the same scene. There’s an ominous eight-hour timer ticking down at the top of the screen; who knows what that does.

I know this isn’t exactly a new trend, but the new Harry Potter game is a tentpole example of just how bad the mainstream iOS ‘games’ market has gotten.

The character creation and intro/tutorial were actually pretty cool. I was ready to be impressed. It’s very on-rails but the music is nice, they have voiceovers from some of the film cast and the visuals look great on the ultra-wide iPhone X display. You can move through environments by panning horizontally with your finger. The developers even implemented a variant on the normal iOS bouncy scrolling, with a slight camera rotation if you tried to pan beyond the extreme edges of the scene. There’s high production value here. I appreciated the attention to detail.

And then I hit the paywall. Less than ten minutes in, you are presented with a scene that you cannot progress without waiting up to half-an-hour, or fishing for your wallet. Even if you opt to do the former, the ‘game’ lets you do nothing else but wait for it to give you a free gem every three and half minutes; you need 5 total to continue on with the game. You cannot quit the scene. If you force-quit and relaunch the app, it takes you back to the same place with no escape. It’s like you are doing jail time for not handing over your cash. The Devil’s Snare setting makes for an amusing allegory.

Who knows how many times in the course of the game’s narrative that you hit one of these paywalled situations. This is one of the things that irks me the most. There’s no visibility into how much you should expect to pay. There’s technically no upper limit on what you could spend. Who knows whether the game will ‘generously’ give out free gems ad-infinitum. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a point in the game where it stopped distributing the freebies.

Of course, if you do choose to pay to speed up the time lockout, the game doesn’t let you buy the blue gems that you need five of. You have to buy a bag of different virtual (pink-coloured) currency, with prices starting at $0.99 and going steeply upwards. In game, you convert pink gems into the blue gems which you can then actually use to do what you wanted to do in the first place.

This is a classic psychological misdirection that helps to bury the true cost. You aren’t spending real money, you aren’t spending the virtual currency that you paid for. You are spending this adjacent sum. The indirection makes it harder for people to think about exactly how much a particular action is costing them.

Playing ‘Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery’ ultimately constitutes a sequence of cutscenes, managing three different in-game currencies and topping up your balance with real-money purchases. I use the word “playing” very lightly indeed. Add on to all of this, this game is clearly targeted at younger audiences, and I start to feel a little sick. This is a game that Apple is featuring. I want the App Store to enforce stricter rules on what freemium games are allowed to get away with.