Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

June 2004

Electronic Arts

Electronic Arts UK

Lead Design and Scriptwriter (Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo Game Cube, Microsoft Xbox)

Having completed Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets it seemed almost a matter of days before the challenge facing us was how to follow it up with the next Harry Potter video game – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The requirement was to create a sequel that felt like a logical continuation of the established series but with enough new features that it would become a different adventure with a feel of its own.

The first decision made was to make more use of Harry’s friends, Ron and Hermione. In Chamber of Secrets, they had been realised as relatively simple AI characters that lead you around Hogwarts according to preset paths. In Prisoner of Azkaban however, the intention was to take this to the next level with all three characters becoming playable and the player being able to switch between them at any time.

In order to give a reason for being able to switch characters, each character was given a number of different spells and items as well as different physical abilities. In careful consultation with Warner Bros and the author herself, it was decided that these abilities were, for Harry, being able to jump (emphasising his athletic nature, as seen previously in Chamber of Secrets), for Hermione, being able to squeeze through and under gaps that were too big for the boys to fit through, and as for Ron… Well, we decided to bring out Ron’s clumsiness and his unerring ability to get his friends into scrapes that, while disastrous at the time, ultimately benefited them in the end. This was realised by giving Ron the ability to ‘see’ interesting items such as hidden panels and other interactive objects that he alone would be drawn to and able to interact with. The idea was that those interactions would result in unique and often comedic outcomes that would push the game along (for example, Ron finds a large box in the Muggle Studies classroom that when opened is revealed to be a giant jack-in-a-box that catapults him upwards several floors, or, when in a Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson he finds a secret panel on the wall that turns about, separating him from his friends and revealing an exit on the far side of a pit of writhing salamanders.)

In games prior to this, Harry and his friends were ‘the video game versions’ of the characters. With Prisoner of Azkaban, the team was allowed to model and dress the characters so they were closer to the movies.

In addition to all of this character-switching gameplay, a number of other features were added – the ability to control Harry’s owl, Hedwig (and the ability to train an owl on the Gameboy version of the game and bring it across to the Nintendo GameCube to fly it) the inclusion of Buckbeak, the Hippogriff, as well as a series of Potter-themed Eye Toy games that were created by designer Matt Birch and his small band of art and coding wizards.

It was also an opportunity to add a number of features that never made the cut in Chamber of Secrets: duelling between the pupils, on-going Potions homework tasks set by Professor Snape to encourage players to explore the world with even greater purpose and the opportunity to go head-to-head a number of times with Peeves the Poltergeist. Peeves is a character that has never made it to the movies, but he works perfectly as a way of providing a mischievous interlude when sneaking around the corridors of Hogwarts.

The Grand Staircase in all our games had to be functional as well as look cool.

As the game design was formulated we realised not only that there was power in being able to have a group of characters working together but also in being able to isolate those characters from each other. This meant that the player would be presented with situations that would play differently depending upon which of the characters were together at any given time. This resulted in the game having an interesting ebb and flow, with Harry, Ron and Hermione being together in certain situations and then being split up either on their own or in pairs. Interesting scenarios could then be played out, for example, engineering it so that Ron would inadvertently trap Harry in a level and then seeing what would happen when he and Hermione were left alone to solve a puzzle together. Of course, true to character Hermione and Ron would bicker while being forced to cooperate to solve a puzzle if they were ever to save Harry.

Like Chamber of Secrets, the game featured small themed puzzle dungeons that acted as ‘lessons’ set by the Hogwarts staff.

This separation and reforming of the group of friends also served to underline the background story of Hermione and the Time Turner that is pivotal to the Prisoner of Azkaban story. It meant that we could easily send Hermione off to attend different lessons from the boys, only to reappear in class next to them when they arrived. (One of the conditions of adapting the story to a video game was that we were not to use the Time Turner outside of the final scenes of the game as it was out of character for Hermione to meddle flippantly with time. It would have also created situations where Harry and Ron could have been witness to the Time Turner’s effects long before the conclusion of the story. Fortunately for us, this restriction worked in our favour as giving the player the ability to control time in such an already highly complicated game would have probably meant that we would have needed Time Turners of our own to meet our deadlines!)
My role in all of this as Lead Designer was to coordinate the structure of the story and along with designers Andy Kerridge and Richard Evans, design the various game elements (controls, spells, creatures, reward systems) and levels (including an even more fictionally accurate rendition of Hogwarts.) In the final months, this also included working on the game content itself, alongside our massive team of talented programmers, writing in the game’s own custom scripting language to control the logic behind the many conversations and gameplay scenarios that arose within our interactive Hogwarts.

Harry flies on Buckbeak

A particular personal challenge for me on this project was writing the voice script (I had collaborated on previous scripts before, but this time, I was flying solo) – that ran to approximately 36,000 words of dialogue (that’s half a novel!) – from the storytelling cut scenes to the many in-game lines that ranged from the grunts, groans and oofs of characters suffering damage to the masses of lines to direct players through the puzzles (and which changed depending upon who you were controlling at any particular time.)

Most of our voice lines required a number of variations but there are only so many ways to write a line that says “come over here” to a player. In the end, though, the really cool thing about all of this was seeing the characters come to life with my words, the various scenes I had written being turned into movie sequences by our team of animators and hearing my narration read by the voice of the Harry Potter audio books in the UK, actor, Stephen Fry (who was brilliantly professional and a really lovely chap, disproving everything that is said about not meeting your heroes.)

I wrote a lot of cut scenes and the challenge was always stripping them back to their bare essentials so they didn’t run too long or kill our animation team in the process.

Eventually, after many months of the combined and concerted efforts of a huge and incredibly talented team of artists, programmers, designers, animators and audio folks, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban hit its deadline and came out in Summer 2004 to coincide with the release of the movie.

And, after a short break of a few days, it was time once again to have the privilege of going back to Harry’s world on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, determined to shake things up a little at Hogwarts with a new way of approaching things…