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Some Harry Potter Game Developers Rattled by J.K. Rowling Backlash

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Copies of Harry Potter books 

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One of the most anticipated video games is one whose existence has yet to be acknowledged by its publisher, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. It’s a big-budget Harry Potter game that will let players role-play as wizards and roam a vast, open-world re-creation of Hogwarts and its surrounding areas.

The long-rumored project is very real, according to two people currently working on it. The game is in development at a Warner Bros.-owned studio, Avalanche Software in Salt Lake City, Utah, and is scheduled for release late next year for platforms including the upcoming Sony Corp. PlayStation 5 and Microsoft Corp. Xbox Series X, said the people, who requested anonymity over fears they would be fired for speaking publicly about an unannounced game.

Harry Potter is among the highest-profile projects within Warner Bros. Interactive, along with a Batman game that is in the works. Footage from a very early version of the untitled game began circulating in 2018. That video was authentic, but most of the rumors that have come out since are not, said one of the people working on it. Despite a series of challenges—a global pandemic, a fierce backlash against the franchise’s creator, a possible sale of the Warner Bros. video game publishing business—the game remains on track for next year, the person said.

JK Rowling GETTY sub

JK Rowling

Photographer: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Within the team, though, some anxiety surrounds the work. The studio’s management has not addressed recent comments from the author J.K. Rowling that were widely viewed as transphobic, the people said. The situation made some members of the team uncomfortable and sparked private discussions among staff over the pandemic water cooler, the workplace communication app Slack.

Spokespeople for AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros. Interactive and Rowling declined to comment.

Rowling, 54, is a near-inextricable part of the wizardry franchise she conjured more than two decades ago. She continues to play a role in most projects associated with the Harry Potter brand, and the game is no exception. However, one of the people working on the game stressed that Rowling has very little direct involvement.

Rowling has courted controversy on Twitter in the past, but this month, she made her most inflammatory comments yet. On June 6, Rowling tweeted criticism of an article that used the phrase “people who menstruate” to differentiate between those who were born women and those who transitioned. Later, the author expanded on her thoughts in an essay on her website, writing that “the ‘inclusive’ language that calls female people ‘menstruators’ and ‘people with vulvas’ strikes many women as dehumanising and demeaning.”

The result was that many transgender people felt demeaned, and the comments were denounced by fans and collaborators. Cast members from the Harry Potter series, including Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, said they disagreed with Rowling’s stance, and Warner Bros. responded by touting its “inclusive culture.”

Many fans are attempting to reconcile their love of the fantasy series with its author’s beliefs, which they find repugnant. On Reddit, there’s a 6,000-member community dedicated to the yet-to-be-announced Harry Potter game. The usual exchange of rumors and wish lists that takes place there was derailed this month by debate over Rowling’s statements. The forum’s editors posted a declaration that they “firmly stand in disagreement with the opinions stated in those tweets” and that fans should avoid discussing them.

The Rowling controversy is likely to diminish some anticipation for the game, said Felicia Grady, managing editor of the popular Harry Potter fan site MuggleNet. “Based on what I’ve seen from fans, I do believe that Rowling’s comments have had some effect on the level of excitement they have for the Harry Potter RPG or other upcoming content,” Grady wrote in an email. “We’ve seen comments from fans who no longer wish to support Rowling or the brand financially.”

The potential sale of Warner Bros. Interactive would have an even greater impact on the game’s future, said Matthew Kanterman, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. Pricy projects are the most at risk of cancellation in the event of a sale, he said, “especially something like this that has been in the works for years.” CNBC, which reported two weeks ago on talks to sell the AT&T-owned gaming unit, said a deal wasn’t imminent.

Warner Bros. had originally planned to announce the Harry Potter game during a news conference at the trade show E3 in June, according to people familiar with the plans. When E3 was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the publisher’s marketing roadmap shifted.

The new plan is to unveil the Batman game in August at a digital event called DC FanDome, and the Harry Potter game will be revealed later, a person with knowledge of the plans said. The person said those plans were made before Rowling’s comments.

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