Wizard 101 Creators: Family Friendly Doesn’t Equate to Lesser Quality

Reading Time: 7 minutes

I first became aware of Wizard 101 when my twins (age eleven) pleaded with me to download the free edition. I checked out the game and eventually caved.

After a false start because Vista kept crashing–the fault of the operating system, not the game–we tried again after upgrading to Windows 7.

They’ve been playing Wizard 101 happily ever since. My twins tend to try new stuff, play it to death and move on. But they haven’t shown any signs of being bored yet.

For those who haven’ t tried it yet, Wizard 101 is multi-player online role-playing game from KingsIsle Entertainment. You begin as a novice wizard, choose a school, and then begin to amass points through duels and other sorts of mini-games. Only Wizard City is available to players at the start but as you gain points and experience, the other worlds open up.

It’s a very nice introduction to multi-player games for children. Communication is filtered by player age, and duels between players are only available in a special section, so there are not constant challenges.

Screenshot of the Garden Feature in Wizard 101

The only problem I’ve had with Wizard 101 isn’t so much a problem as being a victim of its success. You can play the game for free but more is open to players if they have a paid subscription or if they buy crowns that can be used in the game. While it’s easy to enjoy the game playing it for free, that doesn’t always satisfy everyone. My youngest daughter tends to go through crowns very, very fast and then ask for more. That can get expensive.

Prompted by her love of the game, I finally took it for a spin myself after the company supplied a free subscription and an epic bundle that opened up more areas of the story world so I could see what was available.

I was impressed. Wizard 101 takes care of beginners nicely and without discouraging the novice. I had fun creating my own wizard and choosing my school. I was then welcomed to the Ravenwood School by the headmaster and proceeded to duel the game’s main enemy. The initial duel worked as a training guide to provide new wizards with some confidence and experience in the arena.(It also had cool graphics.)

At the end of the duel, my life points were restored and I was welcomed inside.

A screenshot of Celestia in Wizard 101

Last week, I spoke via email to Todd Coleman, the creative lead at KingsIsle behind Wizard101, and to Josef Hall, the co-creator of the game for KingsIsle. Coleman, a co-founder of Wolfpack Studios Inc., was named Massive Gamer magazine’s #6 Most Influential Person in Gaming, and also one of Game Developer Magazine’s Top 50 Developers. Hall co-founded Wolfpack Studios Inc., and was instrumental in all aspects of product design until the company was acquired by Ubisoft Entertainment in 2004.

What do you think separates this game from the rest available via PCs?

Coleman:

Wizard is a very different kind of game. A lot of “family friendly” products aren’t really made with an eye for quality; we’re unique in that we are as approachable and kid friendly as any game out there, but our art style, our cinematic combat system, our character acting – these are elements more commonly attributed to the triple-A game titles.

In movie terms, we look to Pixar as our guiding light. “Family-friendly” doesn’t equate to “short-cut quality.” Quite the opposite, in fact.

Hall:

There are many other things that give Wizard101 its unique character. It’s a surprisingly deep and rich MMO experience, which appeals to experienced gamers, but it is also very easy to learn and play.

I think that approachability makes it easy for both kids and parents that have never played an MMO to jump in and not be overwhelmed. It’s also much more story-driven than most MMOs. This means that the experience has more meaning and isn’t just a simple level grind, but it also means that you are guided through your adventures and never at a loss for what to do next.

Finally, it combines some concepts that are enjoyed by many: a school for Wizards with collectible card-based dueling in a fun and whimsical universe.

What inspired you to create the game for all-ages?

Josef Hall:

A couple of things led me in this direction. First of all, I have young daughters and wanted them to have a fun and safe game to play. Also, I generally like ideas that are focused on areas that are being ignored or under-served by others in the marketplace.

Something that I really love about the kids market is that creatively, it’s completely open. Kids can see things with fresh eyes, and they’re willing to give you a larger range of latitude when it comes to trying out new ideas. They have an attitude that says, “I don’t know where you’re going with this, but let’s find out!” and that enables you to try out creative directions that might be too risky for an older primary audience.

What steps have you taken to ensure children are safe from harassment while playing?

Coleman:

One of our first principles in developing Wizard101 was: safety first. We went to extraordinary lengths to protect our younger players.

Players under the age of 13 are limited to “safe chat”, which means they can only communicate with other players through the use of pre-canned phrases selected from a menu (“Hello!”, “How are you?”, “Let’s go fight that dragon!”) This is the ultimate degree of safety, as these players literally cannot send or receive any private or inappropriate messages.

Players who are over 13 can opt to use our Safe Dictionary chat system. We created a dictionary of safe words and players can then construct any sentence they want using only these words… well, almost any sentence – we also had to add a filter that removes inappropriate innuendos created out of safe words. We’ve done as much as you can with automation; eventually you reach a point where people have to get involved.

To facilitate that, we have a reporting mechanism for players to flag inappropriate conduct that they witness in game. So, when other players try and get around the filters, and some do, that behavior will be reported and will eventually flow back to someone in our office. Then we assess the situation, look at the context, and address it appropriately. This could result in a warning, or muting the player for some period of time, or sometimes even banning them from the game.

Can you take us through the design process for Wizard 101?

Todd Coleman:

The design process is somewhat hard to describe at the start — because ideas can really come from anywhere. Wizard101 is an odd fusion of elements, meaning that we love to squash together things that don’t normally go together. Like (Feudal Japan + Barnyard Animals = world of Samoorai and Ninja Pigs). It’s odd, but when you put the right elements together with an approachable art style and a tongue-in-cheek attitude, unexpected things can really gel nicely. After the initial brainstorming, the process becomes a lot more predictable.

Game features, characters, environments – it all starts with a written vision document, which is then sent to the various groups for concepting or prototyping. From there, it’s a question of iteration; we look at the initial results and make changes, which often lead to new (and hopefully better) ideas and we re-concept. Basically you repeat this process as many times as you can afford to do so – with more important features or characters getting a larger slice of the pie – until you’ve got something really cool and unique.

Do that enough, and a game starts to emerge.

Talk about the difference between what’s available when playing without a subscription to what is available with a subscription? Can simply buying crowns get what you need in the game without a subscription?

Coleman:

Wizard101 was one of the first online games to offer a hybrid model for how players consume content. Parts of the game (the low level adventure areas, the Pet game, housing, the gardening system) are accessible to all players, even those that have never subscribed or purchased Crowns. In fact, we have a number of Wizards that started the game at launch (two years ago) and are still active, but have never spent a dime.

Those interested in exploring the premium content (which begins around level 10), have the option to become monthly subscribers for full and unlimited access, or to purchase permanent access to individual areas for Crowns, our in-game currency. Subscription pricing (depending on the plan and period selected) ranges from $7-$10 per month. Players that elect to purchase areas using Crowns pay the equivalent of about $2 per zone.

There is no clear answer regarding which approach is better – it depends on play style.

If a member, or family of members, plays through content quickly … then subscription is likely a good option. If, however, players take more time to explore each area, then using Crowns to “pay as you go” might be a better option.

Our goal is to give our players the ability to choose the approach that works best for them. It seems to be working quite well. In June of 2010 we announced more than 10 million players had registered for Wizard101, and that number continues to grow rapidly.

If you could tell someone one thing about Wizard 101, what would it be?

Hall: I would tell them to give it a try! People have preconceived notions about the game, but lots of parents and grandparents try it with their kids and end up loving it. It really is a great opportunity for parents and their kids to share an experience together. We wouldn’t have reached 10+ million players if the game wasn’t really fun.

Honestly, I don’t really spend a lot of my time trying to sell people on Wizard101 anymore. The game speaks for itself. Try it, and you’ll see.

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