First announced in May, KingsIsle's forthcoming Wizard101 MMO is a fantasy-based 3D virtual world targeted at teens and 'tweens, where players take on the roles of wizard apprentices at the Ravenwood School of Magical Arts.
In it, players can customize their wizard character's outfits and accessories, play arcade-game inspired puzzles and mini-games, adopt magical pets, and learn from seven different schools of magic, with a heavy PVP focus on collectible cards used for card duels alongside and against other players.
Interestingly, the core of KingsIsle staff has roots not in traditional children's entertainment, but in the much darker 2003 Ubisoft MMO Shadowbane, something which development head Todd Coleman told Gamasutra could be explained by the team's more family-oriented mindset, so many years from their first post-college roles.
In this interview, Coleman takes us through inception of the game as a true card-game MMO, rather than an MMO with a card game attached, its Yu-Gi-Oh! and Final Fantasy inspiration, and how designing for teens differs from designing for an older, more hardcore set of gamers.
So KingsIsle has people with a lot of experience on MMOs in the past, particularly Shadowbane.
TC: Yeah, I was on Shadowbane.
Is [Id and Ion Storm co-founder] Tom Hall still there?
TC: Tom runs the other project, so we have two MMOs in development. I run one, and Tom runs the other. Mine just happens to be first, so I'm sure at some point you'll get to talk to Tom about his.
Right now, Tom is also helping me by playing Wizard. His wife and him are a little bit addicted to it. I think he might be a little mad at me right now, because I think I nerfed his character last week.
KingsIsle is a really different and unique culture, because we have the sensibilities of a startup but the resources of a much larger company. A lot of that is because our founder, Elie Akilian, had such a strong and dynamic background in the telecom software space. It's a very different startup story than you'll hear from a traditional game publisher.
Where are you guys located?
TC: Our corporate office is up in Dallas -- in Plano, actually -- and the game development team groups are located in Austin. There's also a core technology group that works on cross-platform operations tools and networking layers -- all the things that would be common across multiple MMOs.
When you say cross-platform, you mean the MMO platform?
TC: Yes, across the MMO platform. We haven't looked at or announced any plans to move to any consoles or anything like that. I was meaning across one game and another game in a web in all the ways we're building technology. We're looking for commonality. We've got a little bit more than a hundred people now, I think.
One of the most interesting things is that no one had ever heard of us before. We're just kind of in a little room in Austin and Dallas just chugging away on a couple of MMOs.
February 1st was my three-year anniversary with the company, so it's been three-and-a-half years now, and we've finally announced the company and the products and immediately followed that up within weeks with, "Hey, not actually are we doing these projects, but one of them's in beta. By the way, you should join beta." The announcements are coming fast and furious.
With MMOs, a lot of the time you have the opposite situation, where somebody announces an MMO project when all they have is concept art. This happens a lot.
TC: That's what we had on Shadowbane, right?
Right. Since an MMO takes so long to make, even if everything's going right, it can seem like they were just hanging you out to dry, because you'll go all this time without seeing anything.
TC: From my standpoint, I was in that situation with Shadowbane. We put the marketing cart so far in front of the development horse that we felt like we were playing a game of catch-up forever. We were always trying to keep our fans happy while getting the game done, and those two things are really hard to juggle.
It's been a really refreshing experience here, that we were able to just concentrate on getting the game done and making the best game that we could, before we subjected ourselves to the pressure of the market as a whole.
I'm not sure exactly what your funding situation is, but is that at all a result of having more financial security?
TC: Absolutely. With Shadowbane, we were always hungry and trying to figure out where our next meal was going to come from. In this situation, we still have the startup sensibility, but resources have not really been a huge issue for us.
If we need to get another development server, we have to justify it, of course, but they've been very, very cool about being realistic about the resources that it takes to build one or, in this case, multiple MMOs.
Do you find that it's easier to get funding for projects like this? Your target audience and this segment seems like a hot area right now.
TC: It is now, but rewind to four years ago when I was out talking about it and nobody was particularly... well, [CEO and founder] Elie [Akilian] had the foresight at the time.
Remember, this was while it was still in beta, and at the time, people were still arguing, "Well, EverQuest is as big as any MMOs is going to be, and from now on, all it's going to be is carving up that same 500,000 people and cannibalizing." That was the general feeling.
Yeah, I remember the GDC after World of Warcraft came out. It was successful, but before it had really exploded, there was a GDC panel announced that was called something like, "Will an MMO ever reach a million subscribers?"
The day after that was announced, Blizzard was like, "We've reached a million subscribers!" but no one from Blizzard was on the panel.
TC: Back then, the market was a lot different. Everybody thought, "Well, we have determined in our infinite wisdom that there is a total of 500,000 MMO subscribers in North America, and there won't be any more." It was a little short-sighted, I guess.
Back then, the kids market was fairly well ignored. Everybody was looking at fantasy, and a few people were looking at sci-fi, but even that was visibly small. And, of course, there were these monster projects out there like with Marvel and DC in the superhero space where everybody thought, "I don't know if they're going to hit or not."
In the kids space, it was mostly silence. The idea when it initially came up was a conversation. It was one of those sitting at [pizza chain] Mr. Gatti's, writing up ideas on a paper napkin kind of conversations.
It usually starts with me and a couple of buddies. We always seem to be in this position together. We have one that just really resonates with us. Joseph Hall -- my director of technology -- and I were chatting on the phone about kids games, because his wife and his daughters were playing a very light kids MMO.
We were talking about how that market could potentially blossom and be huge, but there was almost nothing in it at the time. We started talking about what would be cool if we were younger, and what we came to was the realization that collectible card games are all about, by definition, collection. I mean, that's what you do with them. They're a competition and collection.
MMOs, to a large degree, are about collection and either passive or active competition. We thought, "Nobody's married those two concepts together. There's just no answer for an MMO that's wrapped around a CCG as its base component."
The other thought that we had was that all the other MMOs were following the same game model of, "Let's stand around a monster and all hack at it. There's a giant crab on a beach. Let's all smack it with our sticks," or whatever. We were thinking it would be cool to find some other mechanism to do that.
That's when we lit upon [Disney MMO] Toontown Online, which did turn-based combat. We thought, "That's a really cool idea. I wonder if you can do turn-based combat but make it more of a Final Fantasy style?"
We decided to rope that whole Final Fantasy style of turn-based combat in with a collectible card game and put it into a world that we thought was very appealing, which was the world of a wizards' academy.
Clearly, I've heard at least, that genre has blossomed into something on its own. The idea of a wizard school is evidently kind of popular.
So yeah, we took those ideas and stuffed them in a bag and kind of hit "puree" and what came out the other end was, "Wow, this is really cool. This is really compelling."
We decided initially to target the 8-to-whatever age group, but then once we actually started getting into it, we thought, "You know, I think I would actually play this game." It's been really interesting for us, watching our market kind of blossom and go well outside the bounds of what we originally expected it to.
Our design lead, James Nance, who was another friend who I've known since high school and was from Shadowbane and basically everything I've ever done - his mom is now playing our game, and she's put a couple dozen hours now into an MMO.
This is someone whose background in gaming is Solitaire and Minesweeper. She's not a game player at all, and we find her getting in and talking about damage over time and recovery rates and stuff like that. We've seen a pretty broad swath of people who have gotten into the game and found it to be really cool.
It sounds like you're growing more from your own experiences with traditional MMOs, but trying to put it in a different framework. That segment is rather heavily 2D instead of 3D, but what you're doing, at least in terms of the more technical sense, is more of what a gamer thinks of as an MMO.
TC: It totally is. We looked at the offerings that were out there, and - let me say - that's not an excuse for us to not run on an incredibly low-min spec. In terms of production value, we decided to swim upstream of the web-based offerings that had come before us, but we had set goals for ourselves that would still allow us to tap into that market.
Our initial download, in theory, for a broadband user, should be about two minutes to be up and running in the game. Then, while you're in character creation, we're downloading the tutorial. While you're in the tutorial, we're downloading the first adventure area.
Everything is more streaming, like a browser, and we set our minimum threshold to be, I believe, a 1 GHz machine with a GeForce 2. So yes, we did absolutely try to set a higher bar for production value, but we always put that secondary to keeping the game eating light as a bird on a processor or bandwidth standpoint so that it could still be very approachable.
The example I use is that, often, the kids' machine in the house, was not purchased to be a kid's machine. It's because mom got the new laptop, so dad got the desktop, and dad's old desktop is now what's in the kids' room. As a result, we needed to be able to target machines that were six or seven years old and still be running on them fine.
We still want to scale up so we can be competitive, so people who are looking at World of Warcraft or something and looking at us will think, "Well, World of Warcraft really isn't for kids, but this is still visually stunning. This is a really cool concept and a great game and I can see myself and my family investing time in this." That was basically what we went through. It's a real tough balance to strike, but I think we've done a pretty good job. Hopefully people will agree with me. (laughter)
The CCG aspect seems like something that tends to remain fairly popular among that age set.
TC: Definitely. A big chunk of this is because it's not like we made an MMO and then later said, "Hey, we should just slap a CCG in there too and try and do some CCG stuff." We actually developed that as the core of the game.
The heart of the game is that combat is based on turn-based CCG with cinematic style movies, basically, baked into it, like the old Final Fantasy games. When you start with that as your core and you build an MMO around it, it's a much different feel from, "Hey, I built this MMO. Let's slap a CCG in there."
We'll definitely see, but it certainly raises a lot of opportunities for us to look at other avenues and other ways we can try and spread the Wizard101 idea to outside the traditional MMO mobs.
There's also clearly an attempt to attract the Harry Potter group as well?
TC: It wasn't accidental of course, but there's a bunch of different influences. Harry Potter is clearly one of them. We're a wizard school, and there's definitely that similarity. You're an apprentice wizard at a wizard school, and you are the hero that they need with the potential to save the world.
Beyond that, though, the similarities aren't as deep as you might expect. We actually draw from things like Narnia, and we have a dose of [fantasy/sci-fi author] Roger Zelazny in there.
You'll also notice some pretty heavy Yu-Gi-Oh! similarities. We're fans of the Yu-Gi-Oh! TV series. It's actually really well-written and pretty cool. There's a bunch of different areas like that that we pull from.
There's no way to look at it and go, "Well, it's just like blah," because if you say, "It's just like X," somebody else is going to say, "It's got this, this, and this. That's clearly like Y." "Oh, that's true, but it also has this, this, and this. That's clearly like Z."
But the name, obviously, and the idea of collecting these spells in Wizard101 - originally, actually, we intended to do 101 spells to collect, and what happened is that we got into development and started producing this and when we all started playing it, and we were constantly hitting against that 101 wall.
We thought, "When are we going to put in this new spell that we want?" Finally, we thought, "Okay, forget it. We're going to go right past the 101 and keep going." So it clearly has the school tie with the idea of Wizard101, but it no longer is a cap for us in terms of spells and powers.
So your title now is just a single-entendre?
TC: Yes. (laughter) I guess I could pick out my 101 favorite spells, but not really.
Having worked on a more hardcore-skewed focus before, from a development standpoint, does this feel different?
TC: In some ways, it's actually more challenging. It's actually, from what I've found, harder to do a more elegant, simple interface, than it is to do a more hardcore interface, because you're constantly having to back up and think about things from a different perspective.
It's hard for me to remember a time when I didn't understand the concept of health or experience points, but when my wife got into our game and said, "What is this XP symbol?"
I said, "It's experience, of course!" and she looked at me like, "Why would I possibly know that?" I realized that, "Well...you wouldn't!" So we had to add a tutorial tip for that.
That's actually been really challenging, but to your question, part of the reason that myself, Joseph, and James were all attracted to this was because Shadowbane was such a grueling experience.
There was a lot of good that came out of it and a lot of great experiences, but it was also such a dark, gothic world, and a very heavy theme. Going from that and being like, "You know, I think I'm just going to go design some ninja pigs," was a freeing experience, and it was a very relaxing way to be creative.
There are commonalities and crossovers. We're still competitive players by nature. When we wrote the high-concept doc for Wizard, we were on the fence about how much cooperation versus competitive nature was going to have. We later added the arena just because we wanted to fight each other and stuff like that. Then, of course, it's a CCG-based game, and CCGs are PVP by their very nature.
When you get in, you'll be able to see elements of our background and our sensibilities as designers clearly carried forward, but thematically, it's very, very different. We wanted to make a very different kind of universe.
It could probably go without saying, but I'd add that we're in a different place now than we were with Shadowbane, where we were out of college and full of spit and vinegar and young and single. Now, all of us have kids.
We're all older and married, and started talking about how, because these take so long and you devote so much of your life to them, you don't have that many MMOs in you, unless you're going to jump from one project to the next. We looked at it and said, "What do we want to work on for the next four years?" And I think we've been very pleased with the choice that we made back then.
Did your company have any sort of a self-imposed charter in any way, in terms of the type or tone of games?
TC: Absolutely. KingsIsle as a whole definitely wants to make mass-appeal games for everyone, not games for the gamers. That's also been different because Shadowbane was a very hardcore experience. It was not just a game for gamers. It was for gamers that are exactly like us, and if you don't like it, you should leave.
With this one, I think we've grown, in terms of what we find fun and what we find acceptable of those games. I've got a Wii in my living room right now, and my wife and I play Zack & Wiki all the time. We've definitely all grown significantly, and I think that's reflected a lot in the kind of properties that we want to put out.