The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a postmortem of KingsIsle Entertainment's Wizard101, written by the studio's James Nance.
Wizard101, a youth-oriented fantasy MMO, was the first game from Texas-based independent developer KingsIsle, founded by the former Wolfpack team behind Shadowbane.
The following excerpts from Game Developer magazine's recent postmortem, published in the September 2009 issue, illustrate how KingsIsle grappled with business models and focused on iteration to successfully launch the online game.
Prototype and Iterative Design
As so many studios have found, KingsIsle determined iteration to be an endlessly useful design method. And with a mechanic based in part on the concept of a collectible card game, it made all the more sense for the team to work out a physical prototype first:
"The idea of a turn-based MMO collectible card game for kids was a bit risky, to say the least. We knew that the card game combat was our core unit of gameplay, so we had to get it right.
"Our initial prototype of the combat system consisted of hand-drawn cards (art courtesy of game visionary Todd Coleman), some ten-sided dice, and colored glass beads (for power points and health). We spent hours playing the game against each other (there were no monsters initially), changing card values as we went with a quick erase and pencil scratch iterative approach.
"The second prototype was on the computer, with a client and independent server—a multiplayer version with 2D cards and data stored in tables for easy iterations and balancing. Limited A.I. for computer controlled opponents came later, and served as the basis for our full monster A.I. system.
"The critical part of this early work was to see if the basic core gameplay was fun, and to refine the combat rules. Those rules evolved into our current combat resolver. Prototyping was critical to our later success; locking down core gameplay early allowed us to focus on other elements of the game instead of going through multiple project restarts we couldn’t afford.
"This iterative approach to development was applied to all new systems, though not to the same degree. Each time a new system was brought online, we’d get it functional as quickly as possible and try it out. Feedback was gathered from anyone and everyone in the company, and incorporated.
"As the game’s development progressed, we also took the opportunity to focus test. Art direction, pricing model, story elements, characters, combat—almost everything was put in front of kids and parents at some point during production. We listened to the customer, and reaped the benefits."
Changing the Business Model Close to Launch
But while design underwent significant iteration, the business model was changed quite late in development. The fallout of that decision only further demonstrates the importance of long-term planning, particularly with respect to an aspect of MMOs that is currently a matter of great contention:
"Naturally, getting people to give us money for the game was key to our longevity and success as a company, and so the business model was a hotly debated topic during early production.
"We finally settled on a subscription model that was family-friendly and had a good price point. Fairly close to launch, however, we re-opened the subject for discussion and decided to take a more hybrid approach—we’d allow for both subscribers and micropayment customers.
"At the same time, we also decided to allow users to play the first part of the game for free. By adding a free trial, we increased the number of players the architecture had to support by an order of magnitude. It’s a testament to the scalability of what our engineers built that it was even possible that late in development.
"We’ve seen promising results from catering to users that want to pay us in different ways, but because we chose to offer micropayments fairly late in the development cycle our implementation was less than ideal. For example, rather than having a micro-payment shop available to the users at the touch of a button, we had to use an automated in-game character as our micro-payment shopkeeper. Players have to find him in-game to be able to make micro-transactions. Additionally, the types and variety of items available for micropayments are limited and not altogether compelling.
"Another challenge to using the hybrid approach has been the fine line we have to walk with our users; we want to entice our subscribers to make microtransactions, but we don’t want to make them feel like they are getting less value for their monthly payments or being forced to use microtransactions.
"The approach we’ve taken is that for every item available in the game for a micropayment, that item is also available in the game by other means—for gold, as a rare monster drop, or as a PvP reward. By doing this we have an answer to our subscribers’ concerns about value, but it makes for a lot more data work, is error-prone, and can create game balance issues.
"If we had the chance to do it all over again, we would pursue a hybrid business model earlier in development. That way we could have created a much smoother experience and more compelling micro-transaction offerings to the users."
The full postmortem for Wizard101 explores "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the September 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine.
The issue also includes a middleware developer feedback roundup, a feature on fixed camera positions in games, an in-depth examination of different methods of damage arbitration in multiplayer games, and our regular monthly columns on design, art, music, programming, and humor.