KingsIsle Entertainment recently announced that Wizard101, its casual MMO aimed at teens and ‘tweens, has reached 10 million users since its launch in September 2008.
The magic-based MMO allows players to customize their character’s appearance, adopt pets, play puzzles and mini-games, and engage in card-based battles against other players.
The game uses a free-to-play model that allows players to explore starting areas for free, but requires a subscription or a-la-carte micropayments to unlock other aspects of the game. Credit for the game can be purchased online or on pre-paid retail cards.
Gamasutra sat down with J. Todd Coleman, VP and creative director KingsIsle, who previously served as co-founder of Shadowbane developer Wolfpack studios, to discuss the growth of Wizard101, the rise of free-to-play MMOs in the West, and how social games have affected the trajectory of online games.
The Growth Of Free-To-Play Versus Traditional MMOs
Can you start by telling me about your announcement of 10 million players in Wizard 101?
J. Todd Coleman: Yeah, the announcement hit recently that we hit 10 million players, which is a lot! (laughs) It’s a big number. The other thing that’s interesting about it is it took us about a year to get our first five million users, and it took us about eight months to get our next. The rate of growth is increasing as well. So it’s a pretty exciting time for us; we’ve got more people working on Wizard 101 now than we had at launch.
How many is that now?
JTC: In the Austin office we’ve got about 100 people, but we do have another project we’re working on as well. And in Dallas we’ve got another 20, and that’s the rough breakdown, but I could be off by a few people. The company is about 120 people total, I think.
What sort of percentage of paid users versus free users would you say you have?
JTC: I can’t give a specific percentage; it’s one of the things I’m not allowed to say. But I can say that a significant portion of our players have been on both sides of the fence. We see ourselves at a really interesting spot, from a market standpoint. The Facebook social media games are hitting a very large market, but the games tend to be very shallow; there is not a lot of content, not a lot of depth and few hours of gameplay.
And on the other side, you’ve got the subscription hardcore games like World of Warcraft that don’t really have a mass market; they’ve got a huge market, but it’s primarily still hardcore gamers. We sit in between those two and we offer the content and the depth of gameplay and the sophistication that you would see more typically out of a WoW style game but we’re hitting the casual mass market.
The majority of our players, regardless of whether they are customers or play for free, are not coming from the WoW groups. We do see people that are crossing over, and that’s a bit surprising to us. But we sit in that interesting in-between zone, and so far it’s been working pretty well for us. It’ll be really interesting to watch how that continues to grow over the next couple years.
Yeah, your target demographic is mostly a lot younger than WoW’s.
JTC: Yeah, players ages 6 to 14 are our core audience. But we have seen a lot of families playing together as well, so we tend to classify ourselves as family entertainment, meaning that you’ll have Grandma, mom, dad, and the kids all playing at the same time forming a party and exploring the game. That’s pretty cool; to some degree we became part of family game night, which is pretty neat.
What do you think about the fact that a lot more Western games are going free-to-play? How does that effect your business?
JTC: We’ve seen a big uptick in the micropayment and free-to-play model, but of course, when we launched, we were very light in that regard, so we’ve grown into it, but we really like the hybrid approach that we got. We’ve found that our players have fallen into camps: there are people who want the all-you-can-eat buffet where they get a charge on their credit card one time to avoid “nickel and dime-ing.” And then there other people who are like “I want to pay only for what I use and I don’t like the idea of giving anybody my credit card and getting charged just because I didn’t think about it.”
Players have almost polarized into two different groups, and we’ve got a hybrid billing model that applies to both of them. Of course, we’ve found also a number of the users that are overlapping, where they are subscribers but they also buy things via micropayments.
So it’s really an interesting time from a billing standpoint, and we’re kind of at the forefront of that. We’ll run tests all the time, asking, “Well, what if we put this on sale?” or “What if we try to make this kind of offering available on the crown shop?” and we constantly adapt and change to the market.
You guys must have some a lot more dedicated metrics people than you used to now, right?
JTC: Yes, we do.
Examining metrics is becoming a major area of game design for MMOs, free-to-play ones especially, because you can be so you can be predictive, but also extremely reactionary. How has that balance been working for you guys?
JTC: It’s actually a really challenging problem, because we’ll do a new initiative that will generate a sizable chunk of revenue on the first day and we will say, “That was a big success!” but then we notice a week later that it had a negative offset where something else fell off as a result. We used to have this feeling that we could just make balance changes if we need to after an update, but we really can’t do that as easily now, because it has a dramatic impact on business as a whole.
In more traditional scenarios, when you want to playtest something, you call a bunch of people and try it out beforehand. Do you feel that you have to do that now, or can you really just throw updates out there and see how it goes and then change things later?
JTC: It depends on the level of change. If it’s just a new item that we’re adding to the crown shop, we still put it through the full testing cycle to make sure it’s functional. But we can make changes on the fly; if we decide we want to put something on sale, we can go in and adjust it in real time on the live service without having to reboot or anything like that, and we see the results pretty quickly. If it’s something that’s larger, like the pet system for instance, which is a very large, very sophisticated system, with a lot of depth, [we put it through testing].
Do you still test player reaction, with kids on the street for instance, or can you just make a decision and then see how people react?
JTC: It’s a little bit of both. We still try and get feedback from the players, though it is becoming harder when you've got 10 million of them. Separating the signal from the noise becomes a real challenge, and we’ll continue working on that and try to improve it. But yeah, we sometimes just know as a design team we can just sit down and we’re like “this is the right answer and we need to move on immediately” and we’re right more often on that than we’re wrong. Sometimes we’re not sure and we need to go and ask for help and feedback.
Since the market is more crowded in the Western developed MMO space than it used to be, how has that effected your business?
JTC: So far, it’s really hard to tell. The growth curve of the games in the kids space tends to be dramatically positive across the board. It’s hard to say what those curves would look like if we were alone in the space. I will say that there are very few games out there that target our demographic spot-on and that have achieved the level of quality and polish that we have. But we watch those guys pretty closely.
Now, a lot more large games have gone free-to-play a lot faster than people thought, like Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online. Min Kim of Nexon has said that in his opinion, the more big players that get in there the better, because it creates more awareness of the space and a better perception of the general level of quality of free-to-play and hybrid models. What do you think about these larger games that enter the free-to-play space?
JTC: At a high level, I agree with him that it is a good thing; one thing I like about it is it levels the playing field to some degree. We’re a relatively small company that no one had ever heard of before, and we are out competing with big organizations like Sony and Microsoft who have tremendous reach, resources, and presence from a PR standpoint. To know that we can go up against guys like that and come out on top is pretty cool. The free-to-play model is a large reason for that, because it breaks those traditional lines of distribution down.
Back in the day, getting on the shelves was a challenge. Getting on the shelves with good placement was a challenge. Getting on the shelves with good placement ahead of these other guys was pretty much impossible. Now, we can run a commercial, somebody else can run a commercial, a kid can try both games, and the best game wins, and that’s great.
Demographics Of Social Games, MMOs
MMOs in general are ideally projects that lasts indefinitely, where you keep them going and maintain that success. EverQuest has been going for ten years or more, and maybe they only have 50,000 people on there right now, but they’re still on there and they’re still doing stuff and it’s worth supporting for them. Considering you’re working on a second project, how many of these games do you think you could realistically support at the same time?
JTC: We’re going to grow into it as a company, and that’s definitely a big challenge for any small company. We want to take what we‘ve done, replicate the success, and then find a way to make it scalable, and do it over, over and over. I don’t have a direct answer for you, except that we’re in the middle of the second project, we’ve got other stuff that is coming down the pipe. It’ll be a challenge, but it’s one that we’re excited to face.
I would presume that you’re going to target a different demographic with your next game, is that correct?
JTC: No, I actually think that we’ve hit a very nice spot. I liken it to the Pixar model, where we’re family entertainment; we make the game so it plays on two levels. We have the six to 14 year olds, our core demographic. But then the game’s sophisticated, fun, and has enough depth to it and enough humor and pop culture references that the parents don’t walk out of the theatre, in a movie sense, wanting to claw their eyes out. We’ve made a game that the parents enjoy playing and the kids enjoy playing. That’s a combination that is really hard to master, and now that we have done it once, and I want us to repeat that.
Also, at the end of the day, you’re not going to keep one player playing the same game for 10 years. The 50,000 players that you mentioned are playing EverQuest now are probably not the same 50,000 that started the game. Eventually, we’re going to have players who really love our game, but they’ve put in 1000 hours and they just have tapped every bit of content.
Taking those players and giving them new offerings is a very successful plan. That said, we’re not just trying to get our same players from one game to the next, it’s a nice base line, but we do want to expand our genres and expand the type of play that we offer to people.
And those kids are going to get older and I can definitely understand grabbing the six to 14 year olds and the parents, but there is a gap between those two groups.
JTC: I’m sure there is; Pixar must have the same problem. I’m sure there’s a drop off point where the kids go to high school and college, but Pixar reengages them at some point. On the good side, every year that somebody graduates out of our age range, more kids will graduate into our age range. I like that age group; I like getting the fan art and getting the positive feedback, it’s a really rewarding segment of the industry.
The Evolution Of Online Games
What do you think about MMOs on the consoles? Do you think that’s viable or something that is going to be interesting?
JTC: It should be at some point. Interfaces are getting easier, so the interface problem is diminishing over time. The big problem to this day seems to be the business case. How do you work with the console manufacturers in a way that makes you happy and allows you to build a viable business? Until somebody solves that, I don’t know. The significant games that give the best chance of success are going to be the ones coming from console manufacturers. They have a bit of an unfair advantage, in that regard.
The pets update sounds like an implementation of some of the Facebook style mechanics into an MMO space.
JTC: Yeah, it was. You learn from everything you play, right? One of the things that is really nice about the Facebook model was that while the activities aren’t very deep, the games have some really great bite sized nibbles of gameplay that appeal to the people that say, “What if I only have five minutes today to play? How can I still make some progression? How can I continue my momentum?” We were trying to incorporate some of that into our game.
The other thing that we wanted to do with the pet system was to build something different than the primary part of the game. We wanted to put a different activity in the game. Not something that was a sideline activity, like housing or crafting, but a separate advancement curve in and of itself that a person invest in and play all the way up even if they didn‘t participate really any other part of the game. If you look at the numbers, it’s paid off pretty well for us.