As kid-friendly MMO Wizard101 enters its third year, developer KingsIsle Entertainment says that it has looked toward Zynga for inspiration on how to evolve the client-based online game since its launch.
Later this month, KingsIsle will debut Grub Guardians, a new tower defense game -- and companion app to Wizard101 -- that the company says mixes elements from social games and even mobile titles.
"We're taking a trick from the Zynga playbook," Wizard101 creative director Todd Coleman told Gamasutra in a recent interview. "The trick is that players like to connect to a game's advancement curve, they like to make forward progress from whatever device they have handy."
"Sometimes players take 15 minutes, sometimes two hours, sometimes just 30 seconds to play Wizard. We thought it would be interesting to expose smaller, more digestible entry points to make advancements in the game," he continued.
This new browser game, which will later launch on iOS and Android, ties in directly with Wizard101, and awards players with items and experience that benefit their pets in the main MMO.
"The idea we had was, 'What if I don't have the time or the device handy to get into the MMO?' I might be sitting in the dentist office, and I have three minutes until I get called, and we want people to connect in with any device they have."
"It's a pretty simple concept really, but nobody's really pushed very far in that regard," Coleman said, noting other similar apps (like KingsIsle's own Wizardblox) rely on redeemable coupon codes, while Grub Guardians takes care of everything without codes or any sort of user input.
Balancing Social With Traditional
While KingsIsle explicitly pointed to Zynga as a reference for its mobile game, the company as a whole is also angling toward the social space. Coleman was quick to point out that KingsIsle sees Wizard101 as a middle ground between a traditional MMO and a modern social game.
"We're in an interesting position, because we're a little bit of a hybrid between what you're seeing now, which are these more casual mass-market appeal games, and the traditional MMO, World of Warcraft type of games."
"From a target audience standpoint, we look more like a Zynga-style game; we have massive numbers of people who come and try the game and we use that freemium model, but in terms of immersion, and the number of hours played by our players, we look a lot like an MMO," he said.
The real trick, Coleman said, is: "How do you tie the two styles together?"
KingsIsle's approach to the problem has been to new build newer, more social systems around the game's core MMO base, all of which feed into each other to create a cohesive game.
"I like to look at Wizard like an amusement park," Coleman explained. "At first, we just had our big roller-coaster, which was our leveling and our questing, and then we added crafting, and gardening, and pets, and all of them are secondary systems."
"Our goal with those new systems was to address players who weren't interested in the adventuring… We started with the assumption that each system would be a self-contained unit with its own gameplay experience, and then we baked ties in, so one game is affecting the next, is feeding the next, and so on, so we're dragging you as a player through enticement."
Despite his comparisons to Zynga and other data-driven social developers, Coleman pointed out that KingsIsle differs from these companies is some significant ways. For instance, unlike Zynga, KingsIsle uses metrics sparingly to inform game design.
"We still look at metrics and make changes, but I think with the complexity of a game like this, the data is an influence, but at the end of the day, you need the game design team to figure out what the right answer is," he said.
"For us, it's more like we look at the tea leaves, make our divination, and based on our gut, we decide what the right answer is, and that's what we do. Sometimes the answer in our gut is not what the data tells us, and we're okay with that. Our gut got us where we are, and we're going to keep going in that direction."
Judging by Wizard101's player base, that philosophy has paid off. The game currently has more than 20 million registered users, and Coleman said it saw 13 million unique visitors this September, which is traditionally a slow month for the company.
Growing Wizard, Going Global
In the coming months, KingsIsle has plans for a number of projects aimed at expanding and growing Wizard101 itself. Later this November, the studio will debut a new high-level content expansion dubbed 'Zafaria,' which offers new areas, spells, and more. Coleman says this type of new content helps further engage the game's existing users, and will expand on the game's existing feature set.
When it comes to bringing the game to new players, however, Coleman said he is most excited about bringing Wizard101 overseas and into the Chinese market.
This is the first time the studio has dabbled with releasing games in China, and Coleman noted he is looking forward to seeing how it plays out.
"There aren't any other offerings in China like Wizard101, so we really have no idea how well it's going to do. Obviously we have high hopes, but really, who's to say?" said Coleman.
The real challenge to succeeding in China, Coleman believes, will be finding a balance between monetizing for a Chinese audience and maintaining Wizard101's core design.
"The thing is, our game is very linear, and it literally leads you from one zone to the next. In the U.S., we have two styles of payment, we have subscribers, who can go anywhere they want, and the other option lets players just buy a zone as they hit it. That model has been very successful here, but that model doesn't exactly map in China," Coleman explained.
"The expectation is that players will be able to play through that linear narrative content without having to pay for it. The challenge for us is that for non-members, paying for zones was a major driver to become members, and it added a lot of lifetime value for subscribers."
"Attracting players is not a problem, but how do we make sure they pay for the game?" Coleman asked, pondering the challenges ahead for him and his team.
Reflecting on both Grub Guardians and Wizard101's push into China, Coleman admitted, "This is all a bit of experimentation for us," but also noted that he's excited to see how it all plays out.