While this wasn't the first time we had visited the studios, both Leesha and I were slightly taken aback at how the studio had grown, basically doubling in size and "still at it", according to J. Todd Coleman, VP and creative director of KingsIsle. One look at their packed art room would be enough to convince anyone that they are at a "period of pretty rapid growth." We were able to watch as an artist stripped down a character to its bare bones, then as an animator worked hard to give life to another model. We even got to hear how sound can make or break a gaming experience. Next, we were invited to sit down with J. Todd Coleman and VP of development, Josef Hall, for fan questions, talk of the need for careful cash-shop practices, and even off-the-record discussions about Han Solo's quick-draw ability.
So join us after the jump for some exclusive concept art for the newest expansion, and some details from the interview.
We switched to talking about the recent update that allows players to hatch, raise and collect pets that will serve as combat buddies. While there have been some "definite balance pieces," the developers are trying to stay one step ahead of the problems by listening to feedback and adjusting as they see fit. The tweaks will continue as some players find ways to burn through the content, while many others see the system as too slow.
"That's a tough balance, because at the same time you're going to have people who are upset and saying it is too grindy and other people that burn it through a week."
We had to ask about the much-anticipated update: Celestia. It turns out that it is "A lot more work than the players would realize, every piece has to be handcrafted," said J. Todd. "So much work has to get done." The update will include swimming in some areas (editors note: we are not clear if Marleybonians will dog-paddle or not) new areas to explore, new factions to meet, and ten extra levels of content. It needs to be noted that raising a cap is no easy task, considering that it is not just a matter of tacking on bonuses. There are higher-level balance issues that might even cause the developers to take another look at the earlier levels, considering the abilities that already exist. "We don't like taking things away if we can help it," said J. Todd, "it has to be a pretty grave imbalance in the game or something for us to remove it. "
Celestia will also be the jumping-off-point for the next arc, starting a line of five worlds. The developers even revealed the next "big baddie" to us: Morganthe. "In Celestia you will begin to figure out who she is, what she is up to, what her relationship is to Ambrose and Ravenwood and what you're going to have to do to stop her." Don't worry, though, not all will be dark and gloomy. In fact, the update will represent a return to slightly goofier, sillier characters -- a watermark of the game. It is important to note that "silly" characters are not always weak, and "dark" characters are not always powerful, another clever design tool that gives Wizard101 its unique look and feel. The Celestian culture is a mixture of multiple cultures, for example. It started as an ancient race that was plunged to the bottom of the ocean, so players will come across numerous underwater race factions to keep things fresh.
Also, the three new schools of magic in the update will not just be about damage and more damage. "All three of the schools are unique, self contained like new elements." J. Todd said. It appears that they will be more important than just deciding on secondary school.
Guilds have long been a point of concern, especially among older players who like the extra privacy and control that a guild provides. However, KingsIsle's main concern is for the safety of their younger player base, something that doesn't mesh well with guild chat. J.Todd: "I'm of mixed minds. We brought in zone wide chat and watched it on the test server, and just didn't like what it did to the culture of the game." Good news, though: friends lists are due for some much-needed love.
Also, the pet system can be played without any type of subscription -- all the way to max level with no particular "velvet rope." Perhaps KingsIsle has served as some kind of example for the rest of the industry? They even have had arguments among themselves as to what is the better value: sub or micro payments? There are many outsiders that might see the game as one that allows the "buying of power", though. "You raise a good point. That's what we've seen historically, the new players that are coming into the market now are actually OK with it, but the further you go back, it seems very odd." More experienced MMO players have the most issues with the freemium model, while players that have grown up, or experienced freemium games first, shrug it off.
For a moment we chatted about the older, darker days of Shadowbane (their first product), as compared to the bright and shiny times of Wizard101. "It's very hard as a developer, working late hours and not being with your family, and slaving to put something out, and you put it out and you immediately get a whole bunch of people on the forums telling you how you suck and trying to impress each other with how funny they can be in destroying the developer. It's not surprising that a lot of developers turn against their community. Or they stop listening." Fortunately, the Wizard101 community has made both J. Todd and Josef much happier developers, something they expressed several times.
It's amazing to witness the growth of a company that started when WoW was still in beta. "Not a lot of MMOs were getting funded. We went after the family entertainment space, and we decided we wanted to change up the combat model and go for a Pokemon/Yugioh style collectible-card bank turn-based strategy game with elements of Final Fantasy cinematics, and I'm very proud of that. I like that we took a little bit of a risk."
And the risk seems to have paid off.
We would like to thank everyone at KingsIsle for making us feel so welcome, and special thanks to J. Todd Coleman and Josef Hall for allowing us to take so much of their time. If you would like to hear the player-submitted question recording of our interview, go here.