E3 2011: First look at Wizardry Online

"One of the aims of Wizardry Online is to create a true experience of exploration like in classic MMOs," Headlock Games' representative said as he began this E3 presentation. "And to that end, you won't find a linear path funneling you through the dungeons, and your minimap won't show the exact location of your next objective."

This set the tone for the company's first reveal of this up-and-coming MMO. Wizardry is a long-running RPG franchise that dates back to 1981, although this will be the series' first steps into online multiplayer. And while the series enjoyed modest success in North America, it's been a phenomenon in Japan, where it's seen numerous spinoffs and sequels.

Wizardry's always been known for its open-world exploration and party-based combat, and it seems as though the MMO will continue this legacy as well as retain the hardcore approach that the devs feel has been lost to most modern games. "As this skeleton can attest, life is not so easy in Wizardry Online," the rep said with a smile.

Hit the jump to read more about this first look at the game as well as get a peek at the game's first screenshots and trailer!

Life expectancy measured in mere minutes

Dungeons in Wizardry Online are no mere matter of running a gauntlet through trash mobs until you find an end boss. In fact, the party that runs blindly through it is likely to witness its members' corpses decorating the hallways before too long. Traps abound in dark places, be they jets of fire, poison gas clouds, or razor-sharp spikes. Even the treasure chests, if improperly opened, may spell certain doom -- a familiar scenario for any classic Wizardry player.

The faint-hearted need not apply, and the Headlock devs are blunt about your chances: "Wizardry is a very difficult game and delights in killing the player. MMOs today coddle the player, but we're taking a different route. That said, this is a fair game that rewards the strategic and skillful player."

But just how hardcore is Wizardry Online? One word sums it up: permadeath. "When you die, you become a ghost and have a chance to get your body back," the rep said. "But if you should fail, you'll lose your body forever."

Perma-what now?

Headlock Games CEO Nobuyuki Okada stepped up to the podium to expound on the game's systems and philosophy, starting with the team's embrace of one of the most controversial topics in MMOs. Permadeath -- the permanent loss of your character upon death -- is so fringe, so polarizing, that it's simply been avoided by a vast majority of MMOs to date. Will this be too foreign of a concept for players to embrace in Wizardry Online, or will it be a major selling point?

Okada sees the consequence-free death-and-resurrection loop in MMOs as a detriment to the industry, and as such, embraced the idea of permadeath early on in the development cycle: "[Permadeath] will create a more realistic sense of urgency in the game."

Running away from a hard fight is a valid tactic, Okada said. But sooner or later, chances are you're going to die. To blunt the pain of a permanent character loss, players can stash gear, weapons, and valuables in a "cloak room" that is accessible to their next toons.

But it's better to avoid death in the first place, which is why teamwork and parties are essential to survival (and sanity). Wizardry allows you to create small parties or groups of up to 100 players to tackle dangerous dungeons.

However, one's ally might quickly reveal him or herself as an enemy, as the game has a full-fledged player-killing system in place. Players can attack each other at any time and even raid each other's corpses. If a PK happens in a town, the attacker is branded a criminal -- but there are no such restrictions while in a dungeon.

A blast to the past

While Okada plays many MMOs today, as a self-proclaimed hardcore gamer he looks back on the early days of Ultima Online and EverQuest as some of the "most interesting" of the industry. "These games were about discoveries and had a sense of tension because of their difficulties," he said. "It feels like there's something missing [with MMOs today]."

Okada jumped at the opportunity to work on a Wizardry game, as he was a fan of the series since he was a child. He said that the team has worked hard to translate the best and most fundamental components of the classic series into this MMO.

On top of including permadeath and player killing, Okada's team made the conscious decision not to hold players' hands as they explored dungeons. By removing the minimap and giving players no explicit directions, he aims to encourage explorers to learn to examine their surroundings and actually look at the dungeons they're traversing.

"In Wizardry Online, the goal is to have adventure," he stated. "The players never know what's waiting for them when they turn the next corner."

The look of the game -- with its dark and Gothic European vibe -- reflects the realistic slant for which the devs are aiming.

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The nitty gritty details

Wizardry Online will be free-to-play with microtransactions and runs on Windows XP (yes, seriously), Vista, and Windows 7 PCs with DirectX 9 or above. The team plans to have the game in closed beta testing very shortly, with a commercial release in Japan later this year with the NA and European release in 2012.


Massively's on the ground in Los Angeles during the week of June 6-9, bringing you all the best news from E3 2011. Whether you're dying to know more about Star Wars: The Old Republic, RIFT, or any MMO in between, you can bet we'll have it covered!

This article was originally published on Massively.