Massively interview: KingsIsle on Wizard101

Majed Athab
M. Athab|06.30.08

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Massively interview: KingsIsle on Wizard101

We recently had the chance to check up on KingsIsle and talk to them about their three-year conjuration, Wizard101. We sat down with the studio's director, Todd Coleman, to discuss what's in store for the tween-centric wizard school MMO. We also got some extra hands-on time with the game, so be sure to look out for something written about that soon. Read on after the break for the full article.

%Gallery-23433%Massively: We know a lot of the people on board are from Wolfpack, creators of Shadowbane; what sort of influence did that previous MMO background bring in giving life to Wizard101?

Todd Coleman: Certainly from a technology standpoint, experience makes all the difference in the world. It makes a huge amount of difference, having been there in terms of building the server architecture, knowing how to engineer a client to deal with any number of players in virtual space in any given time. I think you can tell now getting in and looking at the level of polish versus our last one, we've come a tremendous distance as individuals and as a team.

It's not just a carryover of Wolfpack people; it just so happens that for this first project for KingsIsle we had a little over half a dozen people that carried over from Shadowbane. We also have people from Ultima Online, EverQuest -- people all over the place. I just guess that myself, Josef, and James -- our lead designer -- we're all from Shadowbane, so that's probably why you can definitely see some crossover stuff. Though, Wizard101 is very different from Shadowbane in terms of storyline, market, and genre.

The art style is interesting. Can you tell us about how you came up with the artwork?

We liked the idea of big power comes in small packages. That was an idea we tried to place into our character design from the ground up. We went through great lengths in this game to put extra effort in all our character designs. We started back at pencil concepts and went through a series of iterations. Like say, here's a Cyclops; we'll make a bunch of difference concepts. I'll have a couple artists do it. we'll draw elements from all those and come up with a final. Then we do a color study based on that, making sure all the colors match and fit into an area, and the game as a whole. From there, it gets approved to model, texture, and even cinematics. It's not enough to just figure out how the Cyclops will look and what he's supposed to do, we'll also try to craft a cinematic around him so that even the camera emphasizes elements we want to emphasize.

I'm not sure that this process took more time in the long run because once you've gotten approvals every step of the way, then the number of retries goes down dramatically. You can slam stuff out like what we were doing with Shadowbane; we were slamming art out as quickly as we could and, as a result, it looked like a patchwork quilt. It had a bunch of pieces from all over the place and the individual art pieces looked really good, but when taken as a cohesive whole, it didn't really mix. Wizard totally mixes. All of the art in the game, I think at least, has a really consistent look, style, and feel.

What influences did you have on your art style? We can see some Harry Potter in there.

There are actually a number of wizard school-themed fantasy genres that we pulled from. I wouldn't say Harry Potter is the only one, though it's such a ridiculously successful intellectual property that it would be crazy to say that we're going to do our own and not going to have any similarities. I'd say the Dragonlance series and Discworld are other ones.

I think that if somebody is a Harry Potter fan they'll be interested enough to give our game a try, and when they actually get in, they'll find that it's significantly different. It's its own offering. In fact, it has more to do from a fantasy novel standpoint; it's more similar to Narnia or maybe even Dark Crystal but with a more whimsical, comical flair. You can tell there's a strong dose of Final Fantasy -- the older Final Fantasy games. We clearly took a page out of their book. Shining Force, I think, is another old set of games we grew up playing, so you can see a dose of that in there.

Is PvP limited only to the duels in the arena?

Yes it is. PvP is arena-only and it's entirely consensual. It's fun! I expect it to have a pretty good uptake as collectible card games, by their nature, are player versus player. It's kind of interesting, the idea of the Shadowbane guys doing a PvP game for kids. We're doing it in a way that shouldn't be offensive to anybody.

Arena fights can go up to four-on-four. Will there also be eight-player free-for-all?

Yes, it can be one-on-one all the way up to four-on-four. It doesn't have to be even. And, actually, the game is designed for free-for-all, but we don't actually have it in right now. I think what we'll end up getting at is we're going to do a big tournament system update right after launch. Right now the PvP is working but there's no umbrella system that ties it all together, so you just jump in and fight.

So what we're going to do in the first big update is do the full tournament system and I do believe that includes the free-for-all. It's pretty cool, we did a prototype early on before combat; it was one of the first things we did. It was all 2D but it had all the cards and sound effects so it was a pretty nice little prototype. Back then, it was initially free-for-all and it was a blast. So there's no question that we'd want to get it back. The question is just when is it going to come.

Is the gameplay experience one can enjoy playing alone, or is it necessary to party with other gamers?

It's a very solo-able game. We took a page out of the WoW book on that. We tried to make the game to where you could absolutely solo. There are some encounters that are very tough and challenging, and those, they scale up in difficulty as more people join, too. I don't want to say the entire game can be played solo because probably there are some areas that would be hard; like in Wizard City, there's a zone called Sunken City and when the quest giver hands out the quest he says 'you better bring some friends' and it would be pretty hard not to take heed. But, if you were to go on in the game into the next world and then come back and do Sunken City, then you could solo it.

We try to make it where the game encourages grouping but doesn't require it. The whole philosophy here was to try and take some of these MMO concepts and make them more approachable. To a large degree I think that's working; our lead designer, James, his mom is playing the game and she just hit the third world which means she must've put in at least a couple dozen hours at this point. Before this, here biggest game addictions would've been Minesweeper and Solitaire.

We noticed on the official website that death magic had been canceled. Why did this happen?

It's not actually canceled. It's a story event. So, there was a professor who tried to reach a little bit too far. He tried to cast a spell that he should not have cast and what actually happened is he actually cracked the world. His school fell off the edge of the world and into the abyss. As a result, the wizards agreed that death magic is a little too powerful and a little too dangerous so they canceled the class. But, with that said, it's still a viable magic type in our world. So players that come in and choose death, they don't have a school to go to initially but they can find other students and practitioners of death that will teach them spells.

There are seven schools of magic. Any hidden/secret ones? Possible new ones for the future?

Death and balance are as hidden as we get right now, but there are hidden and secret trainers out in the world that can teach you spells you can't learn in normal classrooms/schools. That's not to say that after launch we won't go look at adding additional schools; we engineered the system so that we could. Like the collectible card game, there's always a new wad of cards and new deck type.

You choose a school to follow. Can you use cards and spells from opposing schools? What are the penalties?

Yes, absolutely. You get training points that you can spend on learning other school's magic. You learn your school's magic for free. There's not a penalty per se. What happens is you'll get a lot of bonuses from your equipment. for example, I have +2% damage and +4% resistance to life spells; I might have an accuracy buff. The idea is that outside spells don't typically work as well in coordination. Though, I have seen people do some pretty cool combinations. It's not like a situation where every single class you're on rails and you're going to be exactly like every other player. We try to keep you generally within boundaries, but CCGs are all about customization and building your deck.

Can you switch schools later on in the game?

No you can't. Once you select your class, you select it for good. We're looking into doing some respec-ing though on those training points. It has been highly requested in beta and we've already started working on it. I don't know when it will come but we'll definitely put it in for people who want their training points back and want to spend it elsewhere.

There are over 100 spells/cards. How many are there exactly and how many for each school?

I actually don't know the answer to that. I know that the base trainers in the city can train fifteen spells for each school, but there are also treasure cards, enchantment cards. An enchantment card would be like an accurate card which raises another card's accuracy. Then there's also transformation cards, mutations is what we call them. Basically I can take an ice card and put it on my Firecat and turn him into an Icecat. Then of course there's all the monsters who have natural attacks; example, if you beat a ghost, sometimes you'll find a ghost card which is a treasure card you can shuffle into your deck. You can't learn it though. It's like a scroll in DnD terms; it's one shot and once you use it, it's gone. By the way, treasure cards are a lot like a sideboard. The only difference is that we let you access it in the middle of a fight. It's not easy necessarily; you'll have to discard normal cards and then you can pull stuff out of your sideboard.

Does each spell have their own animations?

They do. Actually some of them have a couple. Not all have multiple ones but a number of them do. Like if I cast Firecat, it has variable ranges of damage and depending on the amount of damage it does it'll do a different cinematic. In theory, they should get progressively cooler. The higher level spells, some of them are just flat damages so there's just one for each.

We've seen mini-games like Doodle Doug and Conjuration Concentration. What sort of other mini-games are there and how many are there in total?

There are seven right now. We tried to include a nice variety of them, some of them will look pretty familiar to some old arcade throwbacks. Of course, we had to change them up. We put in some that are more puzzle focused, like this one is "Potion Motion," it's kind of like Bejeweled. "Hot Shots" is actually my favorite. It's a bow and arrow game. We've got another one that should be done soon.

Also, out in the world if you find a silver chest, you'll have to play a mini-game to open it. It's a little locking game. We've integrated some into the world but to a larger degree they're used as an alternative advancement mechanism and a way to break up gameplay and give you something else to do.

How is the beta registration turning out for you guys? Were the numbers what you expected?

I can say we've been quite surprised by how quickly we've been getting responses. We've taken a very different approach with this game, we waited so long before we pulled people into the beta. You know, right before we announced the game. There have been thousands of people on beta.

How has user feedback helped?

Well we did a lot of testing on our own. We had a friends and family beta going on, and of course we all played. We got a lot of feedback, I'd say the biggest area is probably in interface -- especially from the more casual people. In terms of balance and stuff like that, we've done this before so we're pretty well covered. From a usability standpoint though, going after the types of players we're going after, we had a lot to learn.

I'm glad to say that most of those changes weren't 'scrap this whole sub-system and start again.' Though we did have a couple times where we did have significant design changes. Like I said, it has been a very different approach because we haven't really gone after the mainstream gaming market. We'll see at the end of the day how much pickup we get within that group. It could be that the game blossoms out and find that more hardcore gamers are really enjoying it, but that wasn't really our target market. We had to focus our feedback efforts in a non-traditional gaming standpoint. Coming from Shadowbane, totally different model.

Is there a level cap?

Level 50.

Are there any plans in bringing that card game aspect into a real-life collectible card game?

We're discussing it. I don't have any announcements to make yet but it's not a huge leap of logic. This would be completely playable and fun offline, and we obviously already have all the art done.

How do you plan to offer your game? Will it be subscription-based or free-to-play with micro transactions? If looking into micro transaction, what kinds of things will be available for purchase?

I actually know this, but I can't discuss this right now.

When will the game be out?

Q3 2008.

Is there anything you would want to add?

In general, I think a lot of gamers will hear that we're aiming for this market between Toontown/Club Penguin and WoW, and they may discount it as a result and stay away. If we end up doing a free-to-play model, it certainly won't hurt to spend a weeknight and get in. I think we're going to find that the tone of the universe is much more whimsical. The gameplay is actually very compelling, and I think that we'll find that a lot of people will crossover and find themselves surprised and enjoying it, and finds it surprisingly sticks.
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