PAX East 2011: Massively interviews Wizard101's Fred Howard

Karen Bryan
K. Bryan|03.16.11

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PAX East 2011: Massively interviews Wizard101's Fred Howard
There was a lot of game news to come out of PAX East this past weekend, and KingsIsle definitely arrived with some very big announcements. Wizard101 fans can look forward to a brand-new world called Wintertusk, which completes the epic storyline of Grizzleheim. Both high- and low-level players will have new places to explore and quests to complete. Highlights include brand-new areas for high-level Wizards to discover and explore, new spells, level 58 class pets for each primary school, a revamped underwater introduction zone for lower-level characters (continuing the story of the Crab King), and the ephemeral "more."

Massively had the chance to talk with KingsIsle Vice President Fred Howard about Wizard101 and the rapid growth of MMOs aimed at younger players. Read on for his thoughts on player security, the importance of story, and a curious Crab King with a penchant for rock.

Massively: Wizard101 reminds me of Pixar films in that it's aimed at kids, yet it still offers something to adults, particularly parents who play with their kids. How do you strike the balance between keeping it easy enough for kids yet challenging enough for adults?

Fred Howard: It's actually very core to the KingsIsle brand and everything that we do. We coined it as "family entertainment" as opposed to "family-friendly." Family-friendly is not offensive to an adult, but they're not chomping at the bit to see the next Barney episode, for example. With Wizard101, what we try to do is much more in line with Pixar films -- we actively try to provide gameplay on multiple levels.

We attack it in a couple of different ways. One is in the overall gameplay itself. We focus a lot on the interface and the ease of getting in and understanding it. But at the same time, our designers come from hardcore gaming backgrounds. If you look at (VP and Creative Director) Todd Coleman and (VP of Development) Josef Hall, they did Shadowbane before Wizard101. That level of depth and complexity is also a focus of the game.

I think one of the other things unique to Wizard101 in this space is that we're very story-driven. That sets us apart, but it also allows us to engage the audience on two different levels. There's a level for kids, but there's also a level of pop culture, humor and references that aim for adults. You can play through Wizard101 and the more you level up, the more complex it gets. You can still fight at a basic level, but when you get to dueling and the card-based play, it can get very complex. If you want to see some really complex play, jump into PvP.

Speaking of duels and the card game, have you found players use the cards and decks in ways that caught you off guard? Have there been times when someone has come up with a combination that you felt was too overpowered?

One of the really fascinating things with games in general is that you can design something for one use, and players find neat and completely unexpected ways to use it. I love how with housing, our players have been able to stack things on top of one another, and they've been able to make bridges out into spaces that we never intended for gameplay. Gamers by definition tend to like that concept of the game, and they're looking for ways to exploit nuances to define and uncover unique ways to do things. There have certainly been instances where a spell combination was too disruptive or too unbalanced in PvP and we've had to adjust it.

Security is always an issue with MMOs, even more so with one aimed at a young audience. Are there things you have to do differently from adult MMOs to protect your younger players? How big of a threat is it?

It's top of mind in anything that we do. We are interacting with an audience that has a huge age span -- we have a lot of adults but also a lot of kids playing. When we look at how we design properties, safety is the first thing we think about. After that, it's make it fun, and then everything else. We attacked that early on with our chat system.

We have the standard menu-driven chat of pre-canned phrases that are important for someone to play the game and interact. And then we have a unique chat system that we created. Most chat systems have a black list. What we did was create a white dictionary list. We took words that are appropriate for the game, and we said that's the choice of words that you have to interact. It's an extensive dictionary, but you can't say something like "I'm in Austin, Texas," because there's no reason to tell someone you're in Austin Texas.

On top of that, we added a black list that allows you to, for example, say "I love your robes" but not "I want to look up your robes," even though all those words are off the white list. We went for the safety factor first with the white dictionary, and then we went for the offensive factor next -- there are combinations of words you can't say.

My kids have had a blast printing out and coloring all the Wizard101 pages, and I know there have been many works of fiction that are inspired by the game and the characters. Does it surprise you that players have used the game to channel their creativity? Do you use player stories at all in the game?

I'm actually not surprised at the creativity. We actually encourage it. Story is one of the most important things at KingsIsle, so we focus on the story and we encourage players to take it to the next level. Gaming as a general category tends to get some bad press, but when you look at some of the issues in schools where they're cutting creative writing and art classes, I think Wizard101 really pushes kids and all players creatively. We have a huge wall in our office where we rotate fan art, and there's nothing that inspires our artists and writers more than walking past all these wonderful pictures and stories. We also post player stories on our website. We haven't put any stories in game yet, but we're definitely considering it. We recently had a challenge to write a Halloween poem on Facebook, and we had over 4,000 poems written -- and they were good!

Players seemed to enjoy the Selena Gomez in the Galaxy Quest-inspired in-game event. Are there any future plans for more cross-promotion in Wizard101?

You never know! We had fun with it. Overall, the response was extremely positive. One of the things we focus on is not breaking the reality of our fiction. You would never see a McDonald's in Wizard City, because it doesn't belong there. Selena being in game doesn't break fiction at all -- the point of the game is that you're playing yourself.

Another popular children's MMO, Free Realms, is soon to launch on the PS3. Do you have any plans to bring Wizard101 to other platforms?

I can't really talk about future plans right now, but we launched our iPhone game and KI Free Games a few months back. We've been able to integrate those so that, if you can't jump on the computer and play Wizard101, you can still spend a few minutes going to KI Free Games to play some minigames and earn some codes.

Fifteen million people have played Wizard101. How do you go about retaining them?

We announced 15 million back in January, but we had an even bigger month in February, which is typically a down month in the wintertime. So the growth continues to be outstanding. We have a new world launching called Wintertusk. It's the completion of Grizzleheim, and it's for players level 50 and above. It really continues on that story arc, so players will get the background of Mother Raven's storyline, and it will bring her to the forefront of the game. We have new level 58 pets coming out, but we also have to balance it with what we do for new players. One of the things we did was redesign the underwater zone used in the Selena Quest for lower-level characters. We continue the story, not with Selena, but with the Crab King. When he met Selena, he uncovered the concept of the rock and roll world. I don't want to spoil anything, but look for a rock lobster in the game.

What are your thoughts on the current state of children's MMOs?

I think one of the things I'm happy to see is this massive growth in the casual space. I often get the question about what I think of Facebook gaming and whether it's a bad thing. The answer is not at all. It exposes a huge audience to the joy and the fun you can have in gaming. And it doesn't have to be a hardcore experience -- you don't have to be in a guild, you don't have to commit four hours a night to play, but you can still have a lot of fun. That's where the growth will occur -- the boom in the casual space. I think we're well set up for that.

When we launched, we didn't launch with a family plan. Our thought was that we could have six Wizards on an account, and we thought, "How many families have more than six people who are going to play?" But there was a massive uproar, and what we found out is that families wanted to play together. We also made a conscious decision to make Wizard101 playable on lower-end machines. That made a huge difference because the machine sitting in the kid's room was handed down from parents to older kids, and then older kids to younger. It opened up households that have three, four, or five computers in them, and it let families play together at the same time.

You have adjusted things a bit since launch. I remember that, at first, there was no auctioneer, and items were only purchased through the crown shop. What made you decide to switch gears and bring in a player-driven economy?

From early on, we wanted to give players a choice - free download, free content, and free-to-play. We're one of the first, if not the first, to give players both an all-access subscription as well as a pay-as-you-go plan. For $1-$3, they can buy a new zone and play at their own pace. Again, we focused on giving players a choice. Items bought with crowns are differentiated by tier. If it's an item that allows you to accelerate gameplay, we charge crowns for it. If it doesn't accelerate the game, we'll sell it for crowns, but it will also be in the game as a drop. So players can choose to buy it for crowns or farm it in game.

For the auction house, it was something we always wanted to do, but we looked at all of the stuff we had to do to launch the game, and it was a conscious decision to bring it online later. We also didn't want to create opportunities for gold farming, so we eliminated direct player-to-player trading because of the safety factor and the community interaction we have. But we felt that the little bit we gave up was compensated for by the safety and the environment that we built in game.

Can you talk about your other project at all? There's been a blurry screenshot on the site for a while, and players have been very curious as to what it might reveal.

KingsIsle's strategy is that we will announce a product when it's pretty much ready to go live. So many properties are announced three years out, and we prefer to make sure it's a great game and then tell the world about it. I will say, I'm pretty excited about it. Everything you see that comes out of KingsIsle is focused on family entertainment, and it will be an MMO, but that's all I can say for now.

Is there anything else you'd like to say to the Massively readers?

Give it a try. The group that's most surprised by Wizard101 is the gamers and the adults who will look at the cartoonish style and discount it. But it costs nothing to jump in there and give it a spin, and I think people will be pleasantly surprised by that.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Fred!

Massively's on the ground in Boston during the weekend of March 11-13, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2011. Whether you're dying to know more about SWTOR or Guild Wars 2 or any MMO in between, you can bet we'll have it covered!
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