Interview: Magic For Everyone With Wizard101

KingsIsle Entertainment talks to Gamasutra about the deceptively complex task of making Wizard101 appropriate for a wide range of ages -- and shares a few tricks to keep young audiences both safe and engaged.
[KingsIsle Entertainment talks to Gamasutra about the deceptively complex task of making PC downloadable fantasy MMO Wizard101 appropriate for a wide range of ages -- and shares a few tricks to keep young audiences both safe and engaged.] KingsIsle Entertainment's Wizard101 is something of a quiet success, and plenty of core online gamers might never know the popular fantasy MMO has some 10 million users. Unless they had kids, that is -- the developer's onto something with its family-friendly design. No mean feat, as the MMO market's hardly a space where the "formula" for success is assured, no matter what the players' ages are. On a surface level, the world of Wizard101, which started development in 2005 and launched in September 2008, seems easy to understand: With some tonal cues in common with the explosively-popular Harry Potter, accessible art styles and some spirited spell animations, it seems cannily angled for its target market. But the Dallas and Austin, TX-based team wanted to make more than a "kids' game"; they applied themselves to a considered endeavor to create a family product, one that would leave room for young people to grow with it -- and, importantly, one that created opportunities for parents and adult relatives to play together with kids. The approach partially involves a deceptively deep card-based battle system that provides enough complexity to challenge older or more ambitious players, while retaining the familiar inroads and friendly design that keeps kids engaged. But striking a balance and developing a design that can engage such a broad-ranging audience is perhaps Wizard101's biggest achievement. When a game allows -- and, in some cases, encourages -- grown-ups and young ones to play alongside one another, the biggest jewel of the kids' gaming crown comes under threat: safety. Ask the Wizard101 team which feature they're most proud of, and which they consider most key to their diverse and collaborative player base, and it's their safety mechanisms they name first. "We took another look at the traditional MMO filtering system," vice president and creative director Todd Coleman tells Gamasutra. "Usually the way these games work... is they will allow you to say whatever you want to say and then they'll run it through a filter. We decided to assume every word was bad unless we knew it to be good." This is a more complex effort than it sounds: It begins with an 8,000 word "safe" dictionary, or whitelist, of words that can't possibly be used to ill ends -- this doesn't just exclude "bad" language, as in the traditional "blacklist", but words like the names of U.S. cities and towns, as there's no good reason anyone would need to be disclosing their real-world location in a kids' game. However, even the "safe" dictionary has its loopholes. Plenty of words, like "in", "my", and "pants" that seem innocuous when separated might mean something else when combined. "So on top of that whitelist system, we created... a 'bad phrase' system so it recognizes those situations," adds Coleman. Nuts and bolts of child safety aside, the team's still tasked with balancing the particular needs of a young audience. Explains marketing VP Fred Howard: "We decided early on to make the game a linear narrative -- with most MMOs, the narrative generally consists of a series of short stories where each quest line is independent." But a key feature of maintaining the interest of a younger audience is to eschew the traditional sandbox structure in favor of something that feels more linear and participatory, with clear objectives. Right when players begin the game, "We introduce right there the main bad guy, and a call to action from our main good guys. The player who sees that is basically responding." "What we've found is you want to give a feeling of an open world -- but in actuality, the choice that they make is always the one that we want them to make," adds Howard. "We do that by having a lot of design mechanisms, and by backtracking higher-level players to the lower level areas so that you feel this real sense of everybody coming and going." "We know, based on their level alone what zone they're in -- and potentially even what portion of the quest chain they're in," he adds. Even the underlying complexity of the card battle system serves the goal of keeping an all-ages audience engaged, adds Howard. "The underlying mechanism for our combat system is based on collectible card games. Any kid familiar with [popular games like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh]... there is an instant recognition moment." But the abstraction found in those card games is coupled with vital visuals: "When you cast a Ninja Pig, they leap out of the ceiling and attack," says Howard. "That was the biggest area of design risk, taking those odd concepts and fusing them together." "Once we started, we iterated on that one thing more than any other thing in the game," he adds. "What happened was we had this vision... we just had this kind of dogged belief that we could get it to work, and once we started we just refused to give up." Telling a story that's appropriate for young players without being too facile is "challenging," Howard admits. "We've had some writers that have come through, but it has been hard for them to shift their mindset," he adds. "We use the Pixar model of storytelling," he suggests. "We try to use stories that are engaging on one level, but then on top of that we bake in a layer of humor that we know your average 12 year-old is not going to get -- when we introduced the pets system, we had two competing shops: the Pet Shop Boys and the West End Girls." And Wizard101 keeps looking for new ways to expand that will add new options for players to sustain engagement without over-burdening the storyline itself -- for example, a new gardening mechanic that lets players raise plants and fruits. "If you think of it as an amusement park, the main narrative thread is the 'ride' that is bringing everyone together -- but individuals don't always want to ride the roller-coaster," adds Coleman. The team knows they're striking the right balance because of the fan feedback: "We've been inundated with fan art," says Howard. "And we're not just getting fan art from 8 or 9 year-olds -- it's getting a thank-you letter from a grandmother, about how [Wizard101 is] a mechanism for her to stay relevant and connected to a family that may live far away."

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