From Shadowbane to Wizard101 - the lessons I've learned developing two MMOs and spending nearly a decade in the online game space. It may seem strange to compare two projects with such different visions and audiences, but as the co-creator of both MMOs, I've found that many of the lessons I learned were the same for both projects. I'm currently the Senior Director of Software Engineering at KingsIsle Entertainment, the independent developer behind the popular family MMO Wizard101. However, my role has never been confined to technology alone and I've been integrally involved in the design, story-telling, and production of the games. So, I'd like to discuss some of the more interesting and, hopefully, helpful lessons I've gleaned by comparing these two projects in their entirety. As I reflect on my experiences, I will delve into various stories and lessons learned from both Shadowbane and Wizard101. Some of the items I will cover include: Vision and Focus, Critical Technology Decisions (scalability, tools, middleware, etc), Limited Expectations, Marketing, Quality and Polish, Crunch, Funding, and more. This first installment will serve to set the stage, providing some background on both projects.
In 1999 J Todd Coleman and I followed a long time dream and started Wolfpack Studios. We had a vision for a game that was, quite frankly, insanely ambitious and we had nearly zero experience making games - apart from running MUDs together in college. The idea was to build what could be best described as a dynamic world, feudal simulation; with player formed guilds, sub-guilds pledging fealty to parent guilds, player constructed cities, player run shops, player vs. player combat, city vs. city combat, and even empire vs. empire combat. The game had non-humanoid player characters, like Centaurs, flying characters, and a class system that had millions of class/subclass combinations. I've mentioned to people before that starting out in the game industry with a project of this scope would be somewhat like deciding to make movies and starting with something like Titanic. I still to this day find it amazing that as an indy studio, with very little experience, Wolfpack managed to launch Shadowbane, especially given the scope of the game. We went through no less than seven publishers and had a shoestring budget for an MMO. The project was a trial by fire and taught us many valuable lessons that we carried forward to Wizard101.
On first blush Wizard101 is a dramatically different property than Shadowbane. Whereas Shadowbane was a Player vs Player game targeting hard-core gamers, the goal of Wizard101 was to build a cinematic, funny, easy to play wizard game that would cater to kids, and if done right to their parents as well. Over four years ago, the kids MMO market was fairly sparse, with some notable exceptions like Disney's Toontown, and Runescape (which had just launched). Yet as different as the projects were on the surface, key lessons from Shadowbane and underlying similarities between the two projects helped smooth development of Wizard101 and set it up for subsequent success. Wizard101 launched in September of 2008, after nearly three and one half years of development, and has been growing ever since. It's acquired over 5 million registered users, has received fantastic reviews, and according to MMORPG was the third best MMO (and top family MMO) since the launch of World of Warcraft.
In the following installments we'll dive into the key lessons learned from both projects, in many cases similar and in some cases very different. Whether you're an MMO player, developer, or both, it should be an interesting journey through two extraordinarily different games.