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Wizard101 10th Anniversary: Interview with the Devs

Vanessa Mythdust Posted:
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Well, it's not every day that you see an MMO turn 10 years old. Wizard101's community made sure to celebrate the grand occasion by participating in in-game events, sending appreciation messages to KingsIsle, and visiting their favorite professors in Ravenwood. In other words, September 2nd was certainly a busy day for the spiral's wizards. With Wizard101's Steam launch inching closer and closer, the spiral is only expected to get even bigger. To gain some insight on this amazing milestone (and see what's coming up in the game's future), I caught up with Senior Creative Designer of MMO Content, Leah Ruben, and Lead Wizard101 Creative Designer, Sam Johnson. KingsIsle community members would better know Leah Ruben as Professor Falmea and Sam Johnson as Blind Mew.

MMORPG: So, I know this game is for everyone. It's a family-friendly game. But, I also know a lot of younger people play it. I personally started playing back in High School, but many others probably started even before that. So, how does it feel knowing that many people have actually grown alongside Wizard101?

Leah Ruben: I mean, it's the coolest thing. Our original demographic was 8 to 14. So, somebody who was 8 years old when they started playing ... they were in elementary school and now they're going off to college. They've been with us for that long, and it's just like they've grown up with us. It's just amazing.

Sam Johnson: Mhm, and for me, it's great. I think part of what makes wizard so special is that, especially in the MMO space, there weren't that many people aiming towards younger kids. Before I got into the game industry at all, I was gonna be an educator. I was gonna teach social studies and I got roped into writing fiction for an MMO. That's why I personally try to weave things in. Like, if you look at pirate, you'll see all the allusions we make to everything and we're still doing it. I know if we get them young, and get them to read ONE book they wouldn't have otherwise read, then my job is done. I love it. It's one of my favorite aspects of the game.

MMORPG: Do you think the player maturity over the years has impacted the game's content such as darker themes and a darker narrative in the later worlds?

Sam Johnson: That's a really good question. Um, I know that, and again, I have a weird perspective on this because I've only recently joined wizard full time. But, I know that especially towards the end of the second arc, it did get a bit heavy. I was a part of these discussions after Khrysalis ... where we decided - just flat out - to take the game up a notch or two in terms of the content and make it a little lighter. That's why in Polaris and Mirage we tried to go lighter than we did earlier. Although, seeing as how it's the end of the arc and the stakes are high, there's still some tension in Empyrea (part) two. It's not Firecat Alley again. But, I think to answer your question; I think it has had an effect. I know there was at least one point where we course corrected for it a little bit because we were worried it was having too much of an effect.

Leah Ruben: And we do recognize that the folks that end up getting to 100, 125, and are at the top end are probably not gonna be our five year olds or seven year olds. So, we have made the story a little more complex at that point, out of knowledge that the folks who end up at those stories are going to be a little older probably.

Sam Johnson: Oh, absolutely. And one thing that I don't ever want to do is to dumb things down because we think, "oh, kids are gonna be reading this." You know, we make it appropriate, but ... I learned my vocabulary through reading comic books. I would run into words I didn't know and I would find out what they meant. And so, if we're doing that ... then we're fulfilling our purpose there too.

Leah Ruben: Absolutely. We never make content like "oh, well we have to use the 2 dollar word instead of the 10 dollar word." So, we always want to make sure that we're doing the most creative and interesting things that we can while being appropriate of course.

MMORPG: Going along with that, is it also a struggle to kind of balance the difficulty between the younger and older players?

Leah Ruben: Yeah ... well, we tried to split it into two rails. On the main line, we try to make it something that everybody can at least eventually get through. Yeah, the end boss fights will be hard. There may be some challenges along the way, and we may have had some fights that ended up being a little harder than we expected ... like Jabberwocky. But, we want to make sure that for the vast majority of our players - they can get through the main line story. Now, side content we may make a lot harder and it may not be something that everybody can get through without trying a whole bunch.

Sam Johnson: Yeah, I don't have much to say on that point. I leave all that to design, but absolutely. I don't want difficulty to shut people out of the story.

MMORPG: So, it was announced that Wizard101 is coming to Steam and it also recently got a makeover. Was that specifically planned around the 10th Anniversary or did it just happen to fall that way?

Leah Ruben: We've been talking about a lot of these things for many many years. While I'd like to say, "Oh, it's just a happy accident that it happened that way," we were doing everything we could to kind of plan that. Having the front end of the game look beautiful and wonderful and refreshed, you know, that's a great thing when you're introducing it to a whole new audience like Steam ... and we're very happy that it ended up working out that way.

Sam Johnson: Yep, you know ... I think there's a reason Steam didn't happen back in February or whatever. So, it lined up pretty well, but yeah, there was a lot of work behind the scenes.

Leah Ruben: It's neat that it's coming to Steam right near the birthday. I think that's a fun coincidence. We didn't think it was gonna be quite that close.

MMORPG: Regarding the makeover, how did you go about updating everything but still keep that classic Wizard City essence that the players have come to know and love?

Leah Ruben: Well, that was a huge deal to us. Even when we were initially just talking about it as an idea, the one thing I kept saying to people in meetings is, "I want it to be like you're putting on a new pair of glasses for the first time." You have the correct prescription and everything looks the same, but the trees actually have leaves now ... and you can see details ... and everything just looks more vibrant and wonderful. I know there are some games out there that have done makeovers like this and they completely changed their iconic worlds - and I thought that was a mistake. We wanted to stay away from that, and we wanted to just make it the Wizard City that everyone knows and loves, but just a little bit extra and looks a little bit better.

Sam Johnson: Mhm, and art had been making worlds for 10 years. There are standards we have right now for the new stuff that we put out, and I think the goal was to take that stuff and just ... if we were making Wizard City as our new world for arc four and we had never heard of the place, what would it look like? And yeah, they spent a LONG time making sure, trying alternate configurations and things, making sure that it was still Wizard City even though it looked better. And the really cool part is that we've got some of the guys who built Wizard City the first time - who are doing the facelift. So, they know what they did, and they know what they do now. So, moving from one to the other, well, it was just a really cool process.

Leah Ruben: ... they (the art team) did such a fantastic job. The Commons - we did that first as a test and it took MONTHS to get right. And I know that some of the artists were, at the end, getting a little frustrated with it, but they put in so much extra work and they did such a great job. I can't thank them enough for what they did. It came out to be the most wonderful wonderful update.

Sam Johnson: ... I've been making MMOs for 18 years and this is, hands down, the best art team I've ever worked with. They put out great stuff -better than the stuff I ask for. And they can turn on a dime if they need to. And yeah, the fact that we have a world update and the Wizard City revamp in the same year tells you how good they are at producing when they need to produce.

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Vanessa Mythdust