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Wizard101 (W101)
KingsIsle Entertainment | Play Now
MMORPG | Setting:Fantasy | Status:Final  (rel 09/02/08)  | Pub:KingsIsle Entertainment
PVP:Yes | Distribution:Download | Retail Price:n/a | Pay Type:Free | Monthly Fee:$09.95
System Req: PC Mac | ESRB:E10+Out of date info? Let us know!

J. Todd Coleman Interview

By Eric Barnett on July 06, 2010 | Interviews | Comments

J. Todd Coleman Interview

While on a national tour to promote the new content coming out for their game Wizard101; I had a chance to sit down with KingsIsle Vice President and Creative Director J. Todd Coleman. Nestled in a corner at New York Cities Edison Hotel, I had a chance to pick this veteran MMO creators brain on the new content update, as well as his general thoughts on the game. Mr. Coleman actually began the interview by asking me a question!

Coleman: So how familiar are you with Wizard101? – I've been playing for the past week due to the fact that Garrett has been talking the game up to me for a while now. I have to say I've been really enjoying myself, it's definitely a refreshing game to play around with. I've never been a family oriented gamer and I've got to admit, I came into it thinking it was just going to be another kids game with all the fluff that you'd expect. I was dumbfounded at how robust the combat was and how easy the interface was to pick up; I really had a lot of fun!


Coleman – Cool, I'm glad to hear. We use Pixar as our northern star on this; we knew that we wanted to make a game that would appeal across the entire family. That kind of challenge is not just finding ways to make it fun for kids however, it's also about making it fun on two levels so that adults find it engaging as well. That's what we feel Pixar really does well, they make a kids film, but they make it in such a way that it's not like the parents leave the theatre going “Oh god, I can't believe I just had to suffer through that.” We feel it's about engaging on multiple levels; I mean we've got a bunch of humor baked into the game that frankly is over the head of your average eleven year old, but the parents will chuckle and laugh. We've had a lot of parents get onto the game to check it out and make sure it was safe for their kids, and before they knew it, they were hooked themselves. When people can play together as a family, that's always really cool.

We were definitely impressed by the parental controls that were placed into the game. Could you explain your mantra on developing a comprehensive safety net for your game?


Yea we go to a pretty extreme length to make sure that the game is safe. Most games that you see will take a “blacklist” approach, where they will have a profanity filter in place. Basically that will check all the text coming in, they look on the filter, and if it's a bad word then they filter it out. We have done the opposite and created a “whitelist” where we have built a dictionary of safe words and you can't say anything unless it's something from our whitelist. Even beyond that, we take the phrases and the combinations of otherwise safe words and we look at matches and mixtures of things we don't like. For example, if I say “Hey I like your pants.” that's fine; if I say “Hey, check out what I've got in my pants.” that's just not allowed. The phrase “in my pants.” has just been blocked out, like there is no acceptable or valid reason you should ever refer to anything in your pants in our game, so we just blocked out the whole phrase. Players are ingenious however, so it's always a constant battle to stay ahead of the curve, but at the end of the day we have to follow up with customer support and we still have our report system in place, but as a front end defense, our built in parental controls are some of the best that we've seen out there.

Many of us have been wondering what made you take the jump from a game like Shadowbane to the family side of the sphere?


You know it's funny, Joseph and I both tend to like and try to do what no one else is doing. When we started out with Shadowbane, it was the time when Ultima Online was having a lot of player problems. Player killing at the time was considered to be the worst thing, it was considered poison for games like that, so when we came into the market we were like, why don't we take that instead and turn it into a core focus? We sort of came in with an anti message of what everybody else was doing. Once we came out and Shadowbane had already shipped, a lot of people were trying out PvP and going in that direction. In that regard, we had already tried a game of that nature and it was interesting, but we took some time off and came back to the market with fresh eyes. We then asked, alright what's a new thing that nobody else is working on? What's a new area that no body else has tackled? Partially I think it was emotional, you know the PvP and heavy violence was just draining after a while! We just felt in some degree that it was just emotionally taxing and as a backlash of that, we wanted to get away from that focus. Beyond that, we were trying to find a new niche in the market that no one else was really going after and we felt that the family section was the avenue to pursue. At the time, Disney had Toontown and that was about it; there were just not that many games of this nature out there. We thought that we could bring something interesting and new to the market.

You announced today that the game has over ten million registrations. Do you feel that the success of Facebook games with micro-transactions, like Farmville have contributed to the rapid growth that your game?


You know that's actually interesting, I see us as really hitting a sweet spot. You've got on one side of the fence, the Zynga games like Farmville which are enormously popular and they have huge numbers. These games just don't have the depth of gameplay however and their content bar isn't set very high. On the other side of the fence, you've got World of Warcraft which has a very sizable player base. WoW however is primarily comprised of hardcore gamers so we feel that we fall right in between those two. While our game has that easily approachable nature that lends itself so well to the mass market, our quality level and immersive gameplay is much more common with what you would see out of the more hardcore style MMO.

How did you feel about approaching your combat system? What made you decide to go with a non competitive combat style rather than the opposite?


I think a couple things made us successful here within the kids space. The collectable card game tie in was huge because it's a familiar mechanic. The fact is, we took a risk when it came to our core combat and that's something that I'm really proud of, because most MMOs today are not doing that. Many MMOs are really just saying, “Well what does WoW do? Ok we'll do that again.” We took a very different swing at the market in this regard and I'm very proud of that as well. The fact that it's turn based and primarily coopertative has been really vital to us as well. That turn based approach slows everything down so that it's no longer about connection speed or reaction time. That's allowed our product to appeal to a really wide range of age groups. You know we have grandparents that are getting into the game, and grandparents are usually into twitch gaming. It's just not really their thing, but if they can have twenty or thirty seconds to think about their next play, they are rewarded by a really cool cinematic and I feel that it's just a much better offering. Clearly, the numbers are proving that out.

One thing that I was happy to see was a small client that allowed players to stream download the game data, while playing the game itself.


That was hard that was really hard! That was a really large technical challenge and what's amazing is that it works so well, that people don't even recognize that it's happening. Our technology team did a fantastic job of building it to be, well it's a combination of technology and design. Our technology allows us to do it, and our design allows us to pace it correctly so that you are always downloading what you need, even before you even realize as a player that you need it. We are always trying to be ahead of the curve or at least we hope to be, that's the goal anyway.

Another thing I have to ask would be the hot button topic of customization. How do you feel that KingsIsle tackled this topic to get away from overwhelming or underwhelming its player base?


That's always a real challenge, it's always a tightrope that you have to walk when dealing with character customization. I certainly like customization and I'd like in the future for us to offer more variety for your character on the way in, but I do feel that you can kind of go too far as well. You could certianly get five other developers in a room and they could all disagree with me, but I just don't want to do too far with customization and let it become almost a distraction. I don't want to allow it to pull you out of the naritive and take the risk of somebody getting so involved in the customization mini game. That is really what it essentially is on the front end, and I think players can lose sight of the game as a whole because they become too engrossed in this aspect. I tend to lean more towards allowing for customization after you are engaged in the story; I want to present enough of it on the front end to allow the person to feel like an individual. This is to deliver the sense that they are unique and give them a feeling of ownership to their character, but I don't want them to get so bogged down in it that they spend an hour screwing around with what color their eyebrows are going to be. Really it's the characters and the story is what we pride ourselves on; that's what I think makes our game really stand out.

So basically story remains king in the game.


Absolutely, which is kind of odd in the MMO space if you think about it. We have a very narrative game, I mean from the very beginning when you come in, we bridge you from the TV commercial directly into the character creation, directly into the tutorial, directly into the mainline quest. You can follow that initial thread all the way through the game up until you fight the main bad guy. We definitely feel that is a big difference.

Another thing I wanted to talk about with you was the surprising amount of voice over work that you have in Wizard101. I personally was not expecting any and the fact that most of the main quest NPCs that I interacted with had believable voice work caught me a bit off guard.


Actually all of them do now! Every line and piece of text in the game now has voice work done for it. It's deffinitely a point of pride to have that amount of polish in our game, but to put kind of a finer point on it, with our market we wanted to be able to appeal to people a bit younger. When you get down to people in the six year old range, text becomes a deterant, like too much text makes it harder for them to tell what their next goal is to drive them through the content. We always include the text, we want the players to read and we've had parents come back and say “Hey we love that you game is helping our kids learn to read.” Though that's kind of an offshoot, that was never really a selling pitch of the game by any means, but the voice overs really allowed us to expand the game and make it a more casual and approachable experience.

Where do you see this game and this franchise going in the future? Do you see more expansions or do you see a second game?


We will certainly continue to expand the core experience of the game. We are adding a new world, actually at the end of the summer this year called Celestia. Celestia is an underwater world that players can explore which we feel will be nice because it allows us to add new elements of gameplay. We are raising the level cap as well, even though we included hundreds upon hundreds of hours of gameplay, we still have players that have reached the end of that and are waiting for something new. We just added a pet system which is our first real attraction to our MMO theme park, which is a flawed analogy but I'll use it here anyway. It's a totally different advancement curve that players can go into and they can play it all the way up until the end of content. Not to mention the fact that it is entirely free! Primarily its a micro payment system that people can pay for if people do want to speed it up. This is not saying they have to, but we just have it in there as a choice. So big systems like that we will continue adding over time. We actually have more people working on Wizards now then we did on launch so the game is definitely in a growth cycle and not in maintenance mode. For KingsIsle as a whole, we've got some really cool things in the pipes that I'm not really allowed to talk about just yet. The basic sentiment is however, if you like Wizard101, you will like the other offerings that we are going to make. Again we kind of used Pixar as our guiding light on that; we want to release a series of high quality, narrative experiences all that are shared online. We just want to continue doing what we do and do it really well, and we hope that if we keep doing that, that people will continue playing what we come out with.

Do you have an estimated launch for the new Wizard101 content?


Late summer is the best we can say.

What can you tell us about the games new antagonist coming in the new content update?


Well we can say that the first five worlds centered around a singular antagonist, Malistaire who was the death professor that was trying to destroy the spire. That was in effect his goal, but the things that he has done is actually putting the entire Wizards universe in jeopardy. You originally meet him literally in the tutorial and he is the driving factor that has kind of lead up until the first fifty levels of gameplay. The player defeated him, so the question is now what's next? Effectively, this new world that is coming out is the first chapter in our sequel and will span another probably five worlds. We've just introduced our new antagonist as well, Morgan the Spider Queen. I am really excited about introducing her and the players will figure out over time who she is and what her connection is with Ravenwood school of magic. Not to mention what she is up to and eventually what they will need to do to stop her.

That's all the time we had with KingsIsle and we would like to thank Mr. Coleman for his time. We wish the best for the Wizard101 team and we certainly look forward to the goodies that they have in store for us.

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