Weep for Wizard101

Posted by | September 5, 2008

I loved Wizard101 from the moment I laid eyes on it. I had tried to play the MMORPG holy of holies, WoW, last year but it never clicked for me. Even after hours of questing, leveling, and whooping ass with my friends, I couldn’t get myself to care about my character or the world. The storylines seemed violent, fake, impersonal, and bland – all at the same time. I felt like a cog moving through a modern war zone. Though I had loved text-based MUDs as a teen, I came to believe that I just wasn’t cut out for MMORPGS.

Then I met Wizard101 during its beta. The storyline was small and domestic – more of a classic children’s fantasy novel than an epic war saga. The game begins when your character is chosen for enrollment in the highly selective Ravenwood academy. You meet the headmaster, enroll in classes, meet your professors, and begin learning how the Wizard101 world works. NPCs slowly feed your character deep mysteries and dark secrets as you progress through a series of FedEx and slayer quests. The most prominent mystery features the Death School (one of the seven branches of magic taught at Ravenwood) whose department chair has gone missing and literally taken the building with him. Apparently he’s been off his rocker since the death of his wife Sylvia. His brother, the head of the Myth School, is a complete tool who responds to your questions about his brother’s business by making you pick up his dry-cleaning. The storyline of Wizard101 is masterfully driven by the exciting drama of people being people.

Given that the plot of Wizard101 successfully uses the social nature of human beings as a driving force, it is comically unfortunate that the game fails spectacularly at the social aspects of an MMORPG: communicating with other players and managing social networks. In an effort to create a safe environment for children, Wizard101 forces all chat through “white list” filters. You are probably familiar with black list filters that prevent players from using banned words; white list filters only allow players to use words that are on an approved list. I understand the idea behind using the white list filter – Wizard101 wants to market the product to sheltered tweens – but most users, including precocious tweens and teens will find the filter entertainingly laughable at best and, more often, a hindrance to cooperative questing. Here are some words that are not in the filter: “university”, “confound”, “censorship”, “mother”, “two”, “three”, “four”, “five”, “six”, “1”, “2”, “3”, etc. Presumably words like “university”, “censorship”, and “confound” are missing only because Wizard101 (or their white list vendor) think the target audience won’t use them very often. God forbid our tweens should try to confound Wizard101’s censorship in order to hold lofty intellectual conversations about the universities they would like to attend, or mention that they are fans of University of Michigan football.

“Mother” is presumably out because of its use in expletives and taunts, but this makes it impossible to tell a friend: “I can’t do that quest with you right now because my mother is coming to pick me up.” I assume numbers are out to protect children from themselves; that is, to prevent them from giving out their digits to pedophiles and their teen sweethearts. Of course, any kid who’s going to be interested in a fantasy MMORPG is going to be able to figure out that “won” == “1”, “too” == “2”; “tree” == 3, and so forth. Incidentally, my favorite punctuation mark, the semi-colon (“;”) is also not on the white list. Thanks Wizard101 for preventing kids from using complex grammatical structures! And forget about Spanish and other languages, even those that mostly only use ASCII characters. Wizard101 enforces English only. As I said, the filter can be entertaining when you’re playing with it or casually conversing – but it’s deadly when you’re trying to team up for a quest. First off, players under 13 are restricted beyond the white list filter to using a set of canned phrases that they have to select with the mouse from a series of nested menus. Hard to do while you’re keeping up with a relatively quick combat. Players under 13 cannot see anything players over 13 say unless the older players use the same canned phrases. So, if a youngin’ asks me for help! And I type “I’ll be right there, hang on” she can’t see it. Even if I type the exact the words of one of the canned responses – like “okay” – she can’t see it. Meanwhile, she can’t see me using the regular filter to ask for help. Meanwhile, if two people over 13 want to see if they’re the same level, they can’t actually type in the relevant numbers. So I ask, “What level are you?” and my friend replies, “…” (“…” is what the white list filter replaces your non-approved words with), realizing that “6” and “six” are banned. You can use the canned responses to answer a question about your stats, but that is so annoying it’s easier to give up on group play. All of this inspired me to invent a new abbreviation: rotfwmeo (rolling on the floor weeping my eyes out), also not in the filter.

In addition to problems with the filter, Wizard101 does not provide adequate support for group play and managing in game friendships. You can teleport to a friend’s location, but you can’t get your friends’ locations to show up on your map. You can send a private message to a friend, but only by mouse clicking through some options, not directly on a keyboard. You can’t form an adventuring party (in any sense recognizing by the software) except for some instanced boss battles. You can’t auto-follow a leader – really annoying. It’s very difficult to join the same combat together, so one or more of the group usually end up sitting out the first round because of timing. It’s frustrating and Wizard101 could improve it using the best and oldest method of game development: plagiarism. Has anyone on the product design team played WoW? City of Heroes? Or even an old text-based game like DragonRealms? Wizard101 does not need ground breaking innovation in this area, but it the game would be much strong if it followed community standards.

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