Weep for Wizard101

Posted by | September 5, 2008

Other than the chat filter, the game mechanics are smooth and satisfyingly self-explanatory. Combat is styled on the CCG model – this works surprisingly well, although the CCG mechanics and options don’t become more complex as you attain mastery of the game by leveling up, so I can see a real potential for it to become boring. The best game combat systems offer simple mechanics for starting players with increasing complexity as the player develops the skills to handle it – sort of like switching from automatic to manual transmission (or in Mario Kart, from automatic to manual drift). Lengthy combat animations for each card also rapidly become boring, especially considering how many levels it takes to earn a couple of new spell cards. I appreciated the animations the first few times, but after that I wanted to turn them off and speed up combat. In its initial release, Wizard101 appears to lack such a sliding scale of difficulty. However, this is not a fatal flaw as KingIsle can readily enhance the game in the future to include advanced combat for higher level characters without redesigning other aspects of the end user experience of the game (I wouldn’t even want to hazard a guess about the codebase). I think advanced combat could be fun if designed around multi-card combos, a la our favorite paper CCGs (mainly Jyhad). I would also like to see advanced combat include a formal and transparent system governing initiative in combat (who gets to go first), preferably one that can be modified by playing cards and/or wearing special items. And of course, I’d like to be able to turn off those damned animations. But the key to adding advanced combat to Wizard101 without ruining the game will be to keep it simple and add one element at a time as the players’ master the game. One of its great strengths is user experience – clear tutorials, clear instructions, simple maps (okay, the maps could be improved just a little bit by changing labeling so its clear exactly where NPCs and locations are) – and adding more complexity without junking up the UX will be a challenge. I’m sure KingIsle is up to the task.

In summary, Wizard101 is an adorable, bubbly-shiny, brilliantly plotted and emotionally engaging game with simple and easily understood mechanics. However, the game has some major problems: no ladder of increasing complexity for players to climb, the crappiest chat filter I’ve ever been willing to use, poor to middling support for group play, and substandard friend management tools. That’s a long list of negatives, but the things Wizard101 does right it does perfectly. On a straight comparison of good things to bad, I think I would suffer the annoyances to keep playing the game. Unfortunately, KingsIsle switched the game to a paid subscription service on September 2, 2008 (a birthday anti-present for me). Limited features – including the under 13 chat – and a limited area to play in (Commons, Ravenwood, Unicorn Way only, e.g., the tutorial) are still available for free, but who cares? I’ve already played through those regions three times during the beta, and I sure as hell am not going to put up with the canned response chat. I’m also certainly not going to pay KingsIsle’s asking price: $10/month for a MMORPG with a white list chat filter and combat that’s already starting to get boring. The game is primarily aimed at tweens (and not people like me who are ‘tween graduate school and child-bearing), but I doubt KingsIsle will make enough money from this group. Few parents will be willing to shell out an initial $120 for the first year, and kids will get bored of the game as they master it and outgrow it. As for the adult response, I’d sum it up like this: “Pay for Wizard101? *snarf* *laugh* *snarf*” But the Adultswim community says it better than I, over and over again. KingsIsle can forget the over 18 crowd, which will probably diminish its chances of succeeding with the high school crowd because the last thing you want when you’re 16 is to hang out with 12 year olds.

Before you jump on my criticism of the Wizard101 subscription model, please be advised: I know that it takes money to develop, maintain, and run a massively multi-user online application. I really do have a sense of just how much money and work it takes to serve hundreds of thousands of users. I know KingsIsle needs income or they cannot maintain the game much less enhance it. At this point, though, I do not think the product is good enough to merit $10/month and I do not think it will succeed. Rather, I think the enthusiastic user community that has grown around the free betas (available since early 2008) will wither and take with it the game’s hope for success. KingsIsle could rectify this problem in either of two ways: adding more functionality and features such that the game is worth the money or switching to a different revenue model such as a true premium content model where all users have access to all of the mechanics of the game, but premium subscription users get unique items or opportunities to get unique items that others do not. Premium content can be frustrating for users, but it is less likely to be fatal than trying to make a subscription service out of a half-baked product.

So: Wizard101, my MMORPG true love, I bid thee a fond adieu (even though I would not be able to say so in your filter). You were the orchid of my eye, but the only thing about you that was in full bloom was your price tag.

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