Interview: Wizard101 Developers Are Geared Up For A Major Game Announcement

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Wizard101 - via KingsIsle Entertainment

Wizard101 is a PvP MMORPG, from KingsIsle Entertainment that perfectly nails the deckbuilding mechanics in some of the most colorful gameplay experiences. The game encourages players to take part in the unique story by starting with a choice of School and crafting a perfect deck to tackle any challenge coming their way. 

As they progress, they will be able to uncover more secrets that increase the reward aspects and experience. Despite being a decade-old game, it has still managed to keep the player base intact. This is what caught our attention, and we could not help but speak with Leah Ruben, COO, and Sam Johnson, Narrative Director at KingsIsle Entertainment, over an email interview. 

deck builder in 3D
Wizard101 – via KingsIsle Entertainment

Introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your role on Wizard101.

Leah Ruben: I’ve been here for 17 years, and have held titles in production, game and studio direction, and now COO. Over the years I’ve also helped with everything from Sound, Design, Community, and Marketing. If it needs doing, it’s under my purview. 

One of the major aspects of the Wizard101 is the seven schools to choose from. What was your approach in designing each school so it feels unique to the gameplay and easily fits the playthrough needs of players?

Leah Ruben: The goal was to provide different experiences and playstyles that felt equally fun and cool. As a player, at launch, I gravitated toward balance because I liked the ability to play solo – but I also went up the Storm spell tree and grabbed a Storm amulet to add to my damage capabilities. 

I’d say we started with seven very different classes, they converged as the years went on due to player feedback, but now, the design team is working to offer variety and more ways to specialize your character with spell changes, dual school spells, and spellement paths.

Wizard101 - via KingsIsle Entertainment
Wizard101 – via KingsIsle Entertainment

Expanding on my previous question, what was your approach in designing combat mechanics that offer both nostalgia for classic JRPGs and engagement for modern players?

Leah Ruben: At first, our focus was to make our mechanics family-friendly, inclusive, and easy to learn, but difficult to master. We wanted to make a game that anyone from 8 to 80 (and above!) could feel comfortable picking up and playing. 

Wizard101’s turn-based combat means there’s no “twitch” aspect to it – it’s a very relaxed pace if you want it to be through the 400+ hours of cinematic, fully-VO’d mainline quests.  

However, there are plenty of very deep and exciting (optional) experiences that we’ve added throughout the years. Our most engaged Wizards are playing PvP and joining their guild to do raids and participating in events like the new Portal of Peril, Beastmoon team PvP and PvE time attack challenges, and the solo-rogue-lite experience of the Deckathalon. We have something for everyone – casual and hardcore players – and you can have fun playing either way!

What would you say sets Wizard101 apart from other MMO games, particularly for those who may be hesitant to delve into the genre?

Leah Ruben: Our core mechanic of 3D, turn-based card combat is something that hadn’t been done before, and no one has done it quite like us since. It makes the combat approachable and the world immersive as you can walk around zones and watch other Wizards fighting monsters and casting cool spells.

Also, if you’ve ever shied away from MMOs because of the community – don’t! The Wizard101 community is incredibly welcoming, and there are in-game chat safeguards as well as a vigilant Customer Support staff to address any issues that come up.

best combat mechanics
Wizard101 – via KingsIsle Entertainment

As someone who enjoys the fantasy genre, how does Wizard101 fit into the fantasy-themed games?

Leah Ruben: Wizard101 is a great mashup of “that-other-Wizard-world-that-shall-not-be-named” and Pokémon. We have this huge, whimsical world with excellent puns like Marleybone (full of dogs!) which features Barkingham Palace, Sherlock Bones, and Meowiarty as the villain.

You can visit our take on Africa, a Bavarian theme park, and surrealism. We have more than 20 different worlds to explore and quest through.

Can you discuss the process of crafting engaging narratives and characters within the Wizard101 universe, especially considering its diverse player base?

Sam Johnson: The narrative process consists of extensive brainstorming, for the overarching Arc-level stories, the smaller World stories, and the characters who live in those worlds.

For Arcs we start with core questions: what haven’t we done? What themes do we want to cover? Are there themes we haven’t done before? Is there something at the structural level we haven’t done that we could do this time?

That last question was a big deal when planning the most recent Arc, which just ended: we wanted to build a story without a conventional ‘Big Bad’, a deeper, internalized story about growth and self-actualization, and a story that made the Spiral feel like a more unified, integrated space. Other worlds in the Spiral reacted to story events for the first time, and the story took on a geopolitical aspect.

We achieved all of our goals, and it’s been interesting to see the community’s reaction to all the changes. We see the reactions in streams, Discord discussions, and YouTube video essays; we review all of these with bated breath. The things we’re looking for: did the jokes land and the winking pop culture references get recognized?

Were the themes clearly imparted to the players, and at the core, did they like it? If we tried something new narrative-wise (like having no Big Bad or embracing abstract themes), did players appreciate it or reject the changes?

We learn as much from criticism as we do from acclaim and have adjusted some storytelling aspects over the years: in the most recent example, after the second world of Arc 2 (Lemuria) there were many comments from players who just weren’t following the plot and were confused on the origins and identity of a critical character.

Admittedly, we had been deliberately subtle and had also introduced that content in a new way, with quests in earlier updates before the main update in the fall. As a result, we stopped doing early intros and added encounters near the beginnings of worlds 3 and 4 that included very direct recaps and explanations of obscure points. Many players got up to speed and appreciated the end of the Arc more.

For worlds we primarily focus on genres or cultures we haven’t been to before (it’s getting trickier and trickier!). Once we’ve chosen a mythology or a place, we focus on the themes it can bring into the story and how it “fits” into the Arc.

Given our tone and history, a lot of cycles are spent on the jokes and puns we can make there. In lots of cases, we’ve come up with the idea of a world, but it waits in the queue until we find a good fit for it in the Arc: Karamelle, Novus, and Wallaru were all conceived years before they were built! 

In terms of characters, the overwhelming majority of development is tied to the worlds – an Arc will have a few major recurring players, but most of the characters we make are the people who live in the new world. We are very committed to diversity in our characters, and ensuring a good balance of male NPCs to female NPCs and including characters that represent groups of players that may not see themselves in a lot of other games is only the beginning.

Concerns around diversity and cultural respect have grown over time, and as a 15-year-old, we’ve developed our thinking too. These concerns are definitely a large factor in our narrative and character creation now and will continue to be moving forward.

Wizard101 - via KingsIsle Entertainment
Wizard101 – via KingsIsle Entertainment

There are a lot of opinions shared on the paywall in the game, particularly in light of the game's initial free-to-play model. How did you balance the need for monetization with providing a fair and enjoyable experience for players?

Leah Ruben: Our thought was to provide two paths for our community: those who have an abundance of time and those who have less time but more money. Our goal is that anything that affects gameplay can be obtained in both ways.

We’ve made a significant push over the last few years to identify and eliminate places that were unintentionally pay-to-win.

Apart from such a heartwarming community, can you shed light on major hurdles during the development and how the community shaped the game?

Leah Ruben: We’re always keeping an ear out to the community. For example, our Lead Designer streams and chats multiple days a week, we have official dev and company live streams often, and our team is super connected on X (Twitter) and Discord. The dev-community relationship has helped us tap into what they’re interested in!

And it’s helped us evolve our dev efforts and get real-time feedback.  For a while, the community let us know there wasn’t much to do between updates for endgame Wizards, so we added weekly events like Deckathlon, Beastmoon, and the Portal of Peril, and super difficult challenges like raids, and now we’re hearing that there’s TOO much to do, so we’re making sure to focus on some quality of life updates like the Pixie Post (in-game mail system) and we’ve got some more great ones coming up this year.

Wizard101 - via KingsIsle Entertainment
Wizard101 – via KingsIsle Entertainment

What inspired the creation of Ravenwood Academy as the setting for a spinoff game, and how does it tie into the larger Wizard101 universe?

Leah Ruben: We have always been storytellers, and we have a lot more stories to tell. Narrative is one of our pillars at KingsIsle, and it’s one of our strengths. 

We’ve always flirted with the idea of an adventure game. Quite a few were made in our yearly game jams. However, when the non-MMO focus in the studio was mobile, it didn’t quite fit; those types of games don’t typically do well on mobile platforms. Can you imagine something like Phoenix Wright or Persona 5 with microtransactions or ads all the time?

I can’t. Now that our focus is primarily on PC, it makes sense for us to make this type of game to expand the ways we can tell stories about the Spiral.

Anything else that you would like to share with the readers?

Leah Ruben: We’ve got some more amazing updates coming out later this year that I can’t yet talk about, and another big announcement on par with Ravenwood coming out later this year. Stay tuned for more from KingsIsle!

Wizard101 is a deckbuilder MMORPG developed and published by KingsIsle Entertainment. The game was released on September 2, 2008 for PC. 

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