[Over at sister online worlds site WorldsInMotion.biz, Mathew Kumar is still having a fun ol' time analyzing online games for the WiM Atlas. Here's his overview of Wizard101, as developed by KingsIsle Entertainment, a distinctly Potter-esque teen and 'tween-targeted magic-themed virtual world.]

Name: Wizard101

Developer: KingsIsle Entertainment

Established: September 2006

How it Works: Wizard101 requires the download of a client -- the initial download is of a 8mb installer. Navigation and gameplay are accomplished via mouse and keyboard input.

2008_10_09_wiz2.jpgOverview: Wizard101 is an online virtual world with a 3D client. The title allows users to customize outfits and accessories for their wizard avatars, play puzzles and mini-games, adopt magical pets, and learn from seven different schools of magic -- collecting cards, which can then use to engage in card duels alongside and against other players.

Payment Method: Wizard101 is free to play, but also offers a subscription, starting at $9.95 for one month's access, allowing access to more areas and features. Lower rates are available for families and/or longer term commitments.

Key Features:

- Teen/Tween-orientated 3D client-based virtual world
- "Harry Potter"-esque theme
- Collectible card game battles
- Customizable avatar, pets
- Safe environment with moderated chat (free text chat only available to subscribers with parental permission)

Wizard101: In-Depth Tour

2008_10_09_wiz1.jpg

I've struggled with how to start this section of the Atlas entry for a while, probably because I've found it so easy to keep dipping back into Wizard101 to explore it some more -- for a variety of reasons, but as is the format I'm not going to discuss the game's positives and negatives until we get to the conclusion.

However, I will make a fairly strong statement to start this off with. Wizard101 is very much an "MMORPG" rather than a virtual world. The distinction is loose -- we have a lot of trouble with that on Worlds in Motion! -- but sometimes it makes sense to separate them out. With Wizard101 the reason I want to make the distinction is that the game is very much based around playing a character who fights enemies and goes on quests to level up (and vice versa), rather than any concept of creating a community.

In fact, sometimes when I think about it (personally) I consider the distinction to be that in MMORPGs you can often spend most of your time playing alone in the world, where virtual worlds tend to "force" some socialization upon you (usually because they're so boring without doing so). Wizard101 offers instantly such a list of things to do it makes me think of World of Warcraft before I think of anything else.

2008_10_09_wiz.jpg

Ahem! But moving on. Wizard101 isn't especially clear on its website, but to play you have to download a client, from which you play the game. The download is quick, but if you're used to playing MMORPGs the experience of starting the game up each time is familiar -- you usually have to spend a while downloading the latest patch before you can finally run it -- but once you're in everything is pretty streamlined.

After creating my character using the game's very cute Q&A style character creator (it made me think of playing Ultima games "back in the day", which may or may not resonate with you) I ended up with an ice mage called "Scot Frostglen" (you can't create your own name, instead selecting from a small amount of possible names, which can be mixed and matched.)

Scot headed off on his adventure -- which borrows heavily from the Harry Potter mythos, lets not beat around the bush, here -- and quickly learned how to fight with enemies, which involves a turn-based sort-of "card-battle" system.

2008_10_16_wiz1.jpg

I don’t consider this an especially important quibble, so I'll place it here rather than in the conclusion, but I was disappointed with the card-battle system. Perhaps incorrectly when I saw it -- you use a series of cards to cast spells, summon monsters, etc. -- that it would be a rather deep system, if not Magic: The Gathering then at least the Pokemon CCG.

Alas, it was not to be. Turn-based battles pan out like they do in nearly any RPG (especially those of the Japanese persuasion, though Wizard101 couldn't be further from a Japanese game in aesthetic) with cards really only limiting your choice of what you can do each turn. Summoned monsters last a turn and everything you do costs mana (which we'll discuss in a minute).

One interesting thing is that as you run around the world you can see everyone who is involved in a turn-based battle (there aren't instanced) so can join in at any point -- notably, whether you'd like to or not (it doesn't make sense to run through the middle of someone else's battle, though, so that's my bad, really).

As a result, the game has a strange sort of dynamic. Characters are split up into classes that roughly mimic the usual MMORPG archetypes -- ice wizards are (supposedly) tanks, fire wizards damage dealers, etc. In the turn based format (and, admittedly, in the still early stages of the game that I am playing) it doesn't seem to entirely make sense, nor do the other players seem to be making much of it (ice wizards should, I guess, be spending most of their turns "aggro"-ing enemies, but that's kind of boring).

2008_10_16_wiz2.jpg

As everything you do costs mana, you have to replenish it regularly, something which is, unusually, done by taking part in minigames. These games are largely fun and well put together, but in the context just seem like a timesink. You can replenish you mana by running around and collecting glowing orbs in the world's safe zones, but that's more tedious (unless you manage to pick up a lot while running errands anyway.)

In my time playing Wizard101 I've explored a few zones, fought a lot of battles, collected a lot of loot and beat several quests, but what's interesting is that as a result I didn't do a lot of interaction with other players, bar some occasional battles together. There are a lot of players in the world -- it's obviously popular -- but everyone seems to be doing their own thing.

Wizard101: Conclusion

I have to say that Wizard101 is easily the most impressive kid-orientated virtual world that I've played in my (admittedly short) time investigating them, and it's no surprise. Most virtual worlds are browser/flash based, and that can't compete with the simplistic (but well designed) 3D graphics seen in Wizard101.

It doesn't need a recent PC to run though I'm sure as a client download it is costing itself a few accounts here and there, but might not even need them. As a very impressive 3D MMORPG designed for Western kids from the ground up that's also free-to-play (dare I say this, but a lot of Asian MMOs still seem to be losing something in translation when they come across) it's no wonder the world is so packed. Every time I've played the world has been swarming with players.

2008_10_16_wiz5.jpg

The interesting thing is that in a social/community orientated MMO that would be fantastic, and I'd be really excited. The MMOs I've played that were social/community orientated -- Dizzywood, that sort of thing -- are enriched by other players who are excited to meet you, talk with each other…

But in Wizard101 there is absolutely none of that. I'll make no secret that recently I've been playing Warhammer Online, another world that I recently read criticism of being a "lonely" world, but there (admittedly a world very much for adults) I was, thanks to innovations including public quests -- having a brilliant old time fighting alongside other players to get things done -- with a lot of chatter about how do do the next quest or beat the next bad guy. Wizard101 is in comparison an entirely silent world, full of players all acting to solve their next quest on their own.

The "traditional" way to fix this from MMO makers is to make the end-game content far too hard for any player to beat on their own, or just unnecessarily grindy. I haven't seen anything close to 10% of Wizard101's content so perhaps later the quests are clever enough to make players engage with each other, but to the point where I've played it really isn't.

2008_10_16_wiz4.jpg

Perhaps it's simply a case of the restrictive chat system. As is so often the case with child-orientated MMOs, your natural method of speech is to select from set phrases, unless you get permission from an adult. Except, in this case, you not only have to get permission from an adult but pay for a subscription too.

Despite this complaint, Wizard101 is very, very playable. I could waste hours just levelling up my wizard and purchasing him the latest gear/spells, and even if the game does use the comic sans font for nearly everything (yuck!) it does have a lot of crossover potential for more than just kids to play it.

Wizard101 is successful at being an MMORPG, and it looks likely to be a very successful endeavour for KingsIsle Entertainment. It's probably the perfect example of how free-to-play can work, actually -- the core game is so fun from the get go I imagine most players want to pay for it just to unlock the extra possibilities on offer.

I'm not sure there's that much to learn from Wizard101's example -- other than to launch with a very polished product with a lot of content -- but that probably won't stop me from dipping in every now and again.

Useful Links:
Wizard101 Wiki
Wizard101 Central (fansite/forum)