Playing Your Cards Right: Wizard101

Wizard101Hello again.  Some of my game servers are down for maintenance, so I thought I should write about a game I stumbled on that has an entirely different flavor of online gaming. It is called Wizard101, and although I realize that many may ridicule me for playing what they consider a “kid’s game”, the fact of the matter is that this game has just this week passed the 10 million player mark that took World of Warcraft several years to achieve. And a lot of those people playing Wizard101 are adults…so many of them, that by popular demand, the game’s creators had to add a less-filtered chat method for 18+ players.

It is perfectly true that the Austin-based KingsIsle Entertainment admits that the game was originally designed to appeal to players aged 8 to 14. BUT this game, which launched in September 2008, has hooked a lot of parents too, because you can play it as simple “zap the monsters” or in a much more cerebral strategy-based methodology. After six months it had 2 million players. A year after its debut it had 5 million. And now, over 10 million. They must be doing something right, don’t you think?

I believe my story is similar to that of many of the adult players. My girlfriend and I both play WoW; she has been in WoW since the beta test and I joined a few years later after putting in time playing City of Heroes. Unlike me, my girlfriend has a 8 year old daughter who can be quite attention-demanding when mom is home from a day’s work and wants to relax after dinner by questing in Warcraft. When she heard about Wizard101, she thought it would be a perfect way to keep the youngling busy and out of our hair so we could get our quests done.

Yeah, that was the plan. But her daughter was soon burbling with excitement urging that we simply had to try this game she was playing, because it was so “awesome”. And my girlfriend  and I thought, arrgh, it’s a “family game” (meaning it’s one of those kiddie games, not a serious MMO), but then again, it will make her happy to be able to share the experience and of course it will be so empowering for the tyke to be able to be the expert for a change while the adults have to be noobs. So we created accounts and made a couple of avatars.

The first difference between Wizard101 and WoW is that the protagonists are all young student wizards. There is no melee class, no ranged Hunters or whatnot. I only say this so you will understand when my discussion seems to leave out familiar MMO terms like the tank and so on. When you create a new wizard, they belong to one of seven schools of magic: Ice, Fire, Storm, Life, Myth, Death, and Balance. Each of the seven types of wizard specializes in different tactics and abilities: Life wizards are the best healers, Fire wizards do damage over time. Death wizards steal life force to damage their enemies and heal themselves a litte at the same time, and so on. This is the first difference between this game and others of the genre: instead of magic-users, warriors, priests, hunters, etc. you simply have different types of wizards.

Wizard101That is only the first of several differences. Instead of free-form, run-around-and-whack-or-blast fighting like in most online games, the fighting in Wizard101 all takes place in a structured context of ritual combat, sort of like the pistols-at-20-paces dueling you see in old books and films. This transforms the entire game mechanics. It’s not about who is better with their keyboard and mouse, like in Warcraft a lot of the time. In fact, it is more like a game of chess or a game of cards. The game is much like collectible card games like Magic: the Gathering where what card you play at the right time determines success or failure. This makes the game both more kid-friendly (because hand-eye coordination is not as big a deal) AND more adult-appealing (because thinking ahead and strategy can pay off). 

Let’s say your wizard encounters a monster in the middle of a street (the game has a fully perspective 3D virtual world like Warcraft and City of Heroes) and the fight is on. There is no sniping from a distance. A clearly-drawn circle of combat appears right there in the middle of the street and you and your enemy step into little circles called sigils inside the large circle. Then you take turns casting spells at each other until one of you is defeated. No one leaves the circle of combat unless (a) one side has been defeated, or (b) you click the FLEE button and chicken out (er, I mean, you make a strategic retreat).

Ho hum, you might say. Doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? Wrong! Almost every spell that you can cast has its own animation sequence, something to watch. The magic energy of the spells is embodied, often as temporary creatures that do the attacking. For example, Firecat conjures up an orange kitty that breathes fire at your opponent or pounces on him in a blaze of flames. Storm Shark creates a blue pool of water filling the circle, and a shark leaps out and comes down on your enemy with its jaws open. Chomp! Kraken summons a purple reptile/fish humanoid who reaches up into a storm cloud and grabs a thunderbolt and hurls it at the target. And many if not most of these animations have several possible versions, so they are not simply time-after-time repeats. It’s pretty hard for any fight in Wizard101 to play out exactly the same way. Often other players hang around to watch, knowing they might see something they have not seen before.

Okay, by now you have probably guessed the punchline, the ironic twist. My girlfriend and I started playing to humor her daughter and have something to do together as a virtual family, as I am sure many parents do in Wizard101 (in fact, I can remember a player shouting “get out of my Dad’s way!”). But we quickly became entranced by the quality of the graphics and absorbed into the game. And believe me, that’s pretty amazing, at least for my girlfriend, because she is usually a melee fighter in Warcraft; she prefers whacking enemies with a sword or axe, whereas I do like being a caster myself. So seeing her becoming quickly addicted to this student wizard game was something to see indeed.

What makes the game so addicting to teenagers and adults, I suspect, is a combination of two things: gambling and strategy.

Okay, in WoW sometimes your spell or sword misses. but that’s not what I mean. In WoW your attack and healing powers are always available (although they may take a little time to recharge after each use). So when I am playing my Warlock I can elect to fire off a shadowbolt or toss a DOT (damage-over-time) spell pretty much whenever I like.

It’s not that way at all in Wizard101.  Your wizard avatar has a spell deck consisting of regular and “treasure” spell cards. Each round of fighting (and the ritual combat can go on for many rounds before one side is defeated) you are dealt a hand of cards — that is, you have displayed for selection a subset of your available spells. They are never all available at any given time. So you have to quickly decide how to make best use of this selection — which one to cast. You click on the chosen spell card and then on your target. If you are on a team with up to 4 of you facing up to 4 humanoids or monsters (four circle positions for each side; must have at least one-vs-one to proceed), then everyone has to pick a spell or decide to pass for that round. It is rather like a card game where everyone gets to play a card going around the table.

At the bottom of the screen you can see what spells your team mates are choosing — and which targets they are selecting. You can change your choice if you want to, say, ensure that both of you attack the third enemy. After everyone has chosen for the round, it plays out and you watch and see the results as an animated spell battle: good guy #1 tries to cast a spell, then good guy #2, then good guy #3, then #4. Then bad enemy #1, enemy #2, and so on, unless one of the enemies was defeated by one of the previously cast spells.

So you see, each round is like the opening of a chess game. Ah, good, my spell weakened bad guy #2, so that the next wizard’s spell finished him off. Oh no! Bad guys #3 and #4 both attacked me, seriously lowering my health. I better heal myself next round or get my team mate to heal me! And so on. You might think it would be a drag, waiting for a 4×4 fight to play out each round, let alone the entire sequence of rounds until one side wins. But it isn’t. It is enthralling, because the animations are high quality and randomness means you are never quite sure what will happen most of the time. Because spells can fizzle (fail to work). Which means you might survive a dangerous situation if both of your enemies fizzle so that nothing hits you. Conversely, you might find yourself cursing your luck when your own spell fizzles, leaving you behind in the damage-dealing and worried about surviving.

Each spell has its own defined accuracy. Shielding spells are usually 100% meaning they never fizzle. Attack spells are usually only 90% or even lower. Theoretically, a 70% spell should function correctly seven times out of ten, which sounds like good odds — until it fizzles twice in a row. Remember, flipping a coin has a 50% chance of coming up heads and 50% chance of coming up tails….but it is still possible to flip three heads in a row. All the probability guarantees is what the ratio will come out to in a large number of coin flips. For a small number of coin tosses you might see any combination. Similarly, in any duel in Wizard101 the only spellls you are completely sure of are the 100% spells like the shields and some of the heals. The rest is up to chance. This gives the game what I call its “gambler appeal”. You might be on a roll and defeat a stronger enemy sometimes. Or you might crap out and fall to a monster (or another player, in PvP) who happened to have better luck. In a way, this is a good reminder to all of us that in real life sometimes the little guy wins — and sometimes the bully loses.

The other half of the gameplay’s appeal is what I call the strategy factor. As a duel proceeds, each caster receives Power Points (also called “pips“). You get one per round. And spells require 0,1,2,3,4,5, and so on pips (and mana) to cast. Running out of mana is a real drag here, — almost none of your spells will work without it. Don’t.

Let’s take a typical battle in the lowest zone called Wizard City. I am battling a skeletal warrior (who casts spells just like all of the enemies do). We step into our places. The fight begins. This time, I get to go first (not always!).

Each of us gets one pip and the system deals me a hand of spell cards from my spell deck. I have one pip, so I cannot cast any of my high-damage spells yet, because they require more than one pip. I have an important decision to make, based on which of my cards came up. Do I cast a low-damage one-pip spell? Unless I get very lucky, it will probably not do enough damage to wipe out the skeleton, so he will get a chance to hit me with a spell. Or do I pass, wait for the next hand and next pip, so that I can hopefully cast a more powerful spell? There are other options too. I may be able to cast a ward (which reduces incoming damage) or a charm (which increases outgoing damage) or an aura (does damage over time, or healing over time). Believe me, “family” game or not, there can be complexity here.

Ok, so I select a spell by clicking on the card in the hand dealt to me, then clicking on a target — the skeleton. The spell will either work, or fizzle. All spells have a success rate expressed as a percentage. Attack spells in the Life wizard school, for example, do less damage than other schools but are usually 90% spells meaning they tend to fizzle only 1 time out of 10. Of course, this is all driven by random number generators, so just as you can roll three sevens in a row with a pair of dice, you might fizzle several times in a row sometimes. So I choose Imp, a 90% Life attack spell which (this time) does not fizzle, and summons a small green imp in the air who throws some kind of magical energy at the skeleton, hitting for 85 damage. The skeleton, which started out with 150 hit points/health, is now reduced to 65 but he is still alive. Now he gets a turn to cast at me. Enemy spells can also fizzle, of course, which gives a reprieve if your health is low. But his spell hits me for 90 damage. Now I am getting annoyed, so I pass for acouple of rounds, building up pips, and then I choose Sunbird, which is born in a blaze of fire and swoops down on the skeleton for 315 damage this time, far more than his current health. End of skeleton. The combat circle fades away, leaving me in the middle of the street (or room) doing a victory dance.

When you are joined by other wizards the combat gets more complicated. At the bottom of the screen you can see what spells they are choosing, and what target they have selected. This gives you the chance to attack the same target to try to wipe it out so you face fewer incoming attacks next round, or select a different target to try to get more than one of the enemies…or you can help fellow wizards by casting wards to protext them, charms to boost their damage, or heals to prevent them from being wiped out.

What I am getting at here is that there are many levels you can play this game at. You can just blast away, which is what the younger kids tend to do, selecting the first attack spell likely to succeed and just going for it. Or you can get more strategic and set up more powerful spells or pave the way to more damage with charms, etc. The card-based ritual combat seems like it would be stilted and tedious compared to the rough-and-tumble of games like World of Warcraft…but it isn’t. The luck of the draw in getting good cards dealt from your spell deck, combined with the success ratios and random chance of hitting with each spell, combined with the fact that you never know what attack spell the enemy will launch each round, combined with the cumulative effects from your team mates’ spells, all these add up to combat which is unique, suspenseful and addictive.

The game has lavishly detailed scenery and multiple worlds. Five different worlds so far, and a sixth world is scheduled to open this Fall. And it has several quite nice touches:

(1) FREE PLAY! Yes, Warcraft and City of Heroes will let you play for free — for a week or 10 days or so. But Wizard101 will let you play for free forever — just not the whole game. Without ever paying a cent you can play in several zones in the first world, Wizard City. Granted, it can get annoying when you get a quest that you cannot complete because it is in a non-free area you cannot enter. But even then, you can avoid subscribing. Wizard101 lets you unlock specific areas permanently by paying a small one-time fee per area. Then those areas can be played, forever, free. This means that your whole family can experience Wizard101 without paying anything unless you decide to. The download is free and the initial zone play is free. Of course, they are counting on you to get addicted, as I did, and sign up for a subscription. But you can try it out alone or with your kids without any recurring billing, ever — until you agree to pay.

(2) FREE SERVER MOVES! You can move your character from server (realm) to server with the click of a menu, as opposed to some games that force you to stay on one server — or pay for character moves to a different server. In Wizard101, if your server is full or crowded, you can call up a list of the realms and move to a less crowded one any time you want — for free. And move back later, for free.

(3) PERSONAL SPACE. All characters (including free accounts) come with a personal dorm room that you can furnish with items acquired in combat or bought from shops with game gold acquired in combat. If you earn enough gold you can buy your own personal house. I got the starter house for 8000 gold, which features its own floating island in the sky, its own World Gate that lets me teleport to any of the three worlds I have unlocked so far, and its own flowing creek, copse of trees, and a little sandy beach. There are larger houses and school-themed houses (such as the Fire house, the Ice house etc.) you can buy if you want to shell out money for crowns, the game’s second currency. But you can get your own house for a mere 8000 gold. It took me a few days to earn it, and then I had to level some more because you cannot move out of your dorm room and into your house until you are level 15.

(4) CONVENIENT TELEPORT SYSTEM. You can teleport to your friends or fellow group members, whether thery are in their own houses or on the streets or in combat, as long as they are not in a zone you have not unlocked for your account. Thus can be a handy way to quest, because it saves you time you would have spent running down monster-infested streets. If your friend is in combat and you teleport to them, you automatically join the combat circle. You can teleport to your friend’s dorm room or house, and they can teleport to yours. You can also block teleports to you if you want some privacy. There is an Options menu that lets you block friend requests (sometimes it seems every toon I meet wants to be on my friends list), block teleports, block trade requests, and so on. You can turn the blocking on and off whenever you want. And you can mark your current position, teleport back to the starting area of whatever world you are on (or your house or dorm room)  to sell, replenish health and mana, etc., and then teleport back to your Marked position. Very handy. Although I do love the immersive scenery of Warcraft, sometimes I do tire of long treks out to where the action is.

(5) PETS. The game has a complex pet system. Pets can be bought, can be acquired though completing quests or defeating monsters, or can be procreated. Pets begin as eggs which hatch into creatures that can be equipped to follow you around or returned to your backpack when you want to avoid distractions. Through training, pets grow up from Baby to Teen to Adult to Ancient to Epic, eventually acquiring abilities that can aid you in combat. Some of them give spell cards as well. And for a fee, you can hatch new pets. If you have two Adult pets you can take them to the hatchery, pay a fee, and get a new egg which will hatch into something looking like one of its parents. For example, if you have an adult dragon and a adult cyclops, the egg will hatch into either a dragon or a cyclops. If you only have one adult pet, you can find another wizard with an adult pet and the two of you can go to the hatchery — and in this case two eggs are created, so you each get a new pet. Although the pets always look like only one of their “parents”, their traits will be a mixture of the two, giving a huge assortment of possible trait combinations. Holy genetics, Batman! You can sell pets back if you have too many, and you can move them from one alt to another via your Shared Bank. So if my Fire Wizard gets a Myth Sprite he doesnt want, he can throw it into his Shared Bank and then I can switch to my Myth Wizard and dip into the shared bank and grab the pet for my other toon.

(6) MOUNTS. Mounts like horses and wings and flying brooms let you move around 40% faster. Some monsters, like the Kraken in Wizard City (a free area) drop temporary mounts, like a horse or a pair of wings, that last for 24 hours. You can also buy 1-day, 7-day, or permanent mounts. And unlike Warcraft, which won’t let you buy a horse until you are level 20, Wizard101 will let you use mounts at any level. You can ride a horse, a broomstick, a flying dragon, a tiger, a lion, or whatever. All you need is the luck to get the free mount from a monster, or the gold (or crowns) to buy it from a shop. Long before I gave in and subscribed, I was getting 1-day horses and wings from defeating the Kraken over and over. And that brings me to my next feature.

(7) REPEATABLE BOSSES and DUNGEONS. Defeating the Kraken (sort of a Creature from the Purple Lagoon) is the end of one quest chain. But once you have fought the Kraken, you can fight him again any time you want. You just step on the teleporter that takes you to his little arena island, and if he is not there already he respawns immediately. All of the bosses are like that. You usually have to do a preliminary quest to unlock the door to the boss, but once you unlock it, it stays unlocked. And since the bosses drop better items (like mounts, sometimes) there are good reasons for fighting them over and over. At first any boss might be tough to take on by yourself (since they are designed for multiple players), but since you level up and they don’t, eventually you will find that you can solo them if you want to.

I guess I have yakked too long about Wizard101. By now you may think they are paying me to say all these things (they aren’t, but I wish they were, heh, I could use the money). No doubt I will eventually become jaded and bored with this wonderful game, and look for fresh entertainment and inspiration. But for now, this is my favorite game. Sure, you have to deal with a lot of kids running around the zones. Sure, you might feel a little uncomfortable being addressed as “child” by kind old lady NPCs and as “young wizard” by the quest-givers. But so what? It’s a game. Get in touch with your inner child and try it out. If you have problems, your kid might be able to advise you. Or vice versa. Either way you might be surprised at the quality of what KingsIsle has produced. I know I was — and still am. –MRK

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705 Responses to “Playing Your Cards Right: Wizard101”

  1. Hey, thanks for reading, ValkoorLegend. I appreciate comments from fellow Wizards! I get distracted away from Wizard101 from time to time but I always go back to the Spiral.

  2. Wow, I can’t believe I just read all that (the comments too) and I’ve been playing wizard101 for a while XD and now I know a few little tricks but I’m only gonna say this: ChatAndGames.iNFO if you got my drift.

    I see kingsisle also commented here, this must be a very popular blog, glad I found it, keep up the good work.

  3. Thanks for reading, Niki Bauer. Yes, I think Wizard101 is a great game and a nice environment to meet new people in. It’s deceptively simple gameplay combines just the right balance of luck and strategy. —MRK

  4. Niki Bauer says:

    Wish I had read your summary before starting the game. Would have bumped the learning curve way up…in any case, my fiance and I are really enjoying playing the game and love that my grandchildren ranging in age from 4 yr to 14 yr eagerly join in with us (and it has been a terific way for the youngsters to get acquainted with a new adult about to enter their lives, without the awkwardness of FTF meetings and having to be on best behavior and “dressing up”.)

  5. “Is it alright to put some of this on my site if I include a reference to this web page?”

    Yes, I can use all the help I can get to get attention for my site. –MRK

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