In the last few years, web game developers have started to bring online concepts, gaming and otherwise, that have proven successful with adults to a younger market. And the results have been no less compelling for younger audiences.
Mind Candy’s Moshi Monsters, which brings social networking and virtual worlds to kids, passed 50 million users in June. Club Penguin, a massively multiplayer role playing game for kids developed by New Horizon Interactive was bought by Disney in 2007 for $350 million. And today, KingsIsle Entertainment is announcing that Wizard 101, itself a massively multiplayer online game that targets that much coveted 6 to 14-year-old demographic, has passed 20 million registered users.
Though of course it’s all relative, Wizard101 has flown somewhat under the radar compared to Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin, and of course its older cousins like World of Warcraft and Free Realms. Yet, with 20 million in the U.S. alone and nearly 12 million unique monthly visitors, Wizard101′s latest numbers undoubtedly make it one of the most popular massively multiplayer (MMO) games in North America.
Wizard101, being a game that involves a fair amount of wizards and wizardry, is often compared to Harry Potter and the Hogwarts band of teen witches and wizards. Wizard101, too, takes place at a wizarding school, which is looking to populate its ranks with young wizards. Users start as wizard students, progressing their way through grades and various worlds, ultimately battling an evil character not unlike Voldemort.
Yet, while the comparison with Harry Potter may be an easy one to make, the KingsIsle team prefers to elicit what it calls the “Pixar model” when referring to its influences. This means that, while Wizard101 is a game built for kids and teenagers, it is rife with allusions, jokes, and imagery that makes it appealing to older audiences as well.
For example, Wizard101 is fully voice acted, and the game’s music has seen contributions from Nick Jonas (of the Jonas Brothers) as well as the lead singer of The Blue Oyster Cult, among others. Fred Howard, vice president of Marketing at KingsIsle Entertainment, told me that he has personally heard from a number of grandmothers — those who would never refer to themselves as gamers — who have racked up hundreds of hours of Wizard101 gameplay.
While the graphics, voiceovers, and fantasy elements are appealing to adults and kids alike, the game also owes its success to the fact that it’s free to play online, much like its older brethren WoW and Lord of The Rings, and is direct to consumer and direct to download. The game is easy to set up, and the barriers to entry are low — five minutes of setup and users are off and running.
As players progress, they run into Wizard101′s freemium model, in which users are asked to pay to access further levels and premium content. What’s more, there are more than six worlds users can play around in, and with the 300 hours worth of content recently added, gameplay in Wizard101 is far deeper than the experience one has playing a Facebook game like FarmVille.
Wizard101 also boasts a turn-based card game, with collectible cards in which users can build their own decks, virtual pets and minigames for those pets, and so on. While there’s competition for loot and in-game rewards, the game is casually collaborative, as users can work side by side in duels against evil bad guys, adding the social nature inherent to Facebook games, but building upon those with far more content and features than one might typically find in games made for the social networking platform.
KingsIsle has also taken Wizard101 to mobile with an iPhone app, and as it continues to roll out enhancements to its mobile experience and add levels and minigames to its online game experience, the startup is clearly making a play at users — both kids and adults — that find themselves looking for a deeper experience beyond those available in casual Facebook games.
KingsIsle was founded by Elie Akilian, who sold his Inet Technologies to Tektronix in 2004 for $500 million. Akilian partnered with a former Activision executive and brought on game developers from Austin-based WolfPack studios, the makers of Shadowbane, eventually growing the company to 120-plus employees. Since its founding in 2005, KingsIsle has been bootstrapped, taking no outside investment, but with Wizard101 recently launching in Europe, and online collaborative and immersive games for a younger market hitting the tipping point, it seems only a matter of time before Wizard101 catches up to the likes of Moshi Monsters and becomes more than marginally profitable.
For those interested in learning more, check out the game here.