It might not have the immediate name recognition of, say, World of Warcraft, but Wizard101, the kid-friendly fantasy world from KingsIsle Entertainment, is bigger than WoW, with 25 million players and 13 million monthly visitors to Wizard101.com. Now it has launched a closed beta in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau with Chinese partner Taomee—and is poised to roll out the game across all of China, a move that could grow users exponentially.
But before KingsIsle could even dream about such a massive jackpot, the company had to comb every virtual closet in the Wizard101 world for skeletons and bury every exposed bone—not only to avoid cultural offense but to meet strict government regulations on content. "They are looking for anything they consider subversive, or scary, or culturally inappropriate," creative director Todd Coleman tells Fast Company. "There is a law against showing certain pieces of art that relate to exposed bones. Whenever we had a skeleton walking around, that was seen as being disrespectful for the dead. Showing a skeleton is not necessarily disrespectful, but if that skeleton tries to bludgeon you, then it is disrespectful."
KingsIsle went through their Halloween content and turned skeletons to scarecrows. Pirates couldn't have skull and crossbones decorations. Even innocuous background features had to go. They went through locations and painstakingly removed set dressing, such as random bones or dragon skeletons. "We had to go through hundreds of hours of content and look for every bone," Coleman says. "And you would be surprised how often a wizard tower would have a skull with a candle on it sitting on a shelf."
And the government influence doesn't stop there. China requires an Anti-Indulgence System to curb excessive playing. After extending periods the game will recommend players take breaks. Beyond that, the game itself disincentivizes extended playing: After two hours of continuous play the game goes from the Healthy State to the Fatigued State and all rewards in the game—from gold, to items, to character experience points—are cut in half. After three more hours of play, a total of more than five hours playing straight, the game reaches the Unhealthy State and all rewards are cut to zero. Coleman said, "That's just something the Chinese government has decided to put on all games that could be targeted toward younger players."
Implementing the Anti-Indulgence System is also a technical challenge. In the U.S., the code for Wizard101 is run on several online servers, but in a single data center. Due to the size of China, the game there will run on multiple data centers and the Anti-Indulgence System has to work between them. Coleman said, "So a player on one account can log into Universe A and later log out and then log in to Universe Z in another data center, and the Anti-Indulgence System needed to recognize it was the same player and still enforce the government mandated rules." Even getting the game to run properly through such a huge network is a hurdle KingsIsle and Taomee have to overcome, with China having a peak number of concurrent users 10 to 100 times greater than the U.S.
Coleman and Josef Hall joined KingsIsle Entertainment in 2005 after selling their company Wolfpack Studios and its game Shadowbane to Ubisoft. After years of development, KingsIsle launched Wizard101 in North American in September 2008. Last year the game expanded to Europe, propelling the latest growth. China, however, represents the biggest frontier since the company launched. "The market in China for MMOs is absolutely enormous. We see the same window of opportunity that we saw here in North America for a AAA-quality, but still casual and approachable family-friendly game."
Besides cultural sensitivies and government regulations, KingsIsle has also dealt with language. Hundreds of hours of content and tons of text had to be translated to both Traditional Chinese and the government-promoted Simplified Chinese. Furthermore, the IME system to type in Chinese had to be implemented so players could chat. And this is a game for children, so safety features to keep out bad language had to be reworked for the Chinese language. "Rather than just coming up with a filter of bad words and constantly having to go back and revise that, we decided to create a dictionary of safe words," said Coleman. "But otherwise safe words in combination can be unsafe; the example I use is 'under my' and 'robes.' These words individually are just fine in a wizard game, but there is no reason for anybody in our world to be talking about that. So we created a phrase checker that checks the entire phrase and can kick it out."
Changes in language also lead to creative changes. Many locations and characters had names that were puns, Samoorai Cows for instance—how do you keep those intact? And what about character dialogue? The game has thousands of characters and almost 30 hours of voice acting that had to be translated, and then rerecorded in Mandarin by hundreds of Chinese actors. Then there are the characters themselves. Coleman said, "A lot of characters are talking animals, very Narnia-esque or like The Muppets, like a talking frog in a top hat. They are fine with that; the talking frog can look the same. But the actual characters the players play, those had to be changed to have different faces, different hairstyles, and different coloration to make it more appealing to the Chinese player."
The systems around billing also had to change, too. In the U.S., you buy a subscription to play Wizard101 or for those who play less often, you can buy the game one section at a time. But in China, selling a game area by area has been unsuccessful in the online gaming culture, so instead KingsIsle makes the game more difficult for nonsubscribers. Which is a surprising choice, since they had to already make the game more difficult for Chinese players. "We give someone a fairly trivial reward for doing something we thought was a monotonous task, like collecting 500 bumblebees in a garden. In the U.S., if you make that difficulty escalate very quickly, the player will move on. The threshold for the average player in China is much greater," said Coleman. "They are willing to put up a lot more with those tasks to get those incremental rewards. So we had to ramp up the difficulty to reward ratio at a much faster rate." Thus, many of the collection-style quests have the number of items doubled, which may be then doubled again for non-subscribers.
The online gaming culture of China has another huge difference. "So much of the gaming over there still happens in these Internet cafes, akin to the arcades of the 1980s here, when gaming was more of a social activity that you went some place and did," said Coleman—which is one reason KingsIsle is rolling out the game as a closed beta in the smaller markets of Macau, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. And once they have government approval, they will spread the closed beta to certain markets in mainland China. From there, the plan is to spread out in an open beta available to all the public.
To complicate matters even further, KingsIsle has no idea how long that could take—they could spend months going back and forth with the government to get final approval, but Coleman believes Wizard101 will completely launch in China this year.
Despite all of these challenges, the potential in Chinese markets is worth the rigor, Coleman says. But even when every hoop is jumped through, there's still the question at the heart of any game launch anywhere: Will players like it? "We just don't know," Coleman says. "I would like to believe that the 12-year-old Chinese student would get into our game and think it's awesome. But I won't know until we try it. It's hard enough for me to predict the 12-year-old American, much less the 12-year-old Chinese kid."