Pirate101 is the follow-up to the immensely popular free-to-play massively multiplayer online game Wizard101 from KingsIsle Entertainment, which in turn is quite possibly the most popular game you've never heard of. Conceived as a family-friendly, narrative-driven MMO game when it first launched in 2008, Wizard101 has since blossomed into a sprawling worldwide phenomenon that blends elements of Harry Potter, World of Warcraft, Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, and collectible card battle games like Magic: The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh. Just how popular is it? It boasts 25 million registered players playing in eight different countries, 14 million of whom visit the resources at the Wizard101 website every month.
With such a huge fan base to draw on, it was inevitable that KingsIsle would build on this foundation rather than start again from scratch. "Keeping it in the same universe was something that we were always going to do," says Todd Coleman, the game's creative director, during a demonstration of the game at the company's Austin studio. "It was important to keep it connected to the world of Wizard101, but we wanted to tell a different kind of story. Before, you were on a hero's journey that was very much of a Luke Skywalker 'chosen one' kind of thing, but in the new game there's a bit more of a Han Solo vibe."
Before, you were on a hero's journey that was very much of a Luke Skywalker 'chosen one' kind of thing, but in the new game there's a bit more of a Han Solo vibe.
Made up of an extensive series of magical environments called the Spiral, the original game focused on events that spawned from the Hogwarts-like Ravenwood School of Magical Arts and saw you exploring evocatively named worlds like Krokotopia, MooShu, Dragonspyre, Grizzleheim, and Marleybone. With each world populated by animal-themed factions, such as the samoorai cows and the ninja pigs of MooShu or the 19th-century steampunk stylings of the canine- and feline-inhabited Marleybone, the mythology that KingsIsle created is rich with both content and (importantly) puns. "We do like to pun," says Coleman. "It's an important part of the cross-generational appeal that we think makes the games so popular." Often these puns bring in a reference more appropriate to older players, while still being silly for younger players. Case in point: the shark thug Fin Dorsal, who wears dark goggles and drops Pitch Black references, or the feline criminal mastermind Meowiarty, who lives in Marleybone.
Set in the same game universe, Pirate101 takes on a very different structure from its predecessor. It's much more of a combat-focused affair and now rolls out in chapters that see you gathering a hodgepodge pirate crew rather than in distinct narrative sections that are dependent on the worlds that have been unlocked. Movement between the different "floating islands" of the game world is a big part of the new game and allows for a pirate-themed vehicle mechanic in the shape of customizable floating galleons and warships. "Unlike many MMOs, our games aren't instanced," says Coleman. "All of the combat and the social interaction is in the world. Our players don't like to separate the two concepts."
Experience with Wizard101 is by no means essential to the new adventure, but being familiar with the races, backstories, and folklore that have been established over the past four years will certainly make the game more rewarding for longtime fans. "We had two clear goals in the creation of this game," says Coleman. "The first was that the existing Wizard base needs to love the new thing," he explains, "and then our second goal was to age it up a bit to open up the idea to more people."
To achieve that second goal, the team has focused on both thematic elements and gameplay mechanics. The game kicks off with the player in prison, and the initial character generation and class selection (players end up as a Buccaneer, Witchdoctor, Privateer, Swashbuckler, or Musketeer) are performed by answering questions about the character's past. "We needed to explain why your character was a pirate by telling some of the backstory," explains Coleman. "We do this by shaking up the family unit, establishing a tragedy that affected the player's parents, and the subsequent criminal path that this led the character towards. All of this creates a moral backbone for the game. We learned with Wizard that parents need to buy into the morals, and that's especially important when the game is all about pirates." Turning to Star Wars for inspiration again, he explains that "it's ultimately all about fighting 'the man,' like the Stormtroopers and the Empire. Our universe is ultimately good-hearted, so we need oppressors that players can zap with impunity to maintain that morality. In this case we've created a clockwork foe called the Armada that serves as the big bad which you're fighting now, and you've crossed paths with in the past as well. This Armada is creating a huge mechanical machine, I guess kind of like a Death Star now I come to think of it, that's eating up the world and trying to homogenize everything. The ultimate theme of Pirate101 is freedom and trying to keep individuality alive."
On the gameplay front, vice president of development Josef Hall says, "We wanted to take some pretty hardcore concepts and package them in a non-hardcore way." Central to this has been a big shift in the combat mechanics. Whereas Wizard used a card combat game mechanic for all battles, Pirate101 is a fairly complex turn-based affair that draws inspiration from a true classic. "We absolutely loved Shining Force," Coleman and Hall say together, referring to the 1992 Genesis tactical role-playing game by Climax Entertainment. "We wanted something more akin to chess than a card combat game, and we felt that bringing a game like that which we loved and repackaging it for a broader audience was a great way to do this."
Wizard101 was primarily aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds but was ultimately enjoyed by a much broader audience. "We had players as young as 6 and as old as 80," Coleman explains. "Typically we'd lose boys at around 14, because at that age you're too cool for a game about wizards and magic, but then we'd get them back when they hit 16 or 17. When Pirate101 releases later this year, we're hoping that the themes and the humor will age it up a little, and we'll see if we get that same kind of behavior."'