KingsIsle Already Leads Where Gaming Hopes to Go

Last month, Los Angeles hosted the world’s largest and most influential clip_image001game trade show, E3. As with all years, we saw a combination of cool games, new products, and trends that are emerging or well on their way to being obvious. This year, one of the biggest trends focused on the rise of free-to-play (FTP) games and business models. Even EA, a leader in pay-first models, concedes in a Joystiq interview that this approach is gaining momentum and that over the next five to 10 years FTP will be the norm. Interestingly, in the U.S. this trend has been led by smaller, innovative companies like KingsIsle Entertainment, the developer and publisher behind the popular family game Wizard101. All game developers and publishers need to pay more attention to this success model as it points to where the gaming industry is heading over the next five years.

I got to know KingsIsle Entertainment through my 10-year old son, who clip_image002is an avid Wizard101 player. He plays nearly every day and I even pay his allowance in crowns, the currency of Wizard101, so he can gain more spells, clothes, houses and even pets. My son isn’t alone in loving Wizard101. With 25M registered users and 16M unique monthly Web visitors, Wizard101 ranks as one of the world’s most popular MMOGs (massively multi-player online game) for kids 8-12. The game is classic FTP and if players like what they see and want to play more levels, buy items and have more fun, they buy Crowns or a monthly subscription. According to KingsIsle, users have purchased well over 2B items in their quests. Notably, KingsIsle made the bet on FTP years before the model became popular in North America, investing from 2005 to 2008 before the game was launched.

Wizard101 differentiates itself from surface-level social games, like those from Zynga, via depth of gameplay and cross-clip_image003generational appeal. Wizard101 has over 30 hours of spoken audio and an ever-expanding musical score that stretches across hundreds of hours of unique gameplay. KingsIsle doesn’t need to crank out a different game monthly like Zynga. Instead, KingsIsle focuses its time on improving and adding new content to Wizard101. In addition to depth, KingsIsle also focuses on cross-generational gameplay and story. This means, like Harry Potter and Star Wars, kids and their parents and grandparents can enjoy the game together. This isn’t hyperbole or an aspirational message – it is actually playing out. Based on a 2011 survey from researchers at Trinity University, nearly 60% of responding children indicated that they play Wizard101 with other family members. Additionally, one-third of those respondents indicated they played with parents or grandparents.

Looking ahead, KingsIsle is betting again on this same model for its upcoming game, Pirate101. The new game launches later this year and will leverage gameplay depth, cross-generational appeal, and a proven FTP model while increasing the target age group slightly. The setting will be inspired by popular culture and pirate legends. Players will be able to join together as teams and even command and fly ships through the ethereal sea and sky. Although the game is still in Alpha testing, Pirate101 is already receiving encouraging preview coverage.

How will this turn out for KingsIsle? As competing properties like Sony’s Free Realms and Disney’s Club Penguin are rapidly decreasing, or flat, in unique Web visitors, and as companies like Zynga are scrambling to churn out new surface-level titles to hit their numbers, KingsIsle is growing and according to senior management, “very profitable”. As they are a private company, I need to leave it at that – but my money is on another hit with Pirate101.