How Wizard101 UK Set the Stage for More Free Content

This has been a surprisingly frequent topic of conversation over the past year, especially with Wizard City getting the facelift so many of us had been hoping it would. Will Wizard City become entirely free? What reason might KingsIsle have for changing their price structure or area pricing, even in a small way? Our friends across the pond have led by example.

A Much-Needed Facelift

Looking at the worlds Wizard101 has made in recent years, it's amazing to see how far they've come. The cinematics, the environments - all of it. Just take a look at how the geometry and detail on what they've made has evolved. Even five years ago, I covered the huge difference in Khrysalis part one versus Wizard City.

This in mind, it's almost unfortunate that players who don't drop a few dollars to give the game a try will never experience it. Think about it. If players started in a world as cool (no pun intended) as Polaris, would they not be more likely to play? After Dragonspyre, KingsIsle decided to change up their environment structure. One developer noted in an interview that fitting together the cookie-cutter street pieces was taking as long as it would to simply create unique locations, so that's what they started doing with Celestia and Grizzleheim. But that doesn't mean the original designs can't look good, too - just check out the new areas in Wizard City if you aren't convinced.

Furthermore, as we anticipate a fast-approaching Spring update, Wizard101 has already hinted that we'll be seeing more of Wizard City updated by showing off some of the new graphics in the back of one of their promo images. I expect that if not in this update, we'll eventually see all of Wizard City redone.

Pirate Problems

Why did they update Wizard City? I believe it was J. Todd Coleman who at one point during his time at KingsIsle said that updating past worlds was unlikely because it provided no additional funding for KingsIsle to continue making new content. At the time, that was likely accurate. But looking at the improvements made, the old Wizard City really does show its age. What was the need, other than looking good? Updating the early parts of their games in an indication that KingsIsle is looking to bring in more players. They're attempting to widen the net at the entrance and snag more people by creating additional appeal early on. More free content or updating old areas are great ways to do it.

Pirate101 has gone through a little bit of this process already, though I fear they've not had as much success. Several new areas and dungeons were added to the early part of the game to help entice new players, and some of the drops doubled nicely as viable gear for upper-level pirates. That'd be tougher to do in Wizard101, where gear is more about stats than powers, but it was a great move on the part of the Pirate101 team. It seems like both players and KingsIsle know and acknowledged that more and better free content helps retain players and bring more people to the game.

Member Benefits & Giveaways

Wizard101 has shifted away from some of the frequent giveaways it used to do. Oz pointed this out on Twitter with a chart of recent items given and events held. In the early days of Wizard101, they'd have weekly Facebook raffles. Later on, we'd also get Twitter giveaways and the occasional free item. Today, they just aren't as common. Instead, free things and bonuses come in the form of rewards for buying other stuff. Take the recent Crown Shop rewards programs, the first of which was - let's be honest here - a complete marketing disaster. But, feedback was taken into account and we saw swift changes with the release of other, more promising reward tiers and events. 

Even this, however, is more of a focus on the Crown Shop than I've seen in the past. In his Best of 2018 post, Frostcaller noted that we got an astounding five new packs last year. It seems like there's a new release or re-release every Halloween and Yuletide now. This is not necessary! Let's have a few new boss drops or a new area instead of a new pack. I wish that as much effort was put into Pirate101 as was put into Wizard101's Crown Shop.

Wizard101 UK Events

Now sort of merged with other Gameforge entities as Wizard101 EU, the United Kingdom version of Wizard101 has had some pretty unique events and offerings. Because they're run by Gameforge, the way they release content and do promotions operates within certain parameters but can be different, and it has been.

After the merge with all of the EU entities, the various forum posts and announcements related to these events went away as all of the forums merged into one for Gameforge's Wizard101. Fortunately, I've been a UK player and was pretty involved around the time these events were happening, so I'll be glad to share exactly what the UK was up to, and how Wizard101 in the United States might follow their example.

Free Tournaments & Free Weekend

One of the things that comes to mind first is the week of free tournaments the United Kingdom had for the game. This wasn't a member benefit or a reward for anything, it was a Gameforge gift to players - whether they were members, crowns players, or had never paid for the game at all. I covered this event here, and asked a few of the same questions then - six years ago in 2013 - that I'm asking now.  I note in this post that the US version of Wizard101 did offer free tournaments as a test for the system, but none of the rewards were permanent. Part of this test was for their dedicated PvP site section, which I'm not sure everyone is aware of. The UK's event was not in the test realm, it was a live event. 

The UK went well beyond just tournaments, though. They had a one-weekend event - a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday - where the entire game was free. You heard me right (or you read that right?). For three days, everyone got the entire game for free. Access to every dungeon and area to quest to their heart's content. I know I took advantage of it.

The crazy part of this event was that I'm sure there were people who finished the entire game that was available at that point (keep in mind this was some time ago, so there were fewer worlds and the UK tended to be several months behind in content). We've seen speed runs documented on Wizard101 Central and other places where people have finished the game very quickly. I'm not sure three days would be enough to get through everything available now, but you'd get a great start. The other thing that three free days of game play does is open up dungeons and past areas that maybe people didn't buy outright or don't have a membership to access, and it lets them back into those. This could be particularly helpful in overly-difficult battles like some of the end-world bosses, where players who hadn't yet finished the fights would have a larger crowd available to assist.

These are just two examples that come to mind from my prime time in the UK. These sort of giveaways and events weren't uncommon in the United Kingdom. Let's be clear here. Wizard101 in the US has plenty of contests and giveaways and really great events (though not as many as in the past). Here's an opportunity to take that one step further.

The Case for a Free Wizard City

So what is this all leading up to? We know and KingsIsle knows that polishing early parts of the games can bring in more players. We know that Wizard101, in its different versions, has pulled off free weekends and events. Let's make the connection.

One possibility that, as I've said, has been discussed a lot lately is the idea of making Wizard City free. Just take a look at a quick YouTube search and how many videos there are on this topic. This would be a combination of KingsIsle offering something - for example, their newly-updated zones and world - to players for free along with essentially injecting new, free-to-play content at the beginning of the game to energize players. I'll use myself as an example of how this might have worked.

I have never really been into so many of the more PvP-focused and hardcore games, and there's certainly an abundance of those. So when I started playing way back in 2008, Wizard101 was a breath of fresh air, but I was also intrigued by the mechanics and the story, which would only continue to get better as I progressed. I eventually decided that I would become a member and finish Wizard City, wrap up the game, and see what else there was to do. Imagine my shock when I discovered the Spiral door and the fact that there were more worlds. If that had been advertised better, I would have been sold immediately. And it's not that it wasn't on countless fansites or even the official Wizard101 website - I just wasn't looking there.

Let's say Wizard City was completely free, and maybe, if they want to use some real marketing schemes, they let you into the Krokotopia Spiral chamber, but for the rest of the world, you run into the first pay gate. I know I'd have been sold. For me, I made the decision to play either way, but my hope would be that new players who don't know all of the details about different worlds and might still be making up their minds would also be sold on these other worlds after they complete Wizard City.

Other Possibilities

Whatever the fate of Wizard City and its zone pricing, there are other possibilities for KingsIsle to follow the UK's example. Instead of a Crown Shop reward tier for spending money, what if KingsIsle had a weekend of free tournaments for everybody? What if they offered a weekend where the entire game was free to play for three days? It would take players who've never experienced anything beyond free-to-play content and give them something to get excited about. It'd take players who maybe hadn't been on in awhile and get them going on questing again. It'd be a great way for end-game wizards to log back in and try out that new skeleton key boss they never got around to. And most importantly, it would be a big reason for new players to start playing the game.

Ultimately, what exactly the "correct" option is remains a mystery and I don't claim to have all the answers. I certainly don't have the internal data on what's working and what's not that KingsIsle possesses. But, if we can learn from Wizard101 as it has operated around the world, I think that's a worthwhile path to explore. 

Do you think Wizard City should be free?

Thanks for reading and see you in the Spiral!

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