GDCO 2010: From Shadowbane to Wizard101

There were a lot of panels and lectures to attend at GDC Online 2010, but the most interesting one I attended came from J. Todd Coleman and Josef Hall, creators of both Shadowbane and Wizard101.  In this lecture, the two men walked us through the process they took in both games and showcased the different paths they took, one which ended in failure and the other ending in success.  They broke each game up into stages and really showed off how with Shadowbane, they really didn’t have a good process or foundation.  They took the opposite approach with Wizard101 and have achieved great success with this niche game.  There were similarities, of course, but the whole of the lecture was about how the two games differed in their development stages.

The first thing they did with both games was to come up with an idea.  In both, they were targetting a niche market (and with both, they were surprised at how big their niche market ended up being).  With Shadowbane, the idea began with the concept ofa dark fantasy MMO with a siege warefare system and a player-driven dynamic world.  Their city sieging worked, but they were plagued by technical problems throughout development.  Shadowbane was very much an anticipated game, thanks to the hype surrounding it, but it was not a commercial success thanks to its failure in several technical areas.

With Wizard101, the idea was for the game to be an MMO for the whole family to play together.  They wanted it to be approachable, story driven, funny for both kids and adults and have a relaxed pacing.  They began with something familiar to kids as their foundation, collectible card games.  They added in a school metaphor and a hero’s journey, both of which are very understandable to today’s kids.  When they first announced it, the reception was lukewarm, especially from other developers.  They didn’t let that get them down, though, and discovered that half their players are actually out of their target demographic.  Taking the idea to fruition, they came up with a full feature fully-voiced MMO with leveling, chat, shops, over 2300 quest lines, over 6000 pieces of equipment and a turn-based cinematic combat system that works.

The next step of making a game, after you have an idea, is fundraising.  Walking us through the process of fund raising for Shadowbane was quite an exercise.  It may be the game that has had the most publishers ever.  It all ended up in Ubisoft’s hands eventually, but quite a few different companies donated funds to the making of that title.  That is because every few months, they’d run low on money and have to go out and find someone else to give them some.  For Wizard101, it was very different.  They found a wealthy benefactor to fund the game from start to finish and decided upon digital distribution initially.  They never had to worry where the next month’s development costs came from.  Of course, finding a wealthy benefactor isn’t as easy as it sounds, and luck plays a large part into that, but they suggested that if someone wants to make a game, they try to go that route first.

The next aspect of making a game that came into play with the two games was with management.  J. Todd Coleman actually started this aspect out with an apology.  He said they came into the gaming space with a very poor attitude towards developers.  Shadowbane was the first game they ever worked on.  They made a few mistakes right at the outset with it.  They did no pre-production (where you prototype and test out certain things first to see what is possible).  They announced first and delivered later.  When they announced Shadowbane, they hadn’t even hired anyone.  They were underfunded and they overpromised.  And the last 18 months of development were a solid crunch, so when the game finally launched, their entire team was burned out.

With Wizard101, they came in with a different attitude.  They had something to prove after Shadowbane.  They delivered first and announced later.  They did a great deal of pre-production, even going so far as to make a paper version of the card game they wanted to put in Wizard101 and testing it out extensively, before any programming on it happened.  They decided to have a smaller scope and do that small piece great.  Finally, they didn’t want to kill their team.  There were crunch periods, as there always are with game development, but they made it a policy early on that no crunch period should last more than six weeks.  Rather than selling a vision, as they did with Shadowbane, they made a great game and let it sell itself.

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With both games, development time was about the same period (about 3 1/2 years).  One big difference was their average team size.  With Shadowbane, the average team size was 15, whereas with Wizard101, it was 30 (this is just development team, not including outsourced artists).  Wizard101 also had a much bigger budget than Shadowbane.

They went down a long list of what went wrong with Shadowbane as well.  The world was built fractally, which ended up not looking good and proved unmanageable.  They had to rebuild the entire world in the last 12 months of development as a result.  They redid the combat three times.  They rewrote the city sieging system 90 days before launch.  The install was large, so it was very slow to get started in the game.  It required high-end graphics cards.  They had no tools developed to make things easier.  When it launched, players were crashing all the time.  The servers would come down.  Security issues with the server made it impossible for them to actually fix the problems on the server.  All they could do is reboot and hoped it wouldn’t go down again.  As a result, retention was horrible.  The only way to fund the game so they could fix the problems was to announce an expansion, and with an already burnt out team, that was just asking for disaster.

They took a lot of those lessons from Shadowbane and did the opposite with Wizard101.  It was announced later so the development time seemed shorter to the rest of the world than Shadowbane’s did.  They wanted to make sure people could get in quickly, so the initial download is small and they streamed updates while the players were getting into the game.  They ensured the client would run on pretty much any machine out there.  They also built tools for everything they possibly could, to make working on the game much easier.  Marketing was much quieter on Wizard101 and they soft launched.  Once they were confident the game could handle everything that was thrown at it, then they did a big marketing push, and even went so far as to do television commercial spots.  They tracked, using all the tools they developed for the game, user bleed (which is at what point do users drop off and not play) and doing so allowed them to fix issues they weren’t even aware of at every step, from hitting the website to hitting level cap.

An interesting anecdote they told about how tools helped was that at one step, players have to click to download the game.  All of a sudden, they had a dramatic drop in people getting through that step.  They discovered that the button that said play, which would allow players to download and get into the game, had been changed to download.  That simple change caused less players to click to download the client, so changing it back to play allowed them to go right back up.

Shadowbane was kept running until July 2009, at which time the servers were shut down.  When Ubisoft acquired the game in its entirety in 2004, it was down to 60,000 subscribers.  It went free to play in 2006, but even that wasn’t enough to save the dated game at that point.

Wizard101 launched in September 2008.  By month 20, they had 10 million registered users.  The retention they found was significant and now the game cards are sold at over 4o,000 retail locations and is among the top 5 in game card sales.

In conclusion, they showcased how both games were similar.  They both started in their home-offices.  They both had a clear vision.  Shadowbane and Wizard101 both tried to do something innovative in their designs and they both targetted markets that were considered niche.  Finally, they both launched.

The entire talk was fascinating, with lots of interesting details that we didn’t really know before.  I remember the excitement around Shadowbane, and it was an extremely hyped game.  With Wizard101, it came out of nowhere, and I had no idea what the game even was.  In fact, until I played it, I really thought it was going to be Harry Potter Online, and it’s anything but.  The success they’ve had with their second endeavor is impressive.  It seems rare that people can come back from such a stunning failure with a heralded success, but J. Todd Coleman and Josef Hall appear to be doing just that.


  1. this game is the best game i ever played in my life and then there is only one bad thing about it you have to buy for crowns i wish it was a free game and you can go every were i have a guy in lvl 25 but my friends think that is how it solud be and then we can help each other

  2. Shadowbane was buggy, had little to no graphical enticement, and was, in the end, just not for everyone. Yet, it is still the only MMO I truly admire, to this day. Everything else is just put out to please the masses and, in the end, we all know that game development is a business so the desired end is profit. Shadowbane, though, was a game that had mechanics and playability that transcend all other MMO’s past and present. There is nothing that can compare to SB’s character creation, seiges or guild-based combat and politics. I understand why these other MMO’s are so liked by so many, but Shadowbane is/was a game for true PvP and GvG enthusiasts.

    The carebears of the gaming world will forever continue to give their money to the Wiz101’s and WoW’s, but the SB population perpetually give their hearts to the best MMO in history.

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