Update: Image gallery added 1/29/13.
Former KingsIsle Entertainment vice president and creative director Todd Coleman recently announced his departure from the company. KingsIsle is an Austin, Texas-based studio best known for their online free-to-play game, Wizard101, and more recently Pirate101.
Coleman helped found KingsIsle, and he was a major force behind the launch Wizard101 and Pirate101. He, along with Elie Akilian, David Nichols, and Josef Hall, built the company in 2005. GamesBeat interviewed Coleman over the phone to ask him about his time with KingsIsle and his future plans.
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GamesBeat: How do you feel right now?
Todd Coleman: It’s funny. So I told the team earlier this week. As soon as I told the team, I was feeling mostly just heartbroken. I was the first guy hired here in Austin to fill our development arm.
The ideas behind the products I had a large part of these. Wizard101, Pirate101 — both these characters, and these stories, a lot of them came out of my head and the heads of the people that I work with. I’m leaving a lot of that behind, so it started with a lot of heartbreak.
[Thursday] morning was when I turned the corner, and even though I still feel sad, the excitement’s been gaining and building. I got another dose of it when I had to announce it to the company. As much as I hate leaving it behind … I’m also incredibly excited about what the future hold for me. It’s a whole new horizon.
GamesBeat: What did founding KingsIsle and Wizard101 teach you about taking risks?
Coleman: KingsIsle was actually the third startup that I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of. The first was a technology company where the technology was solid, but we just couldn’t really sell it. The second one was my first game company, where the excitement form the market was really good, but the technology just didn’t come together. Both of those were acquired, but they weren’t home runs.
I came here, and I started working with Elie [Akillian] and Josef [Hall] and David [Nichols] to build this company, and everything worked. We had the right mix of the right people with the right idea at the right time, with guidance from Elie, and it all clicked, and it all worked. This time this one wasn’t mine. The other two startups were mine and Josefs. We set out to create them from the beginning. This one, we were here from the beginning, but it wasn’t ours. I’ve been kind of feeling the entrepreneurial itch, and I don’t know how to explain it to people who have never felt it before. It has been competing with me ever since we launched Pirate … and eventually I made the decision that I couldn’t wait. I had to go and I had to give it a shot.
GamesBeat: You once said publishers thought you were crazy for pursuing a family-friendly game. Did you think you were crazy at the time?
Coleman: No. I like to pick ideas for companies that are doing what other people are not. I don’t like to go head-to-head. My preference is to go for something that sounds a little crazy, but ignites passion and belief that “Wow! This could be really cool!” I know other people may not see it, and maybe nobody else has done it. That adds to the feeling of “what it could be.”
Again, it’s hard. This is the part of the creative process I really love. It’s not a scientific formula, where you add “this variable” and “this variable” and “this variable,” and the next thing you know, you’ve got a startup.
To me, the right idea is a combination of gut feeling, timing, belief that people will like it, even if they don’t even know yet that they will like it. It’s … a big conglomeration of all these elements together that make you say, “OK, this is the one that I have to do — this is the vision that I have to pursue.”
GamesBeat: You did free-to-play before it sounded like a viable business plan. Was making it free originally partly the result of it being aimed at children? I understand one of your fears was parents trusting KingsIsle with their credit cards. Was free-to-play a direct result of this?
Coleman: I wouldn’t say that it was caused by that. There was a concern early on that parents wouldn’t trust anybody unless they had a name like Microsoft or Disney. Luckily for us, the market matured underneath us as we were working on the product. By the time it came out, that turned out to be a silly concern. But it was a real, valid concern that we talked about back when we originally started.
The micropayments were interesting, because when we were launching, it was still a relatively unknown business model here in the U.S. It had seen success overseas, but we had an idea that it might be an interesting thing to try. It wasn’t a major part of our strategy initially. I just buried a vendor in the game in one of the zones that would sell items for micropayments. It wasn’t something we spent a lot of time advertising or talking about — it was just kind of an offshoot thing we put in the corner, and once we launched, it started making a little of money. We said, “Well, that’s making a little bit of money, so let’s leave it there.”
A couple months later we looked at it again, and we say, “Hey! That’s making more money.” We have a mechanism, so our subscriber-base is picking up. We had some people who did our subscription base because they like the idea of not being nickel and dimed, as they call it. We had other people who liked the idea of micropayments, because they didn’t like the idea of their credit card being hit every month automatically whether they’re playing or not. We thought, “This has some merit to offer both. I can pay for the game however I like. I can buy an all-you-can eat buffet, or I can buy it piecemeal.”
And then what we found was that our best customers were the ones who were buying the subscription — and then they were buying stuff in the micropayment shop. Over time, it just earned its own place at the table. It continued to grow and gain momentum and as it did better we put more effort into it. We redid the interface, and we made it more front and center in the game and we started increasing our offering and fleshing out the catalog. It built its own momentum, and it’s a major part of our business now. I think we were a pioneer in that area, but it wasn’t all by design. I think it was somewhat by design, somewhat by just being open to the opportunity and recognizing what was happening and jumping on it.
GamesBeat: Any untapped markets you want to aim for?
Coleman: You know? I really don’t know. I had it in my mind that I was going to take off for six months or a year, just to decompress. The response I’ve gotten since this morning has made me think that I may have to turn that time table forward a little bit. But we’ll see. I’m not in any particular hurry. If it happens next week, and the right combination happens next week, then I’ll start that company next week. Well, the week after, actually — I’m still at KingsIsle until next Friday. [Laughs] It if happens next month, I’ll do it next month. If it happens next December, then I’ll do it next December.
GamesBeat: When the idea hits.
Coleman: Yeah. Pretty much. The rest of the stuff: Hiring the team, getting the office set up, getting the processes and procedures in place — I’ve done that now so many times that I’m not worried about that. The piece that is the big unknown is how long will it take for the right idea to come along, and I don’t have a time frame for that. It happens when it happens. You just open yourself up to hopefully see it when it hits, and we’ll see.
GamesBeat: Back to KingsIsle — what was the most exciting part of watching it grow?
Coleman: Well, Wizard was never, in my mind, expected to be as big as it turned out. I mean, we hit a tipping point with it, and that’s quite a thing to see, right? You have a game that you think, “well maybe this will be a niche.” It’s got an interesting set of ingredients. It’s got a dash of Harry Potter, and a splash of Final Fantasy Tactics, and little bit of Pokémon. You kind of put the elements together, and then hope it comes out good, and then you sit back and watch. It started to take off, and we started to hit that point where it was kind of like, “OK. This is getting big. This is getting much larger than we ever expected.”
We hit this roller-coaster period where crazy things that I never expected happened. All of a sudden I’m flying out to L.A. and recording Selena Gomez in her house to actually make an in-game appearance.
I mean, it was this weird, “wow” just one thing after the next, and we’re winning game of the decade awards and the user numbers continue to climb. Then we hit 10, or 15, or however many million uniques per month. The game just took a life of its own. What a crazy and amazing ride.
To a large degree, the same people that started the company are the ones that were with us for that whole ride, which is really cool. We keep very low turnover at KingsIsle. It has very much a family feeling to it, which like I said, is why it’s so heartbreaking for me to have to do this, but it’s just something that I’ve gotta do.
GamesBeat: That’s it. Anything you want to add?
Coleman: Yeah. I just wanna add that my departure from KingsIsle is entirely a Todd thing. It’s not a KingsIsle thing. I wouldn’t be walking away if I didn’t know that the company was in great hands. The products — Wizard and now Pirate — are doing still phenomenally well. The company is in better financial shape than it’s ever been. They’re hiring like crazy. I think they’ll grow the company by another 25 percent this year.
There’s never a great time for one of the initial visionaries to step out of the company, but it’s the best time that I could find. Wizard is still at the top of its game. Pirate seems to be on the same track. The other projects internally are at great place. I expect to see great things from them, and it breaks my heart to see that I won’t be a part of building them. KingsIsle is going to do great, and I have no doubt that the company is going to do great things. It’s just, you know–it’s time for me to go do it on my own.