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Postmortem Highlights: Behind The Scenes of Free Realms

In highlights from Game Developer magazine's postmortem of Sony Online Entertainment's youth MMO Free Realms, the creators reveal how they overcame casual confusion with a considered development approach.

April 9, 2010

8 Min Read

Author: by Staff

The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, available for subscribers and for digital purchase now, includes a postmortem of Sony Online Entertainment San Diego's Free Realms, written by creative director Laralyn McWilliams. Free Realms, a casual virtual MMO world angled at a youth and teen audience, is the latest new property from Sony's MMO-focused division. It was published by SOE for PC last April. These excerpts from the April 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine reveal various "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" highlights from throughout the creation of the game, revealing how the company implemented an improved management style and dealt with a new shift to casual audiences. Underestimated the Need for Iteration on Back-End Features As any developer (or any Game Developer postmortem reader) knows, there's no substitute for iteration. But while most discussion of iteration deals with gameplay mechanics and core technical issues, the Free Realms team had a whole other area of concern. "The effect a lack of iteration time has on elements like user interface or items is clear—but what about character login protocols? Chat filters? Web profile updating? Change management and migration across development, test, and live environments? Localization and live string updating? Item stack counts? "The trickle-down effect of the engine reboot meant that we were always robbing Peter to pay Paul. It seemed like the right choice to get back-end features out of the way ASAP and focus on player-facing features as much as possible. So although we spent the time and effort to develop the new engine, and then to develop Free Realms’ core features on top of that, we didn’t schedule enough time for those systems to go through test and iteration time before we started using them. "That had two effects on the game. First, it meant we shipped our beta with more back-end and systems bugs than we would have liked. Free Realms had a great, stable launch, but that came at the expense of a large team of people actively addressing new bugs 24-7 for months. A large number of those bugs were in core systems and tech, which distracted us from the player-facing bugs. "Second and more importantly, the lack of back-end iteration time meant we didn’t have the opportunity to find the kinds of bugs that only occur with accumulated data and a combination of attributes. For example, there were bugs that only occurred when a character with a certain number of items crossed (invisible) zone lines with a pet following him. "If we’d had the time to iterate on back-end systems, we could have discovered and addressed that bug earlier in the process (in addition to addressing some related data storage size issues that ended up affecting other areas of the game)." Struggled to Make the Shift from Traditional MMO Development to Casual Virtual World Development For years, "MMO" referred to a very specific target audience and slate of mechanics. With Free Realms, SOE San Diego found itself targeting a very different consumer--and that took some adjustment: "SOE is a flagship studio for MMO development. EverQuest is going into its 11th year as a live service. We have an unprecedented depth of experience in online world design and development. That’s also a lot of history and habit to overcome when you try to make something new. Even with a huge amount of team enthusiasm for the concept, phenomenal support from the entire company, our seasoned leads and directors, we struggled as a company to overcome all our ideas and preconceptions about the way an online game 'has to work.' "You get a mixed message from the launch version of Free Realms. At its heart, Free Realms is about doing what you want when you want to do it, in the way you want to do it. Don’t like playing a Medic? Try a Ninja! Not into combat? Level up as a Miner by playing a match 3 game! The core of Free Realms works, and focus/usability tests along with player data show us that when our target audience gets to that core, they have a great time. "Unfortunately that tasty 'do anything you want' core is surrounded by elements that, while normal in other games, in Free Realms become MMO detritus. Want to buy a specific item? Wander around the 3D world until you happen upon the only guy who sells it. Feel like leveling up? Then go find some quests and finish them because that’s where the XP is (not in the minigames themselves). Can’t find the location of a battle? Well, hover over every icon on the atlas until the tooltips reveal it, and then put on your walking shoes. "Still, Free Realms got rid of a lot of the work and tedium that comes with playing many MMOs. When you defeat an enemy, everyone in your group gets the reward. You can teleport to any city in the world or directly to a friend just by clicking on the atlas, and you don’t have to use a calculator to figure out what pair of pants to wear. "We didn’t go far enough down that path though, and similar to important features not having enough focus, the ongoing attempts to overcome our strong MMO background are obvious in the changes we’ve made to Free Realms after launch. We took baby steps for sure. First, the Take Me There button would automatically run your character to a destination in between major cities. A couple months later, we let you teleport directly to any activity on the atlas. Most recently, we added the Game Guide which lets you start an activity without having to move to its location, along with the Coin Shop which lets you buy items for coins without having to visit a vendor. "We’ll get there, and we’re learning along the way, but we’d have a stronger, more cohesive game (and higher revenue for the first year) if we’d stayed closer to our conceptual goal." Integrated Scrum Partway Through Development There are many different opinions about the best way to organize a team. Even with a significant organizational change in the middle of development, the Free Realms team found Scrum a great tool: "Traditional wisdom states that you should never change horses mid-stream. But what if your horse can’t swim? "The Free Realms team used a traditional waterfall approach for over half the game’s development. It was working about as well as it usually works in a complex scope, large team environment. With only about a year left in development we decided to move to agile development and start using scrum with a team of 80 people. We sent all the leads and key personnel to scrum training, asked those team members to train everyone else, and then made the leap. "From the start, there was a marked improvement in team morale and communication. Although there were (and still are) a few holdouts who gripe about the daily meetings, everyone recognized that the game was making more progress in less time than it had before we started agile development. "Over time, we modified some of the more traditional scrum elements as we added team members and features, but we maintained the heart of scrum: daily meetings, user stories going into a backlog maintained and championed by a product owner, and increased scrum group responsibility and ownership. "Sense of ownership is key to understanding the impact scrum can have on a large team. When you have so many different people working in parallel, it’s easy for each individual to lose his sense of purpose—he starts to feel like a cog in a machine. You could definitely see that 'just doing my job' feeling in parts of the Free Realms team before we used scrum. Many people on the team didn’t understand the big picture, had no idea what other parts of the team were developing, or had lost some of the entrepreneurial spirit that started Free Realms off so strongly. "Scrum brought with it daily meetings and bi-weekly sprint reviews where we saw what everyone else had developed. Those meetings were inspirational when we saw fantastic work from other teams, and embarrassing when one group’s work wasn’t quite up to par. The team morale woke up and the quality of the game improved along with productivity." Additional Info The full postmortem of Free Realms explores more of "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the April 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine. The issue also includes a rundown of the 9th Annual Salary Survey, an interview with game pioneer David Crane, a piece on lessons to be learned from id's classic Doom, and our regular monthly columns on design, art, music, programming, and humor. Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of this edition as a single issue.

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