Earlier this week, Gamasutra posted an interview with Sony Online's John Smedley
in which the company president explained the overarching ideas behind the company's upcoming PC/PS3 free-to-play MMO, FreeRealms
It's clear that SOE is genuinely shifting gears with Free Realms - the company's target audience for the game (for which screenshots have not yet been released) is different, families and women, opposed to the stereotypical twenty-something male.
In this more in-depth Q&A on FreeRealms
, Gamasutra spoke to key creatives Bruce Ferguson (Producer) and Laralyn McWilliams (Lead Designer) about their brave new MMO world:
The first thing I noticed about FreeRealms is the stylized, cartoony look - very different from what Sony Online Entertainment has made so far. Why the stark visual change?
LMcW: It felt like a really good fit for what we are trying to do with the game. We want FreeRealms
to be really fun. A more whimsical feel, that feels familiar with people at the same time. It’s actually sort of similar to Shrek. The way Shrek feels like a fairy tale or fable, but feels fresh at the same time.
is the same way. We want it to feel familiar to people, but when you look at the graphics we want them to say “this is a fun game.”
Obviously, casual fan is somewhat of the point, here - for instance, you mentioned you could play soccer in the middle of a forest. Can you talk about what people will be doing while they play the game?
BF: What we are trying to do is take all of the things we have seen in other MMOs that tend to be a frustration factor - the length of time you have to play, the high end rate content - things like that, and figure out a way we can make the game more accessible.
We are looking at smaller play areas. Things you can do very easily, not necessarily as defined so you can create your own play, and do things you can do relatively quickly. Rather than taking a four hour or an eight hour session in the middle of the night, we want you to be able log on perhaps with your children, play the game for a short amount of time and actually enjoy yourself.
LMcW: It is also important to us you can play FreeRealms
in a lot of different ways. If you like action RPGs, you’ll find things you like to do in FreeRealms
, but we don’t require you to do those. Most MMOs require you to play a certain way.
They might have sub-things to do, like you get to craft here and there that kind of thing, but you’re pretty much there to fight. FreeRealms
has combat, but we have other things and everything in FreeRealms
is optional. You do what you want when you want. You are not obligated to play in any one way.
Let's talk more about structure - Is FreeRealms a hub for many different kind of games, effectively a virtual interactive play space, or is it further integrated than that?
LMcW: It is a cross between what you are talking about, a sort of sandbox virtual play space, and an actual MMO because you will create a character. You will name your character. You will be able to wear different clothes. You will be able to go take part in the world, do quests, all of the things you associate with an MMO, but in ways that are extremely different in how it is done in MMOs today. We can’t get into details on how it is different, but it is very different on how you would do it in a normal MMO.
Do your characters level up?
LMcW: Yes, you will advance in some way - in significant ways, but you won’t have to make that choice. One of the key phrases that you will hear Mr. Smedley say is: You can play a wizard one day and a warrior the next.” There is no limitation to what you can do in FreeRealms
Let’s switch gears and talk a little about the business model - how will FreeRealms function financially?
LMcW: We have purely free play that is ad-supported, that will let you access a significant portion of the content. Then you can subscribe - which will get rid of the ads, because you will have banner ads in the free client. This also lets you access some subscriber-only content.
It might be things like clothing, it might be more quest lines, it might be just different play spaces. You can also potentially buy things through microtransactions. We actually support a variety of business models.
Are there going to be parental controls, since you mentioned a family element?
LMcW: Yes. We are fully compliant with the ESRB. We have a lot of faith in the ESRB. We are dedicated to making a safe environment in FreeRealms
BF: It is extraordinarily important to us that we meet all the regulations - we feel that it is a very important aspect in the game to make it friendly for children and parents, so they can enjoy without having any fear of playing.
You also mentioned you are trying to attract a new audience for SOE - a more diverse audience. What do you think is going to attract a larger percentage of the female audience and the family audience?
BF: I think most of what we are doing is trying to appeal by being a little less hardcore than your typical MMO, which requires a significant investment of your time. We're going for shorter play sessions and more accessibility.
We are going to be launching from the Web. It will be a very small download initially, and we are going to be streaming assets. It is going to be much easier to get in the game initially. Of course, since it’s free, you don’t have to go to a store and buy a box product. It will be available to a lot more people and hopefully a lot more fun. So we will get a lot more people trying it. I think as we build up the user-base we will get more and more people by word of mouth, rather than by your traditional advertising model that you see on a lot of MMOs.
LMcW: I think the art style is really appealing for both kids and women. The way I envision it is taking an MMO and trying to trim off some of things that make casual players, people who don’t have a lot of time and kids not get into MMOs much. We are trying to trim the things that might weigh FreeRealms
down, focus on streamlining it and making it fun and easy to get into. I think that in its very nature will get a lot more women and a lot more kids to play, just because you can get in and have fun immediately.