GDC 09: Free Realms developed with kids in mind

Sony Online plans to challenge Jagex with new MMO

SOE boss John Smedley has outlined his company’s plan to target children and families with its new MMO Free Realms at the GamesBeat conference today.

Smedley told attendees to the the event, organised by VentureBeat, that Sony Online Entertainment – which is now a division of Sony Computer Entertainment, which runs the PlayStation business – that the new game is ‘our attempt to broaden our demographic’.

SOE is famous for the 10-year-old EverQuest fantasy MMO, amongst other online games, but that game previously skewed older, with the average player being 33 years old and having an 85 per cent male audience.

Free Realms, conversely, is a game is targeting a 50/50 male/female split, more diverse than the audiences for most MMOs, and specifically looking to attract kids.

"Were trying to reach a market we have never gotten to before," he added, explaining that to address the strategy SOE’s development teams are creating content that is gender specific – some ares of the game will appeal to boys, some for girls, and some for both.

Smedley also wants the game to engage the whole family, so all members of a family could play on the PC – and later PS3 – based game.

"Free Realms is the biggest thing we have done as it allows families to game together," he said.

The game is also being developed to acknowledge the fickle behaviour kids have when it comes to playing games.

"You have to realise how kids game – they play in 10 minute increments of attention span," he said. So in-game characters are constantly recustomisable.

Free Realms is currently in closed beta, but will free to sign up for and monetised in a variety of ways, from membership subs through to item transactions in the in-built SOE Station marketplace and pre-paid access cards.

A points system is being used for in-game revenue as players are happier to spend points when they accrue them and keep the marketplace alive.

The firm is even working with creating a collectable card game to drive interest and gameplay engagement – and, crucially, help drive a link between MMOs and retail, Smedley added.

"We went our of our way to partner with retailers to let them participate in Free Relams money, not just through point cards but revenue shares," he said.

"This is a key way to stop the cycle of retailers and distributors from being at odds with online gaming."

He acknowledged that the kids’ MMO sector is already home to an incumbent, the UK-developed Runescape, but said Free Realms, with its high end visuals and eventual console deployment, represents the "next generation" of the kind of experience offered by the rival game’s developer, Jagex.

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