At a recent Sony Online Entertainment event, Gamasutra had the opportunity to speak with company president John Smedley about the evolving future of SOE, and the company’s plans for change to target much wider markets.
At the time, the Asia-centric brawler Kung-Fu Hustle was the biggest new title the company was willing to discuss. But in a separate conversation, Smedley was enthusiastic about the possibilities behind the firm's just-announced free to play MMO, FreeRealms, which is due out for PC this winter and PlayStation 3 in summer 2008.
The title is initially free to access, but will require payment to access special areas of the in-game world, and to buy items such as in-game clothing - in a similar way to successful games such as Runescape or Maple Story. Smedley explained to Gamasutra of the title:
"FreeRealms is fantasy, but it’s whimsical fantasy. It’s not RMT per se, the idea of selling special customizations is key. You can play the game completely free. It’s ad-supported, you can customize your avatar to your heart’s content, then there will sort of be an additional catalogue of items we’ll be selling that will allow people to customize even further."
He particularly noted: "It’s our first experiment in the fantasy space with this concept, what we call the ‘velvet rope’ model. We’re taking our cues from some of the other successful games in the Asian market, titles like Kart Rider. You know, Mario Kart except you buy your power ups? Games designed around that concept can be very successful, without the problems we see in unsupervised RMT. I want to expand the concept of customization into player selling to one another, and creating for one another. FreeRealms is going to be a big push in that direction."
When pushed further on some of the unique aspects for FreeRealms, Smedley explained: "One of the key features of the game is the notion of creating content for other players. We don’t want to evoke the feeling of ‘typical MMO’, we want a ‘crazy place you go to have fun.’ One day you might be on a race track, one day you might be on a soccer field, the next day you might be playing chess … or, you know, you can go fight some trolls."
He continued: "Our big goals with the game are whimsy and accessibility. User-generated content: I want to get it out of the space of buzzwords and into the game. Everybody talks about it, but it’s hard to pin down. I rather give people some lines, and say “color inside these any way you want.” Then you can’t just generate whatever you want, but you have users creating content themed towards our goals."
So how is this going to be possible? "We’re developing fairly robust tools towards that end. How about letting players make their own mini-games? The UI toolset we’re using is called ScaleForm, and our goal is to take UI customization to a level no one has seen before. This is being created right now, as we speak, and one of the goals is modification of the client/server interactions in ways that other players can see. It’s going to be pretty awesome."
Certainly, this seems to fall outside Sony Online's normal 'hardcore' customer base. How do you deal with that? Smedley explained: "So, another interesting point about this: we’re going to be marketing this differently than any other game we’ve done before. Normally, you know, we put ads in PC Gamer, or Games For Windows [magazine]… FreeRealms is going to be different. It’s got to be done virally and much more online-only."
Smedley continued: "We want to go mass-market, perhaps get a younger audience involved. Though not in scale, think of something more like the marketing for Spider-Man 3 than marketing for EverQuest 2. The style for marketing might be more like a music video, with someone pretty famous. Think more YouTube, less hardcore PC magazines."
Concluding, Smedley outlined why the title is a key turning point for Sony Online's entire strategy, explaining: "FreeRealms, in my mind, is going to take the company in a direction we’ve needed to go for a long time. We’ve been making these Lord of the Rings kind of 'high fantasy takes itself too seriously' games for a long time now. I don’t think those games are bad, by any stretch of the imagination … it’s been our bread and butter."
Yet he urged: "But those games don’t have that kind of mass level of accessibility, I think, even World of Warcraft notwithstanding. We’re not aiming for those kinds of numbers with FreeRealms, we’re aiming for a lot bigger. I think that bringing something that I can play with my kids to the market is a big deal."