At the MI6 game conference in San Francisco, Laura Naviaux-Sturr of Sony Online Entertainment discussed the impending launch of SOE's free-to-play MMO title FreeRealms.
Part of SOE's goal, Naviaux said, was “expanding our reach from our core 34-year-old male fantasy enthusiastically, whom we affectionately call our geeks,” The 5-to-12-year-old demographic is actually shown to be the fastest-growing online demographic.
The company wanted to build a world as engaging as that of EverQuest, but delivered much faster. “You literally need to deliver the game in less than 30 seconds,” she said.
Early SOE executives like John Smedley are “visionaries,” Naviaux said, but he also owned over 10,000 Magic: The Gathering cards, and the company was staffed up with those in the same mold. She showed a series of photographs from SOE fan events, with a largely adult audience, weighted towards male, with a strong interest in fantasy.
“Turning to a youth and female audience was like turning a ship,” she said. “The power of social networking has never been stronger, and these MMOs provide the same experience, but on steroids,” said Naviaux. Moving to the new model required taking down some previous myths the company held, such as the following:
Product reigns king. “It's not about the actual product at the outset,” she said. Although many great games are produced by prototypes that appeal to the developers, this tends to only work when the developers are close to the target audience – and SOE does not employ 10-year-olds. Some key principles in being feasible for that demographic, such as moving away from the traditional subscription model, actually have little to do with the development of the product itself.
We have to be creative. “Yes, there has to be the special sauce of an IP that separates it from the rest of the pack, but creativity can take many forms,” she said. “We learned to put creativity in the kids' hands. We didn't have to be creative for creativity's sake.”
My kids are just like other kids. Game industry professionals with children, just like other parents, tend to use their own children as a barometer across many topics, but this is not nearly as valuable as doing broader testing. “It wasn't until we actually went to market research that we knew where we needed to go,” said Naviaux.
Kids are paying attention. “We don't want to discount the power [kids] have, but they are distracted,” Naviaux said. “We needed a very distinct visual identity, so we developed brand architecture.” That took a great deal of coordination and effort, but it allowed the company to avoid the problem it had with EverQuest expansions, where box art was inconsistent over the years since it was never planned out in advance.
It's all about the backstory. “We as gamemakers don't need to create the story, so much as give players the [tools] to create their own,” she said. “This younger audience really wants to create their own stories.” She contrasted this with the incredibly in-depth lore seen in more hardcore MMOs. The game has direct uploading to YouTube, with editing tools available, and there are hooks into Facebook, MySpace, and sites that allow users to publish their own fiction.
Need awareness, then advertise. “We would never be able to fund the campaign with the level of awareness needed to sustain a daily service,” she said. SOE ended up partnering with a huge variety of sites for a campaign that reached 50 million unique users, cutting those partners in on revenue deals to allow SOE to retain long-term visibility on those sites.
Babes and booze equals a lot of fun. “I can't prove this wrong, we've all been to a lot of fun parties, and they have their place,” said Naviaux, but this doesn't work for events for young gamers. Plus, when budgets are cuts, events are frequently cut first. So instead of the annual thousands-strong Fan Faire events, for FreeRealms the company holds smaller, more local, family-friendly events that are both more cost-effective and also more valuable for game exposure.
Theme songs come from development. Naviaux played early theme music for the game composed through the traditional game channels, and it sounded very much in the high adventure, high fantasy vein – she then played a theme song created in conjunction with a successful producer, evocative not of fantasy games and films but of what one might hear on MTV.
If they want it bad enough, they will figure it out. “They absolutely will not take the time to figure this stuff out,” said Naviaux of overly-complex interface and mechanics. But this attitude was not just applied to development, it was applied to advertising as well – for example, every online banner ad had simple game interaction, and when users win those mini-games, they receive codes that confer items or bonuses in FreeRealms itself.
Naviaux wrapped up her talk with one final axiom that can be applied to creating products for any demographic: “In the end, it's about making a game, and making it fun.”