On the second day of the LOGIN conference, I had a chance to visit with Richard Weil of Turner Networks, Community Director for FusionFall, the kids MMO based on the world of Cartoon Network characters.
I was curious to know the direction in which Turner was moving, with the recent promotion of Chris Waldron to VP of Gaming for Cartoon Network. “It’s a good thing,” said Rich. It’s a consolidation of divisions, a bringing together of all the games under the leadership of Chris Waldron. The former Executive Producer of FusionFall will now also oversee games planning and games development strategy for Cartoon Network. Waldron’s appointment was only announced at the end of April, so it’s very much a transition period right now, but I could see the conviction Rich had that for Turner, computer games would be moving and shaking under Chris Waldron’s leadership.
FusionFall was launched on the Unity Platform which provided a semi web-based game sxperience. Players had to install the Unity engine to bring the FusionFall experience to life. One of the advantages of the Unity engine was that it allowed both PC and MAC users to play FusionFall in the same MMO world. As early adopters might remember, it was not without its own share of issues.
“We’ve done a lot to improve the performance of the game since launch,” said Rich, “and continue to improve performance as well as getting the upcoming expansion out the door.”
According to Rich, a lot of the performance issues have been fixed and Cartoon Network continues to improve performance and optimize the game. Some online games have belied the old “You don’t get a second chance at launch” adage and FusionFall has attracted its share of players giving it a second chance.
“Our game is targeted at kids and if it doesn’t work, kids aren’t going to play it. They aren’t like older players who will spend hours trying to solve a technical issue. To them, it either works or doesn’t. Our “come back and try it again” program has been working very well and our numbers are climbing steadily.”
Were those numbers paid subscriptions or non-paying players? I wanted to know.
“Well,” said Rich, “We do provide quite a bit of free content. You can get to level 4 in the free area and we are constantly releasing additional free content like additional quests.”
In particular, the game is targeted towards boys 8 – 14. Some kids are happy just playing in the free area shooting Fusionspawn and not even leveling. Only quests give you xp in this game, and some kids are happy to just go around shooting things and picking up cool loot. My tak on that was that FusionFall does have a large number of players who play for free.
“You must remember that kids have limited play time and for some, that translates to jumping in the game and killing things for 20 minutes. However, I don’t think we’ve done a great job of showing them the difference between the unpaid and paid content either.”
As this time, kids don’t immediately jump into a new area at level 4, but actually travel back in time, so they are essentially playing in what looks like the exact same area.
“We are definitely making some changes and the nice thing about MMOs is that we can.”
I asked for further examples of changes to come.
“Boys at this age are just beginning to exhibit what essentially is a bragging behavior,” said Rich. “In real life, it’s when they want you to watch while they do something cool. The “Look at ME!” syndrome. They want to show off their mastery, but we do not have leader boards on the web to facilitate this. So that’s one thing to look forward to.”
This segued neatly into how kids do the darnest things. “I think we all learned a lot in developing this game and observing kids behaviors,” said Rich, talking about children exploiting the code. Not that they really know what they are doing or that what they are doing is necessarily wrong. I asked for explanation.
“It was our own fault really. We have what we call the Wastelands. These are vast areas in game where designers test things. You know… they build a mob, a few buildings for a town, or a bit of machinery… and they leave it there for testing as design progresses. There are even entire areas that are replicated there for testing purposes.”
Basically, the programmers did not lock it down tight, as they didn’t think they would need to. These are kids, right? They’ll never find the holes in the code, but they did. Remember that kids want to show off? They have been infiltrating the Wastelands and taking screenshots, then posting it on the forums and bragging about what they’ve found.
“They are kids, right? We’re not going to ban them because we had holes in our code.”
“But are they doing any harm wandering around where they shouldn’t?” I enquired.
“Remember falling through the world in EverQuest?” Rich responded. Boy, did I… layers and layers and layers deep. “It’s the same concept. There’s always a possibility that their character falls down a hole so deep that we can’t retrieve them, or they sustain damage we can’t fix. We’ve been gently discouraging them, and we tell them that. But do they listen? No. It’s a badge of honor to them; to find new ways to get into the Wastelands.”
The test areas are also where designers may put characters that are not in game yet. Did the kids find any? “They found Cheese (from Foster’s Home of Imaginary Friends).” Rich said with a grimace. “Now there’s this big expectation brewing that he’ll be in game next and speculation of when and where they’ll find him.”
The response by Turner to that discovery is that Cheese has been confirmed as a character and also a nano that will be launched in a future expansion. “Next expansion?” I asked. Rich hedged. “Maybe…”