There was a lot of talk about Free Realms at AGDC this year. We had the chance to sit with Laralyn McWilliams, Lead Designer on the game and talk about the success and future plans for the F2P MMO.
Laralyn first talked about the live events and how successful they had been. The Dares concert from E3 started things off and SOE has continued to make player events a priority. The concert was followed up with fireworks on the 4th of July. These types of parties go a long way with players and the social aspects of the game have picked up because of that.
Laralyn next talked about how important family play is in Free Realms. SOE is seeing many families play together and more importantly the parents are posting on the forums asking and looking for advice.
Speaking of parents, the concerns are always there to protect children online. Customer service has banned a lot of accounts for inappropriate language or behavior. Even with Free Realms chat system, they are still always on the lookout to keep kids safe. In game, if players are caught breaking the rules, there is a final warning from an NPC dressed like a state trooper. This gives players one last chance to correct themselves before there account is banned.
It is important to note that player housing remains an important part of Free Realms. It is part of the long term goals on the game. Players will enjoy full customization with there houses and expect to have lots of options when decorating their gardens, front lawns, etc.
The other area SOE wants to expand in Free Realms is the mini games. Right now, mini games remain a major part of the world. Free Realms is expected to launch many more in the near future. Currently, card dueling is a very popular area for players and there is even a profession players can learn called Card Duelist. The cards remain an important part of the online store as well, with decks being at the top of the items in sales. Free Realms is also about to launch soccer into the game and hopes to gain members of the international audience by having the world's most popular sport available to players.
Being a game designer herself, Laralyn talked about how SOE's goal with Free Realms was to bring the gender populaton to 50/50. Right now 67% of players are male, 33% are female and SOE is doing more to bring that number to an even level. Laralyn explained that they don't make any assumptions of players. Some mechanics are gender based, but they are layered above many mechanics that work well for both genders.
In his keynote address, John Smedley talked about the age level of players in Free Realms. 51% of the players are under the age of thirteen. 29% are between the ages of 13-17. 12% are from the ages 18-24. The remaining 8% is broken up between ages 25-34, 35-55, and 45 and up. These numbers showed the kid friendly atmostphere of the game, but also how it appeals to adults.
Because the kid population is so high, the game was designed around short play spans of about 20 minutes. John explained that you needed to approach things differently when creating the game for kids. The biggest element was to make sure the game was easy to get into. Especially when asking someone their age. John pointed out that most children know their birthday, but they may not know the year they were born. Change the opening log in to ask how old they were improved the ease of getting into the game tremendously.
Jobs are important in Free Realms, they make up the choices players make fore their characters on style of class they will play. Right now the number one job in the game is a Brawler. The Brawler is a combat class which is more like a traditional MMO class. This is followed by the Demolition Derby driver and the Race Car Driver. The racing and demolition derby games in Free Realms are tremendously popular. Oddly enough the number four and five ranked jobs are the Pet Trainer and the Chef. The pet trainer is fun because pets are very interactive in the game. There are lots of commands and abilities you can explore with your pet. The chef takes advantage of cooking mini games all over the world similar to Cooking Mama styles games seen on the Wii and DS.
When talking about monetization of the game, John explained that 50% of the players have used the store. Of those 50%, 68% were girls. The number one purchased item in the store is card decks for the trading card game with Card Duelist growing quickly as a popular job. Other items that are popular in the in game store are health potions, costumes, and pets.
When it comes to marketing Free Realms, the TV is the best way to reach kids. The peak time is about 5:30 pm in the evening just before dinner and bed time. The channels that reach kids are easy to figure out: Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and The Disney Channel. The game sees huge spikes in traffic after the commercials are shown and within five minutes of a commercial run they can check the new log-ins.
SOE continues plans for more kid friendly and casual friendly games. John Smedley mentioned that they are working on a Facebook MMO and also have another project in the works for the kids market. The chat with Laralyn and John's keynote gave us a strong insight into the Free Realms world. Not just from the kid's perspective, but from the eyes of SOE as well.