When I accused the Free Realms Systems Lead Luke Sigmund of being part of a vast conspiracy to create the ultimate gateway drug for MMOs, he laughed and said “No comment!” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
SOE is about to launch guild functionality for their free to play kid/casual game. I gave the game a great review on the grounds that it does what it does very, very well. But in the same review I noted that Free Realms is not a traditional MMO, and in fact was only an MMO in a literal sense. Massive numbers of people can play it online, yes. But raids, guilds, community, and even grouping are noticeably absent from the title, and when I was playing it for the review, I felt like I was playing a fun single player game. I never spoke with, or heard from, another human being, and that among other reasons made me miss my “real” MMO games.
Since the review, SOE has put in zone chat, and today they started their media blitz to promote their adding guild functionality.
Sigmund told me, “We put guilds in because we know that’s what players want. We’re diligent about reading feedback and responding to that to create a really fun experience. And everyone knows that playing with your friends is the most fun thing.” He should have some idea as to what fun it – he was a raid designer in EQ2, and before that, he was the guy behind all the live events (things like the holiday goodies, etc) for several years.
He said, “We want people to talk to each other! Guilds help us push along socialization. We read the reviews, and saw what people were saying [about the lack of social connections].”
That’s not to say that guilds are being implemented solely because of the feedback. Sigmund said that guilds were always a planned feature, but when the team was setting priorities for launch, social features like guilds came below highly polished, intuitive gameplay.
The team knew enough to know that what’s intuitive for an old MMO hand is incomprehensible twaddle to… well, anyone else. So they built a usability lab, complete with viewing windows and cameras to record every expression, every hesitation, and more. Now, this is pretty standard product testing for most industries, but I’m hard pressed to think of many game studios doing it at all, let alone in house.
“Seeing reactions was really important. The usability lab has been the crux of our decision making behind the UI, and making things intuitive,” said Sigmund.
If this kind of focus testing is done, it’s usually farmed out to consultants who may or may not understand the significance of the little details. Building the lab in house and bringing in focus testing children shows a degree of commitment not normally seen.
Then again, it was widely known within the industry that Free Realms was CEO John Smedley’s baby, and he was going to nurse this thing into existence with every resource he could get his claws around. I didn’t know how committed he was until this interview, when I learned that he’d given up his plush office with the private bathroom just so he could sit closer to the Free Realms development team.
Anyway, the target market for this game was never the traditional (adult) MMO consumer. That the game can be enjoyable for that consumer is intentional, of course. But the basic Free Realms player is someone, a young someone, who hasn’t picked up an MMO before.
Still, traditional MMO players expect guild functionality. The Free Realms guild system was designed to do two things. One, meet the expectations of traditional players – those people used to creating guilds, or people already in guilds that formed in other games. And two, educate new players – explain to them what a guild is.
That’s when I suggested that the team’s real goal was to build the ultimate gateway drug into “real” MMOs, and that’s when the systems lead and the PR girls started laughing and refusing to comment.
So… what’s included? I warned him that I was now trained to expect incredibly easy to use tools that didn’t require anything thinking.
“We wanted to turn around the first iteration of guild functionality very quickly,” says Sigmund. “The basic tools are there – tags, chat tabs, the ability to teleport to other guild members. Recruiting and web tools will come later. We’re planning social networking features, but they won’t be coming online with the first guild patch. We need everything to be really polished before it goes live, and right now we’re focusing on in-game features.”
I asked how you make a guild in Free Realms. I’m not sure what I expected, but I was still startled. “Guilds are kind of a prestige type thing in Free Realms – to create a guild you must be 15th level in one of your jobs.”
That’s it? How much does it cost? How many people do you need to create the guild? Well, apparently, nothing and no one besides yourself.
Of course I asked about housing. I’d been hearing rumors of a housing patch, and if we’re going to have guilds, we gotta have guild housing. But he wouldn’t bite. “We love housing. And we want to make it awesome. And that’s all.”
Fine, fine. Sniff. No scoop for me.
As the interview drew to a close, I asked for final words. Sigmund told me with an audible grin, if you know what I mean, that adding guilds “will start a cascade of awesome.” I made him explain that statement, and he said, “It comes down to this. If you’ve played an MMO, you’re more likely to do stuff if we make it easy for you to talk to your friends and coordinate everything. We know there are people in the community who want to do stuff together, and we’re making it possible for people to organize themselves. People are already putting together parties and gatherings, we’re just giving them the tools.”
“Guilds are a way for people to get together, and we don’t want to put too many barriers in the way of that.”