In the Breaking the Mold: Unique Design Challenges on Free Realms panel, we learned the various mindsets and techniques that the development team went through to provide such a quality game that appeals not only to their target audience of tweens, but also one that reaches out to an older crowd of casual gamers.
The aim, to create content enjoyable for both males and females, as well as retaining a method of communicating with the younger audience, opened up the idea of bringing in a wide variety of both gamers and non-gamers, to test their product. These tests opened the eyes of the team to the challenges that lay before them and lead them down the path to the world we now know as Free Realms.
Casual Does Not Mean Just Kids
Most of the development team for Free Realms had previously worked on games such as EverQuest and EverQuest II. For a casual approach, the team looked at the fact that the majority of their audience would have a short amount of time to invest in their gaming each day, and geared their content around that fact. They had to drop the hard-core gamer attitude and focus instead on lighter subject matter.
The developers understood that the gamers entering Free Realms would be looking for a place to immerse themselves without dealing with the angst that is commonplace in society. The whimsical settings, in places such as Sanctuary, with its cobblestone streets and comical Pixiewood sign, attest to this attitude. Some elements of pop culture, such as Jonathan “liking turtles”, seeped into the game, giving a familiarity to some faces and something in common that everyone could enjoy.
Learning to communicate with a younger audience was perhaps one of the biggest challenges that the team faced. To do this, they purchased and read classic children’s books, to relate to the dialogue that a conversation with a young person would entail. To ensure they were properly relating to their target audience, with vocabulary that would be understood, they used the Flesch Reading Scale as their guideline.
Go Anywhere, Anytime
Another great challenge was the decision making process used to provide cohesive, non-linear progression in their content. Through their in-house testing of various audiences, they discovered that, not only were many people apt to get distracted by a new quest while working on their current one, they also frequently did not read any of the quest text.
Reworking some of the quests only solved some of these problems. Through what the team learned, they also invented the “breadcrumb system”, a series of dots on the ground that will lead you to your current quest target. Another tactic that the developers employed was the “god beam”, which is a beam of light that highlights a target NPC or object.
With so many disparate activities in the game, standardization was a struggle. Though each game update brings improvements, the team still struggles with how to retain cohesiveness with the wide range of minigames and activities available.
Panelist Luke Sigmund discussed a unique aspect of Free Realms, to “be what you want, when you want”. Offering a wide variety of minigames with distinctive gameplay was simply the beginning.
Each job was given its own itemization, allowing players to wear clothing and wieldables, also known as weapons, that are unique in appearance. The majority of statistics that enhance your performance in minigames and combat prowess are intended to come from shards and accessories.
Luke also discussed the “awesome factor”, a way of rating the rarity of items in Free Realms. The examples given were an electric knife for the Chef job, which has an “awesome factor” of about 7, compared to a freestyle spaceman suit, whose “awesome factor” is off the scale at 11.
Combat – No One Dies in Free Realms
Death is a touchy subject when it comes to children, and the Free Realms team took a unique approach to the subject. Luke stated that their objective was to “try not to teach through death”, and that lead into their current system of being “knocked out” in combat.
Combat took a thematic approach while trying to keep the humor alive. Instead of an ogre punching you, he might pass some nasty gas instead! To establish the “boss mobs” of more difficult battles, the team ensured that they would have introductory text before engaging in combat.
Upon entering Free Realms for the first time, the initial encounter with the user interface, or UI, is inside the tutorial. As the team quickly learned, not everyone was born a gamer, and even actions such as learning to turn using your mouse could not be taken for granted. Many of the UI topics covered in the tutorial are responses to their in-house testing, where the team learned how to “speak casual”.
A popular feature of Free Realms is the pets. Furry and adorable, players love to see their unique quirks and interact with them through pet tricks and lavishing the animal with care.
Luke Sigmund discussed how the team strove to design pets with realistic behaviors and personalities. A wide variety of features went into pets, such as:
- Artificial Intelligence (“crazy complicated AI”)
- Reaction to 40 different stimuli based on their personality
- Reaction to other pets
- Treasure Hunting
- 5 distinct personalities (ZAM questions this: we only know of 4 personalities in pets to date!)
An amusing story that Luke shared involved the number of times daily that he receives e-mails from other SOE employees titled “Poop”. Apparently it’s still a hot topic at SOE on how tasteful pet bodily functions are!
After an enlightening panel, Terrence Yee and Luke Sigmund opened the floor to audience questions. Here are some of the highlights from the session!
Cost of non-member Pets: An audience member without membership was curious if the team plans to implement any pets that would cost less than 250 Station Cash™. The panelists responded that they will definitely look into it.
Variety of Pets: When asked if there would ever be a different choice of pet other than cat or dog, Luke Sigmund replied that eventually more options should be available.
Pet Tricks: A question arose regarding whether or not more pet tricks will eventually be created. Terrence Yee responded that yes, later this year we should see some additions, and Luke chimed in with “definitely!”
Druid Job: The Druid job was announced during Friday night’s Community Address, but ZAM asked if this job will be Members-Only. Terrence Yee answered that he believes it will “most likely be Members-Only”.
Collections: An audience member asked if collections were useful. Luke Sigmund responded that “collections will be part of a bigger picture eventually… later this year”.
Player Races: A few people chimed in stating that they would love to see more player races, and Terrence Yee stated “oh yes, eventually!” Unfortunately, no word on which races those will be.
User Interface: Wanting a customizable user interface, an audience member questioned if the team planned to diversify the UI more. Luke Sigmund responded that, at this time, the team does not want to change the way the current user interface works.
Custom Skins: Adding to the diversified UI question, a discussion about custom skinning UI pieces popped up. The team will “need to evaluate” the option first, Luke Sigmund responded.
Grouping: Questioned on how grouping was desirable at all given the recent loot sharing changes, Terrence Yee stated that the team is looking at how to make grouping beneficial for everyone involved.
Deleting Gear: One constant problem that plagues Free Realms is that a large number of items, such as student gear, are non-tradable and non-sellable, leading to cluttered inventories. Terrence Yee reassured us that the team has been discussing this problem, and Laralyn McWilliams, who had been sitting with the audience, chimed in that one possibility that may be implemented is a hide option.
Trade/Inventory Crash: Having personally experienced the dreaded “trade and inventory crash bug”, ZAM asked if the team knew what was causing it and how it could be fixed. Laralyn McWilliams responded that anyone with the crash bug should notify customer support of this problem, and that it is presumed to be caused by a “bad item” in the inventory.
It was enthralling to see the various methods that the developers employed to produce a game that appeals to such a wide audience. With the hint of continued improvements and additions on their way, due to player feedback, as well as the announced upcoming desert area, Free Realms is definitely a hopping place to be!