Sony Online Entertainment president Jon Smedley was straightforward about the development of its youth-oriented online game, Free Realms: "Games for kids are hard."
Free Realms, a free-to-play MMO, launched in April this year, is now up to 5 million users, Smedley said at GDC Austin on Wednesday. It's a particularly impressive feat considering SOE's background. The studio is behind hardcore MMOs including Star Wars Galaxies, PlanetSide, and the renowned 10-year-old game EverQuest.
"These games have a life of their own, unlike any other kind of video game. At SOE, this was our heart and soul," he said. But SOE was servicing a very narrow market -- the average 33-year-old male gamer.
"As a company, we knew we had to evolve," he said. "Our goal was simple. To expand [our] audience. ... and to get a much wider female audience."
The development of Free Realms started in 2005, and Smedley said it has been a learning experience the entire way. The company found itself in many trial-and-error situations as it tried to switch from an adult development mindset to catering to young kids. "For a bunch of video game makers that are effectively the demographic of standard MMOs, this required a change in thinking,' he said.
"From our perspective, making a game for kids is very very different than making a game for a 33-year-old audience, and it's different in ways that you wouldn't expect," he said. "...Kids have very short attention spans -- shorter than you think -- like five minutes short."
Finding out the habits of kid gamers involved extensive tests in usability labs, where SOE would fix cameras on kids playing Free Realms, monitoring not only what's happening on screen, but also their faces and their hands. Free Realms players now play for about 20 minutes per session.
What Free Realms tries to do is conform to this short attention span. The MMO allows players to take on a wide variety of jobs and activities. Players can be a brawler, miner, chef, pet trainer, demolition derby driver, or a race car driver. SOE is continuously adding more jobs and activities to give kids lots of options, including a fully 3D soccer game intended to attract international audiences, Smedley said.
"[Kids go from] killing something to playing a puzzle game next," he said. "...We find that one second, kids will be doing one thing, and five minutes later, they'll be doing something completely different."
Getting kids into the game, then monetizing them, is a challenge that SOE is approaching differently when compared to more adult-oriented titles. At launch, 40 percent of players were hitting Free Realms' registration website, and walking away. SOE found out that the average 10-year-old kid was getting hung up at the birth date field -- kids knew the day and month of their birth, but not the year. And they weren't filling out the "gender" field.
By streamlining the registration page for the game to just a "country" and "How Old Are You" field, SOE saw 90 percent of people completed registration.
As a free-to-play game, Free Realms primarily relies on microtransactions, with some selective advertising. Again, the kid audience had some lessons to teach SOE. "We found very quickly that kids had their own way of playing a game, but we also need a way to monetize them" said Smedley. "...Commerce to kids is hard -- a lot harder than we thought it would be."
SOE found that 50 percent of kids would use Free Realms' online store, where they could purchase items like pets and decks of virtual collectible cards. But not all of the users would buy items. The store interface was too confusing.
The company originally thought that ease-of-use was the most important aspect of a kid-centric digital storefront. That's important, but it's another trait that's the real key. "The kids have to understand what they're buying, and the value that they're getting," he said. Items needed to be presented in the context of the game and its characters. SOE is currently working to correct this storefront issue.
Smedley said that SOE is currently working on another, unannounced game in the kid MMO space, and plans to launch a PlayStation 3 version of Free Realms next year. But SOE hasn't abandoned the hardcore MMO market. The studio is currently working on DC Universe Online and The Agency, and continues to support older games like EverQuest.
Going forward, Smedley said Free Realms has changed its perspective on how it approaches the MMO market. "It marked a shift for our company into a new area in online gaming," he said.