Free Realms is a drastic departure from the fantasy epics usually built by Sony Online Entertainment. Not only is it free-to-play, but it is aimed at the tween demographic. Sony's decision to jump into the tween pool was based on some compelling statistics, notably that nearly half of all online gamers are between the ages of 2 and 17, and that Club Penguin, Webkinz and RuneScape rank among the most frequented websites.
Armed with this knowledge (and the growing number of parents among its staff) Sony Online set out to deliver a game to this new target demographic. Along the way, it busted ten tween-game building myths, which Laura Naviaux-Sturr, director of brand marketing at Sony Online Entertainment, shared with assorted marketers attending the MI6 Conference in San Francisco.
Product Reigns King
Naviaux-Sturr admits that the product is of utmost importance, but the specifics of any game are far less important than its essence. SOE discovered it was far more important to nail down the game's delivery method, monetisation model, and general theme than it was to outline specific gameplay features. For this demographic, she says, you just have to capture their hearts - let them craft their own gameplay experiences.
Have to be Creative
Game designers are used to inflicting their own special sauce and artistic whims upon their projects, but tween demographics don't require such a fancy hook. Youngsters prefer their online personas to be extensions of their real world selves. They aren't looking for a fantasy escape, they're just looking for a place they can call their own. You don't need to be creative for creativity's sake.
My kids Are Just Like Other Kids
Your own spawn does not represent the entire demographic set. You need to survey large swathes of gamers - in the thousands - to figure out what they really want in their gaming experiences.
Kids Think They Are Rock Stars
And they are rock stars, she contends. Kids today have more influence over product than any other generation. They not only want to be famous, she says, but - thanks to American Idol - think there is a good chance they will be. Smart companies will find brand activists that will promote their game within these communities because most kids learn about new games through recommendations, not the press.
Kids Are Paying Attention
They are distracted, and they will only stick with a brand as long as it is shoved in their faces. Publishers need to adopt a 360-degree presence to ensure brands are touching kids every where they go.
All About the Back Story
This demographic doesn't need a story, she says. Players are looking for the tools to create their own tales. Instead of a story mechanic, Free Realms partners players with an AI ambassador that will guide them through the game, allowing players to interact with the experience as they wish and export their own stories to social media sites like Facebook and YouTube.
Need Awareness? Then Advertise
SOE could never fund the marketing campaign that would be needed to capture the eyeballs of this demographic - they're on mainstream media portals, not enthusiast sites. So instead of targeting the enthusiasts, SOE created a referral program. Each Web portal - content aggregators and game portals like AddictingGames.com - that refers a player to Free Realms get a piece of that player's revenues. These portals now have an incentive to run Free Realms promos and ensure they're given prominent placement.
Babes and Booze = A Lot of Fun
You can't talk to these consumers in the same way you would talk to DC Universe players. Instead of dark events and alcohol-fuelled socialisation, SOE tried a family friendly approach for Free Realms. Hot dogs, popcorn and raffles did a better job fuelling internet buzz than a traditional games industry event.
Theme Songs Come From Development
Many games rely on the development staff to come up with the game's theme song. But music, notes Naviaux-Sturr, is a powerful medium for this demographic. By hiring a composer that already speaks to that demographic to craft the theme song, SOE ended up with music that identifies the brand across most mediums and marketing spots.
If They Want It Bad Enough They Will Figure It Out
Kids won't wait. They won't tolerate the some twelve steps required to register with EverQuest - you need to remove as many barriers to entry as possible. That means an easy sign up process and small-to-no client download.
Free Realms is being developed for the PC and PlayStation 3 platforms, with the former version set for release later this month.