PSLS Presents – Stephen Bokkes, Lead Designer, Free Realms, Sony Online Entertainment

March 11, 2011 Written by Cameron Teague

When free-to-play MMO Free Realms launched on PC in 2009, the game quickly gained millions of followers and a considerable fanbase. However, the game was also set to release on the PS3 soon after – something that unfortunately didn’t happen as the game was delayed. With the game finally ready to release on the PS3, PlayStation LifeStyle chatted to Stephen Bokkes, Lead Designer of Free Realms to find out more about why the game was delayed, potential plans for PlayStation Plus and Home support, and more.

Free Realms was initially set to release on PS3 shortly after the PC release back in 2009 – what has taken so long?

Yes, initially we had planned on releasing the PlayStation®3version of Free Realms shortly after the PC launch, however, during development the decision was made to focus our resources on expanding the amount of content that would be offered to players at launch. Rather than split our team’s efforts on developing both versions concurrently, we instead focused on creating more minigames, quests, and combat encounters–as well as rounding out the huge virtual world that contained it all.  That focus continued after launch as the team worked to deliver even more content and new features such as player housing, rides (a.k.a. mounts), and the 3D minigame Pirate’s Plunder. Considering the amount of work involved in porting an MMO like Free Realms to the PS3 and the fact that development didn’t begin in earnest until some time after launch, I’d say we turned it out rather fast, actually.

What changes did you make from the PC version for the console version?

The most noticeable changes are those we made to the user interface.  Nearly all the original UI elements were designed around the mouse and keyboard.  As you can imagine, we did a lot of work overhauling the interface to work with thePS3 controller.  This was especially challenging given the wide diversity of gameplay modes offered in Free Realms. Unlike other MMOs built around a single, core gameplay dynamic, Free Realms runs the gameplay gamut.  We’ve got combat, kart racing, match 3 puzzles, fishing, interaction mimic games, and much, much more.  Laying out controls for all these different types of games in such a way that they were intuitive, yet still somewhat consistent so players didn’t feel like they were learning an entirely new game every time was difficult to say the least

Other than the user interface changes, there is very little on the surface to distinguish the PC version from the PS3 version of Free Realms.  A good many of the changes were made under the hood: optimization, gameplay tuning and balancing, etc. We did make changes to the purchase flow of our in-game marketplace in order to integrate it with the PlayStation Store. As such, Free Realms transactions on the PS3 will be funded from the player’s PlayStation wallet rather than with SOE StationCash.  We also opted not to include the Free Realms Trading Card Game in the PS3 version due to compatibility issues with the game’s standalone client that made porting it impractical.

Will PlayStation Plus users gain special features in Free Realms?

Not at launch.  We are currently discussing ways to offer PlayStation Plus users additional benefits beyond those we already offer to Free Realms players that upgrade to membership.

Will Free Realms be integrated with PlayStation Home?

There are no current plans to integrate PlayStation Home with Free Realms.  Given the amount of overlap between the two feature-wise, I’d be hard pressed to conceive of a plan to integrate them without making huge, fundamental changes to one or both products.

Are there any future plans for Move support?

Actually, we had initially planned on supporting the PlayStation Move in a number of our minigames.  After all, using the motion controller for games like fishing, cooking, and other interaction-mimic games seemed like a no-brainer. However, the difficulties with maintaining a game across platforms forced us to reconsider. It’s hard enough to maintain data for two different versions without altering a game’s mechanics for one and not the other. Of course, that isn’t to say that supporting it in the future is entirely out of the realm of possibility.

The PlayStation 3 is generally believed to have a mature mid-twenties audience, whereas Free Realms aims itself at younger gamers. How big do you believe the potential market for Free Realms is?

The PlayStation 3 install base is huge.  And while it may be generally believed that it caters to a mature audience, the PS3’s diverse gaming portfolio seems to suggest there’s plenty of room for games that target a broader age demographic. This is doubly true for PSN titles. So, yeah, I think the market is there.  In fact, bringing Free Realms to the PS3 is really just a natural, logical extension of the existing brand. Free Realms is more than just a game for kids; it’s a game that family members can enjoy together. What better way is there to do that than sitting down in the living room, playing Free Realms on your PS3 and big screen TV?

Did you ever consider requiring a monthly fee similar to DC Universe Online?

We considered several different payment models initially. Ultimately, we decided to go with what we already established on the PC. The game is available for free to all players with membership upgrade options offered in terms of one month, three months, six months, and lifetime–which is valid for the life of the game.

Do you believe that ad-based and micro-transaction funded games are the future?

I don’t know if they are THE future, but I believe that they will certainly continue to be a part of the industry’s future. In-game advertising and promotional tie-ins provide an opportunity for revenue that offsets the risks of a free-to-play model. It’s really a win-win situation when you think about it.  As long as it’s done tastefully and doesn’t detract from the user experience. As for microtransactions, I think the growing number of games that have embraced this model speaks for itself. Sure, you are going to have your holdouts that cringe and gnash their teeth at the thought of having to buy their game in chunks, but hey, change can be a scary thing for some people.  As a player, I personally enjoy the freedom that microtransactions afford. They allow me to choose my level of investment of time and money–both of which seem to be in short supply these days.

Will there be cross-compatibility between PC and PSN accounts?

There will not be cross-platform compatibility. Cross-compatibility would be extremely complicated–not just for us developers, but for players as well. Accounts would have to be linked across platforms, forcing players to create a Station account in addition to their existing PSN account. We decided that convenience and accessibility outweighed the benefits of cross-platform compatibility.

Will PS3 gamers be able to play against PC users?

Again, no.

Will Free Realms support full voice chat and keyboards on the PS3?

Free Realms PS3 does support voice chat localized to groups formed within the game. This will allow you to talk to other opt-in party members, while keeping your conversation private from other players in the world. Of course, chat can be disable via the PS3’s parental controls.  Keyboard will also be supported.