When you think of Sony Online Entertainment
, what comes to mind? I'm sure that Everquest
, Everquest 2
, Star Wars Galaxies
are some of the titles which most people think about. From what I've recently seen in John Smedley's keynote at ION 08
that's all going to be changing in the near future. While he did tease the audience with a hint that, "There's more Everquest in our future."
Smedley left the topic of EQ
at that. I've certainly had my thoughts on what the next Everquest experience should or could be like, but it's just my own personal wish.
So why are we going to be looking at SOE in a different light in the near future? Two games are the reason why: Free Realms
and The Agency
I'm sure most people have heard about these games from our previous coverage
or elsewhere. Up until now the picture hadn't begun to sharpen much. The dust hadn't settled around these titles, but it's starting to. More with Free Realms
than with The Agency
and that's probably why there was a bit more focus on the former rather than the latter.
With Free Realms
(a game coming out of the San Diego team) SOE is aiming at not only the 9-14 age range, but those kids' parents and family as well. Combat is no longer the primary MMO experience with Free Realms
. In fact Smedley was keen to point out that players will have to go and seek out combat much like people do with crafting in other MMOs. The four primary activities in Free Realms
are -- in no particular order -- pet raising, combat, housing and mini-games.
Mini-games are activities that SOE is generously sprinkling around the game world -- such as ice skating or soccer. They're pick-up and play experiences. If you're exploring an ice zone with some friends and come across a frozen lake you can easily find some nearby skates and go skate. Another mini-game shown was of a traditional casual-style where the player builds items on a manufacturing line. If you've played a Popcap game, then you've seen something slightly similar. These player-created items can be used with other mini-games or given to friends -- or other players -- in need of help.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that SOE is putting in the ability to form rock bands in Free Realms
. These bands (which are probably very pick-up-and-play orientated) will allow players to participate in rhythm-based mini-games, which is something I personally want to experience. This is one of those activities that gives players a different outfit to jump into instantly through the game's amazingly beautiful user interface. It's worth mentioning that each of these outfits (used for hunting animals, combat, mining, etc) is fully customizable unto itself. You don't just have one outfit to customize in Free Realms
, you have several.
Smedley then talked about a new mini-game: Free Realms'
trading card game. Players will be able to purchase card packs digitally in-game or at retail, but SOE is going even further with this thing and letting players who choose to hunt creatures in-game use a net gun to capture and transform said monsters into cards themselves. Pretty awesome idea. This also involves it's own outfit -- fashion junkies rejoice!
Essentially, the mini-games seem to be hitting a lot of different areas of interest. They're all over the place and can probably be added in post-launch as well. Great choice, seeing as the player-base will always have requests for something a developer hadn't previously added -- like fishing in Lord of the Rings Online
. Some of them sound hilariously entertaining, like pet raising. An example given was training your dog to pee on fire hydrants, which garnered plenty of laughter form the audience.
Combat isn't left out of the equation. It's definitely in Free Realms and looks about as robust as the rest of the game's activities. There wasn't much talk about the intricacies of it but my guess is we'll see a simple-yet-deep philosophy from the developer. Housing wasn't really talked about much either, so my guess is that it's just not ready to show publicly. However there was the mention of gardening as a mini-game. All my friends' mothers have spent a lot of time gardening in the Animal Crossing
games. Ah, very wise choice SOE. Very wise indeed.
Another very important aspect of the experience is instant access, which is why the game is completely free to play. The game can be jumped into in about a minute of time, said Smedley. The combination of these two mean that Free Realms
is going to launch with a massive amount of people logging in on day one. And on that first day they'll experience two things right away: lots of high quality production and amazing customization. Character creation looked incredibly robust and showed off plenty of choices in rapid fire. The art design is very well done, although there was a zone filled with mushroom trees that evoked a very strong Zangarmarsh feel. Overall the graphics are like World of Warcraft's
in that they don't look nearly as strong in screenshots as they do in motion. If you ask me, it looks like SOE has paid very close attention to Blizzard
here and they're better off for it.
Going back to the free-to-play subject, players who opt for this option will see a video before each login that is age-appropriate. A monthly subscription will be offered and a 4.99 price point is being considered currently. Even cooler than that was the reveal that a family plan will be offered. Families will be able to get five accounts for the low, low price of 9.99 -- another very smart move, I think.
Another part of their business model will incorporate microtransactions for things like extra clothing. One idea given was the possibility for seasonal clothing that can only be purchased a certain times in the year.
SOE will also be offering fan-sites and personal blogs the chance to share in the wealth. A hilarious example was the Dick Cheney blog, where readers can click a easy-on-the-eyes ad to check the game out. "Share the Wealth" is a program SOE is launching that will allow players to throw up a Free Realms
ad onto their page and see revenue if people click through the ad and spend some money on the game. I certainly can't say SOE isn't experimental with just about everything they do nowadays. It will be incredibly interesting to see how this program plays out in the future.
While Free Realms
is targeted at the younger crowd, The Agency
is definitely for a much more mature audience. A mature rating was more evident than ever (and even admitted by Smedley) when the keynote turned its focus to the nightclub element in the game. Many of the missions in The Agency
are about flashy action, but being a spy game means there are also many that are espionage-focused. Using what SOE calls "The Alias System," players can disguise themselves in the proper attire to gain access to a nightclub. In the video shown to us, the sexy female assassin dropped her spy duds for a elegant nightgown. This gave her entry to the club with an added voice-acted comment from the bouncer that, "Evening wear never looked so good." It was at this point I saw the female agent use her womanly wiles
to get the bouncer to let her in, that I realized how mature this game was going to be,
SOE's three primary goals with The Agency
are to create a world class shooter that's easy to get into and to target gamers with a deep story and living loot. The term "living loot" is a little misleading, as it's not just about he loot. It's also about the creation -- or crafting -- of said loot. Players can make use of operatives (Think of Q, from the Bond flicks) that will craft things for them at all times when asked -- even when a player is offline. This reminds me of the EVE Online
skill system, in a good way.
On the subject of making the world easy to get into, SOE wants players to never feel like they're waiting around for a group in The Agency
. Everything with the game is fast, there's no waiting involved. You get in, do your thing and then get out when you're ready to do so.
Not much new information was given on The Agency
, but it was the first time we've seen it presented in such a way. From what we can tell, this game is going to be hot stuff when it eventually comes out.