Earlier this month we brought you impressions from visitors to the annual Consumer Electronics Show, folks who had the chance to see the few games at the show up-close and personal. One of the titles on display at the event was SOE's Free Realms, an ambitious free-to-play title Massively has been following quite closely since the site launched. We couldn't make it to CES this year, but we definitely wanted a chance to get caught up on all the latest developments behind this innovative title.

We were thrilled, then, to have the chance to speak to Laralyn McWilliams, the Creative Director for Free Realms. Ms. McWilliams was kind enough to lay out a number of improvements and changes to the game since we last saw it, and further clarified some of the interesting newfeatures demonstrated at CES. Join us as we talk about their Diablo-style combat, their deep pet system, the role of innovation in 'kiddie' games, and a bit about their extensive collections system. We'll even get a sense of when Beta for this novel project will begin! Read on through below the cut for the full details.

"From the start we wanted to take what makes most MMOs 'feel odd' to casual players, and streamline that content into something that's more instantly fun. It's less about clicking and waiting, and more about interaction. That's had a profound effect on our design across the board."

We saw a lot of great new content out of the video footage from CES. Can you give us a sense of what the team is focusing on as Free Realms starts to move into the home stretch?

Laralyn McWilliams: Yeah, we're really focused on quality right now. That's our primary goal. We're aiming to raise the quality bar not just for free titles but for MMOs in general. To try to make sure it is the highest quality release we can make it. We're putting a lot of emphasis on making things easy to understand, and making the gameworld easy to navigate. That's always a challenge for MMOs, especially if you want to attract casual players. That said we want to make sure the quality is high there, that interactions are engaging, that you feel rewarded for the choices that you make.

The pet system was a new element explored in the CES coverage. Can you talk a bit about what you hope to have on offer for pets when the game launches?

Laralyn: We'll have dogs and cats, at launch. The great thing about pets in Free Realms is that every pet is unique. You have a variety of different personalities you can choose from when you first acquire your pet. For dogs, you have options like friendly, curious, aggressive, hyperactive (one of my favorites), or angry.

Beyond that your dog will have quirks that are unique to your pet, that your friend's pet just doesn't have. You can encourage or discourage the behavior you see to make him into the kind of pet you want to see. You can imagine how cool it would be to take something like a Nintendog, and run around a virtual world with him.

He'll be able to find treasure for you, you can play ball with him, you can bathe him, groom him, really come to care for him. We'll also have a lot of fun wearables for your pets, something we showed for the first time at CES.

What sort of plans do you have in the works for pets down the road? Do you expect we'll be able to take our pets into combat eventually?

Laralyn: We're looking at some ways that pets might be able to help you out in combat, but to be honest we don't want to get into a situation where you could have something like "dog fights". We're being cautious about that. Beyond that, our pets are very clearly companion animals. They feel like real pets, and so that makes it a little challenging to go into that area.

We do have plans for the future to introduce specifically combat-related pets. They'll have combat moves instead of tricks, those are on the plate long-term. We're looking at ways to perhaps have your companion pets help in non-violent ways ... but there are challenges. To be honest the way our combat is now (as we've gone sort of clicky-Diablo-style), it's so fast paced that it could get really crowded. If you have five players, five enemies, and five pets, that's fifteen guys in a mosh pit. It gets complicated.

That said, combat pets are something we're looking at for the future.

When you unveiled in talks at CES plans to allow the pets to interact with the game world (finding treasure), and interesting ways to interact with your pets through gestures, we were very surprised. Those are some serious features from a game a lot of people think of as very "kiddie" oriented. Can you talk about the role of MMO feature innovation in developing Free Realms?

Laralyn: It's been one of the goals of the project from the start, actually. Our early press, our early releases, focused on the casual, kid-friendly elements. Honestly the other thing to think about when you're talking about casual players and tweens is that they're primarily console gamers. In general they have high quality standards, especially when it comes to presentation.

This is a PS3 title as well, so we're not just going to be compared with free MMOs or subscription MMOs, we're going to be compared to console titles on top of that. We're aware that our competition is not just RuneScape or World of Warcraft; we're also going up against Ratchet and Clank or beautiful games like Jack and Daxter.

From the start, that changed our look and feel and set the bar for the level of quality. It also made us really think hard about our mechanics, and look at places where we wanted to innovate. From the start we wanted to take what makes most MMOs 'feel odd' to casual players, and streamline that content into something that's more instantly fun. It's less about clicking and waiting, and more about interaction. That's had a profound effect on our design across the board.

That would seem to lead well into the 'Diablo-style' combat that we touched on earlier. How did the team arrive at that as the way to deal with combat in Free Realms?

Laralyn: It was a really long road getting to where we are now with combat. That's true of most of the Free Realms features, they went through a number of iterations before anyone saw them. We've actually been working on this game for quite a while. We're really pleased with the Diablo-style combat; we've had to do some interesting adjustments to it because your camera is typically closer to it than in other Diablo-style games.

We also had some areas that were a little tighter than would be ideal for this type of fighting. We're working on phasing those out so it's easier to click on stuff.

We do a lot of focus testing, and in our tests a lot of the casual players and the kids ... if they'd never played World of Warcraft more than half of them only used the mouse. They used it to move, to click on things, they never even touched the keyboard. That had a big influence on the changes we made to combat so that it's easier to play with just a mouse. That's actually great for a console port as well, you want the same kind of ease of use on both sides.

It's also picked up the pace a lot. We wanted to get away from the combat where you click on something and then wait to see what happens. Free Realms is more about self-determination, where players can say "If I win, it was because I worked hard." It's not just about good gear or leveling, it's also about how you play.

This article was originally published on Massively.