MMO Family  Catching up with Free Realms and Clone Wars Adventures at SOE Live
While we've heard lots of news this past weekend about SOE's lineup of titles for the adult audience, there's an ever growing presence of children at the convention thanks to the popularity of Free Realms and Clone Wars Adventures. They might not have as many years of experience gaming as the "grown-up" crowd, but they still had lots of questions and insight to share with the developers of both games. To meet that demand, there were two panels for SOE's kid-friendly MMOs; one focused on the art of the games, while the other talked about some of the ways that the team designs their games around a younger audience. And there was some exciting news about what's planned for the future as well. Read on for the highlights!

Despite the panels' inclusion of both Clone Wars and Free Realms as topics of discussion, they were mainly dominated by information on Free Realms. During the panel on the art and animation, the team pulled back the curtain a bit to show the process of creating artistic content in the two games. Using Necronomicus as an example, the SOE devs explained that his animations were more than just eye-candy because they gave visual cues on specific attacks and abilities that he would use during the battle. Since Free Realms is a family game, SOE can't use violent animations, so the devs draw their inspiration from other fighter games and then work those moves into the game in a way that's not scary or graphic. Interestingly enough, one particular animation -- when the Necronomicus skeleton takes his head off and has it float around in a circle -- was inspired by Pac-Man. While kids might be a little too young to recognize that, parents who play with their children will probably get a laugh out of the floating skull chomping around like the iconic yellow hero of early video gaming days.

SOE went on to talk about farming, admitting that while the devs had a plan to expand upon the system and add in ranching, they felt that farming really wasn't as popular with players as they had hoped. They have now taken many of the assets that were going to be used on ranching and are working them into the game as a new "pet pals" system. Two new pets that will be in the game soon are baby dragons and a baby cyborg T-rex. Each of the pets coming into the game will have its own animations to give it a real personality. (And for those players who have been pining for the return of the Pet Trainer job, the team hinted that they are strongly considering bringing it back, albeit in a slightly different form).

MMO Family  Catching up with Free Realms and Clone Wars Adventures at SOE Live
When it comes to designing games for children, the team discussed three key areas: usability, communication, and retention. Usability refers to how easy it is for children (and even adults who are not familiar with MMOs) to pick up and play Free Realms and Clone Wars. Most of that centers around the user interface; and the devs explained that they had to take HUDs from the more "grown-up" titles like EQII and figure out how to simplify them while still including all of the important actions that a player would need while in game. Communication involves figuring out how to convey important information about the game, like the character screen or quest text. Again, SOE wants to make that as easy to understand as possible and eliminate as much clutter as it can. In both titles, the devs have made several changes to the UI and the in-game windows to make it more intuitive and clearer for players to understand. And in Free Realms, they're in the process of revamping the character equipment screen to make it easier to sort through and choose outfits. Retention, meanwhile, is one of the "elusive Holy Grails" of the game. The team is constantly focused on finding ways to attract and then keep players over the long haul. Both games try to add new content and activities that keep the game fun and challenging to a younger audience.

Before the panels wrapped up, the team gave a sneak peek into what's coming for Free Realms. One area the devs are working on is the combat system, which they said will look more like Clone Wars Adventures. They want to make it more challenging and give players more choices when they're in battle. Free Realms added more overland combat will continue that with the next Chapter Update in the Hero's Journal. The new chapter takes place in Wugachug, where there's a mystery for players to solve. The denizens of the town have suddenly sported bixie-style clothing, and there's a "bixie queen" now running the show. Upon closer inspection, though, the bixie queen isn't as she appears and in fact seems to be an imposter, so it's up to players to figure out what's going on.

Next week, the fourth combiner ride comes out, and players who purchase all four of them will be able to put them together to make a giant robot mount, in the spirit of Power Rangers or Voltron. As for the two mysterious areas on the map of Sunstone Valley, the devs said that the "rainbow" and "cloud" areas were supposed to be new zones, but they felt they were not meeting their expectations and the areas were too small for what they had planned. For now, that means Ponyvale and the other zone are on more of a long-term schedule, and players will instead continue to see the chapter updates as new content.

For those who love building, the team is planning to add two new house lots to Free Realms. One is an ocean-themed lot, with a giant, golden yacht in the middle, and it's available to players who have bought the year-long membership. There will also have a castle-themed set with walls, turrets, and so forth, which allows players to piece them together and build their own castle. They're also revamping the character selection screen, so it will be done in game (rather than the browser) and give many more options for character customization at the beginning. But the biggest news of all is that there are plans to add new levels to the game, as well as a new combat job and a new race. While they didn't say what the race would be, they did say that it would be linked to Wugachug and that it was one that players have been asking about for a long time.

Overall, the team is ever mindful of its younger audiences in Free Realms and Clone Wars Adventures, and the developers have learned a lot about designing family-friendly games. While the playerbase might be younger, the players are actually much more skilled at playing MMOs than even the devs expected, and SOE has worked hard to make its games equal to the challenge. That should make for some fun new content for both young and older players in the months to come.

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to karen@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.