Norwegian developer Funcom usually makes games like The Longest Journey, Anarchy Online, Age of Conan and The Secret World; worlds for adults, not kids. Not, at least, until now. Because today Funcom unveiled SweetRobot, a subsidiary company set up expressly to make MMOs for a "younger audience". The first of these will be Pets vs. Monsters, a game where heroes collect, nurture and fight alongside pets. It's a bit Pokemon, but blended with a Diablo-like RPG world of loot and exploration.
It's an interesting twist for veteran developer Funcom, and one that may have wider ramifications not only for the Norwegian studio but also for the MMO industry as a whole. To find out what's afoot we sat down with Pets vs. Monsters producer Jon Wright for a chat.
Eurogamer: What does it mean for the rest of the industry if an MMO veteran like Funcom turns towards a younger audience?
Jon Wright: What it means it that the genre isn't what it was. The genre 10 years ago was made up of a niche personality. And now what we're seeing, due in a large part to World of Warcraft, is that the MMO market is now very broad. Funcom is just responding to this.
With Pets vs. Monsters we're focus-testing with kids around the age of four and we're play-testing around the office with people in their forties and beyond. And we're finding that the game works well across all of those age groups. Obviously it's hard to make something that works through from four to 40 but there is a lot of crossover.
Eurogamer: Silly children - I can't imagine they give much useful feedback.
Jon Wright: Well we do usability testing so we don't ask them for feedback directly. We video the face of the child playing the game and we video the screen and then we composite those together. The feedback we get from a four-year-old is: confused expression, happy expression and annoyed expression. We don't even bother to ask them questions because they'll just lie for chocolate. With eight-year-olds and 10-year-olds we do do interviews afterwards to try and glean some more information.
Eurogamer: What's the difference in approach to making something like Age of Conan compared to PVM?
Jon Wright: There's really been a much stronger focus on testing. It very quickly becomes the case that we cannot judge our own game and approach it from the perspective of someone that's never played an MMO before. It's very hard for us as older developers and older game players to judge this.
Eurogamer: There's an experimental air about PVM. What's the attitude like internally towards the new game?
Jon Wright: Certainly when the project started it felt very much like an experiment. And then as we've continued to have success, the project's profile has raised within the company. We've just released the game internally and there's been a lot of positive responses. As time goes by it becomes more and more high profile.
Eurogamer: What do staff like the most about PVM?
Jon Wright: Accessibility. We do understand that someone who loves MMOs enough to be working at Funcom probably isn't the target audience for this game, ha ha. But they're loving the simplicity of it. We've tried very hard not to have a tutorial at the start, as a lot of games aimed at young kids try to live with complexity by putting a heavy tutorial at the start. This is something we've tried to avoid. They're enjoying the pick-up and play element; you start the game and you're immediately in conflict, you're defeating a monster.
The other thing we've had to do - again enforced by the kids - is rather than have five hours of the same beautiful mountain range... We found that the kids turn off, and they turn off within half an hour. One of the things PVM does is every half-an-hour you'll move through play areas and they will feel completely different. So our developers also enjoy the variety.
Eurogamer: Your age range is eight-to-twelve year-olds?
Jon Wright: We started with that age-range but found it actually works a lot younger. So we've been challenging ourselves to make it accessible down to six. And we've had some success even down to four, although they're exceptions rather than the rule. We want to keep it as young as possible without alienating the older audience.
Eurogamer: To be blunt: why? Does Funcom need another form of revenue besides Age of Conan?
Jon Wright: From a business perspective it makes a lot of sense to make lots of bets, have lots of irons in the fire, not put all your eggs in one basket. You can pick and choose the phrase you like. The other thing about this market is the potential upside is very high; the size of bet you need to make in order to have a large potential upside can be quite low in the younger-audience space. We don't have to make $20m, $30m bets.
Eurogamer: Six-year-olds have no money - they can't even afford computers. How profitable can these children be?
Jon Wright: We're not targeting the six year-old directly; really the money-holder in this situation is the parent. And in the same way a parent would subscribe to a monthly comic-book for their child, we can quite easily see parents subscribing to casual or younger-audience MMOs.
Also the business model isn't necessarily set - this is an experiment for Funcom. We will be looking into alternatives like micro-transactions or pre-paid cards. If you look in places like the US and at Walmart they have pre-paid cards on the checkout. Certainly within the US market getting parents to buy this or getting them to buy in-game benefits for their child is becoming easier. We feel that Europe will be going the same way as well.
Eurogamer: When I was a kid I wanted to do what the grown-ups were doing: drugs, roller-skating, disco-dancing. What happens if kids view PVM as a babyish?
Jon Wright: It's something we've been very mindful of. There is an age, and we don't know precisely what it is, but where cartoony is not cool any more because everything has to be blood and gore. And then, oddly enough, you get over the age of twenty-one and [cartoony] is OK again. There is a danger-zone where cartoony is not acceptable but we're OK up to twelve. And this is technology that will allow us to make other MMOs that don't necessarily have to have a young style. That's important. We are actually developing a new engine for this game that we can use for other projects.
For a large project, a lot of work over the development period is spent making tools and technology. The production of this project specifically has been relatively small.
Eurogamer: PVM, then, has been made more cheaply than Age of Conan but may also charge a subscription and perhaps use micro-transactions. How do the two compare in value - and isn't that a necessary comparison to make?
Jon Wright: But on the flip side we're also not selling: we're not charging for it up-front. This is a free-to-play game. We're basically offering a large portion of the game - and again this depends on the business model and how we gate access to the non-free content - for free. Judging the cost of a free thing... Obviously then it's up to the child and parent whether they want to become a premium subscriber, which would give them access to more pets and restricted areas and other benefits in the game.
Eurogamer: This kind of experimental system must also be creatively exciting for Funcom - is it?
Jon Wright: Yeah, exactly. We're looking at using these free-to-play games to prototype mechanics that we believe will work in large-scale MMOs but we're not completely confident about risking in one. So we'll experiment with different character advancement and reasons to return to the game. These sorts of things we can, in the future, be trying out relatively quickly and cheaply. And that innovation if successful can filter into large-scale MMOs. That means we can be more risky and more innovative in our large-scale MMOs because we'll have the certainty that what we're trying works.
Eurogamer: Will we see the next big MMO from Funcom disguised in a free-to-play mould then?
Jon Wright: I couldn't possibly say!
Eurogamer: The free-to-play market is dominated by multi-million-strong games like RuneScape, Dofus and Free Realms. Are they as off-putting as something like World of Warcraft is to a bigger MMO?
Jon Wright: It's a competitive space, it really is. We know this and we're fully aware of this. The high-end MMO space is also pretty competitive too! We're trying to do things we've never seen before.
We're releasing this as a limited beta this month. If it was a large-scale MMO we'd be having a closed beta at this point, but really there's not much point inviting eight-year-olds to a closed beta. It just doesn't work. What we're trying to do at the moment is really a large-scale focus-group and see what works and what doesn't work.
Eurogamer: What about the Funcom faithful - should they be worried you are going to pack up and head off to younger-audience MMO land?
Jon Wright: No, far from it. This is not a direct threat to the large-scale MMOs. It's all coming from the same pot of investment, but it's such a small part of it. On a positive note what I hope they'll take away from it are those bits we talked about before: future innovation, learnings from the small-scale that we can pass on to the large-scale. And potentially something for their kids to play so they can have more time to raid, ha ha.
Eurogamer: There have been a couple of casual MMOs in development at Funcom for a while, is this one of them?
Jon Wright: This is one of them. There's a lot of potential technology out there that's quite interesting for the small-scale MMOs. A lot of what Funcom has been doing is exploring the different technical routes. This is a very emerging market, both in business model, target audience, distribution technique, so we've been doing a lot of research and development.
Eurogamer: What kind of exciting technologies?
Jon Wright: From a development team's perspective we can be a lot more agile, quicker to respond. And we have to rely on focus-testing. There's been lots of cases where we've seen something in focus-testing, the implementation of a feature, that we would have never thought about because it's so out of the box. An example of that is dragging a piece of armour from your inventory onto your character in the world to equip it. I've not really seen that before, but it was something kids did in a focus group, and it's probably how it should work!
Eurogamer: Does this new engine work on other platforms?
Jon Wright: It's PC, Mac and Linux. The current technology for PVM is not console... As far as the the casual space is concerned, the main portals we see for this are web portals. Until we see people using their consoles as a regular web-browsing platform, we don't see the upside of supporting those consoles.
Eurogamer: When's PVM going to launch?
Jon Wright: Well we don't really launch casual games like that, with two years of hype and a massive marketing budget. We'll put it out on some portals and see how it builds and how it develops. The main reason for this is it's a business driver. Until we see a sensible conversion of free players to paying players, there's really no reason to have it hitting millions of people. What you won't see from PVM is us announcing that millions of people are playing this game. If millions are playing but no one is paying then it is not a success for Funcom. We'd much rather take a slow and steady approach and get the conversion-rate and response right.
Eurogamer: What is the right conversion rate?
Jon Wright: There are all sorts of numbers floating around. If you have an older audience you can have a very low conversion rate, because a very small percentage pay a lot of money. If you're doing a monthly-subscription route you need a greater percentage paying. But then you need to consider how long they subscribe for.
Eurogamer: Are you worried that an impressionable younger audience might try to go and capture tigers and bears for pets in the real world?
Jon Wright: Ha ha. It actually keeps me awake at night! [What, a bear? - Ed]
Pets vs. Monsters goes into public beta testing this month.