Sony: Our casual MMO will be bigger than World Of Warcraft

Hot on the heels of online outing The Agency, Sony Online Entertainment is also set to dive headlong into the ever filling pool of free-to-play MMOs over the next year, with a new cross-platform title for PC and PlayStation 3 which it hopes will hit bigger audience numbers than World Of Warcraft. With release dates pencilled in for winter 2007 and summer 2008 respectively, Free Realms is being described as the first step in a move towards more accessible, family-oriented software from the company, as well as a new business model based less around subscription revenue.

However, while the game will be free to access, microtransactions and player-to-player selling are planned as a large part of the game’s makeup. Speaking to Gamasutra, SOE President John Smedley explained his big vision. Hit the jump for the details.

Free Realms is fantasy, but it’s whimsical fantasy. It’s not RMT per se, the idea of selling special customizations is key. You can play the game completely free. It’s ad-supported, you can customize your avatar to your heart’s content, then there will sort of be an additional catalogue of items we’ll be selling that will allow people to customize even further.

It’s our first experiment in the fantasy space with this concept, what we call the ‘velvet rope’ model. We’re taking our cues from some of the other successful games in the Asian market, titles like Kart Rider. You know, Mario Kart except you buy your power ups? Games designed around that concept can be very successful, without the problems we see in unsupervised RMT. I want to expand the concept of customization into players selling to one another, and creating for one another. Free Realms is going to be a big push in that direction.

Smedley goes on to explain how the tools that SOE are developing will push the concept of user created content to the next level, allowing players to make, and presumably sell, everything from accessories to mini-games in an ever more varied game world.

So what do you think? From a purely business perspective, the game seems like a good move. MMOs are world-renowned as the gaming equivalent of heavy drug dependencies, and while aiming a trading-based game at the Pokemon-obsessed kid market might have uncomfortable drug-pushing connotations for some, Sony’s financial department is unlikely to be worrying.

So is Free Realms another sign that Sony is taking the hint and making a solid effort to innovate in the casual market? Or does it just sound like Animal Crossing spliced with Second Life at the moment? We’ll no doubt find out the answer to that one as SOE releases more details in the run up to E3.

David Houghton