Based on feedback from hundreds of kids, Sony's developers have made Free Realms a lot different from EverQuest. The screen is less cluttered. There's greater emphasis on finding and making friends. Quests take minutes, rather than hours, to complete.
Smedley is also motivated by the business opportunity. He watched Club Penguin waddle its way to immense popularity among kids 4 to 14 years, including his own. It was acquired by Walt Disney Co. in 2007 for $700 million. Another game for kids, RuneScape, hosts 15 million active user accounts. At its peak in 2002, EverQuest had just half a million subscribers.
Unlike EverQuest and World of Warcraft, however, Free Realms and these other kids' games cost nothing to play. Publishers make their money from selling virtual items, including pets, homes, clothes and even colored "contact lenses" to change the eye color of avatars. Some analysts estimate that players of these online games have spent about $1 billion so far on such online goods.
During the last two years, 6 million people started playing online games who had rarely or never done so before, said Joseph Olin, president of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.