Recently, I had a chance to participate in the first of three teleconferences between Cartoon Network’s Fusion Fall team and the press corps. Developers laid out three specific areas for reporters including a general overview, a look at the Unity engine and how Fusion Fall plans to ensure player safety while online.
Attending the conference from the Fusion Fall development team were Chris Waldron, Executive Producer, Sam Lewis, Lead Designer, Matt Schwartz, Content Designer, Rob Knopf, Technical Director, Kendall Frank, Services Director, Richard Weil, Community Director, and Melissa Walker, GM.
From Crisp Thinking (chat software developers), Meryl Shaw and Tommy McClung, General Manager.
Chris Waldron wanted to be sure that we were impressed with the fact that Fusion Fall is a kid’s world and a place for kids. While Fusion Fall is designed with kids in mind, it is decidedly ‘family friendly’ and offers parents a unique opportunity to play together with their kids.
Waldron continued by saying that “…Fusion Fall nixes boredom and inappropriateness” and gives kids a safe environment to play (more on that later).
Fusion Fall has been in development for about two and a half years and will feature all of the Cartoon Network characters in one universe. That’s right: the Powerpuff Girls, Ben10 and the rest will be hanging around Fusion Fall. Characters will look slightly different, a bit older, than their TV counterparts but the characters will be instantly recognizable. They will sound right too since Fusion Fall, with a very few exceptions, has employed the original voice actors to do the voice work in Fusion Fall. Yep, that means Mark Hamill voicing Stinky Beard from “Kid Next Door”.
Fusion Fall is an alien invasion story and represents the Cartoon Network brand. Fusion Fall embodies magic, science fiction, and the “proverbial imagination stuff” according to developers. There are techno-centered areas, suburbs and wilderness areas to explore. The Fusion Fall world is threatened by a giant planet consuming thing that spits out monsters to “goo-ify” the world.
Players will instantly feel at home in Fusion Fall due to the combination of MMORPG style play and that of console games. Character development, world exploration, active combat, jumping, pogo platforms, etc. will appeal to fans of both genres.
Players will have quests to complete, races to run and will have opportunities to interact with the Cartoon Network characters they love. The overall goal is to collect “fusion matter” in order to create pint-sized versions of Cartoon Network characters called nanos which grant different attacks, powers and abilities. Beating level bosses also rewards players with nanos and allows access to higher levels with better gear, tougher monsters, etc.
Waldron specifically mentioned that Fusion Fall will keep its sense of humor. Got a hankering for giant turkey legs? Check. Pie shooters? Check. Gumball bazookas? Check. Rainbow monkey hat? You betcha.
With the focus on fun, Fusion Fall is simple to understand. The UI has a health bar and there are only four statistics to watch. The game doesn’t punish players for failing a mission or battle. There is no “death penalty”. Characters are knocked out and then respawned. There is nothing lost but time. No money, no health, no experience are lost. In short, there is no punishment for making a mistake. Damn if that isn’t refreshing!
Getting away from the grind is another big component of Fusion Fall. The game is designed to be played in half hour chunks. In fact, after a couple hours of gaming, the rewards degenerate. The goal is to encourage shorter play times and longer spaces between sessions. After all, developers said, there is a big real world outside to be explored as well as the in-game world. To paraphrase Waldron, “Fusion Fall is aiming to be the sitcom of the MMO industry.”
Developers fully intend to add more content reflecting Cartoon Network, probably on a semi-annual basis. Whether or not the game’s content will be reflected in the shows remains a mystery but we were assured that “life is full of surprises”.
At this point, no one knows whether or not Fusion Fall will use a subscription or micro-transaction model but developers wanted us to know that there will be an extensive free-to-play area.
No, we’re not talking a “kumbaya” scenario here. Unity is the graphics engine/web client being used to build Fusion Fall. Unity is a browser-based fully 3D engine. Unity will come to players via a small download (similar to but definitely NOT Adobe’s Flash).
Originally, Fusion Fall began development using another engine but when developers got a look at Unity, they switched gears. Luckily, their work was able to be ported into the Unity engine.
Unity, because of its flexibility, offers players of any type of computer to play Fusion Fall with its built-in streaming technology. It is both Mac and Windows compliant and it also offers cross-browser support. What makes it attractive to Fusion Fall‘s development team is the fact that kids, who generally have low-end hand-me-down machines, will be able to access the game. Unity has built games for both casual and hardcore graphics which will allow kids to access a great looking game despite their machines. If the screenshots are any indication, this one’s a homerun.
You can get a look at it at http://www.unity3d.com and see how cool it is through an on-site demo.
IT IS, AFTER ALL, A KID’S WORLD
So how does a kid stay safe in a game designed to appeal to the so-called “tween” crowd (8-14 years old)? We’ve all read the stories about internet predators and seen the inappropriateness of most online worlds for this age group. So what about that?
Fusion Fall developers wondered the same thing and, in the process, found Crisp Thinking, a chat filtering, monitoring and relationship analysis software group. Crisp Thinking’s Tommy McClung spent some time explaining exactly what it is that will be going on ‘behind the scenes’ of Fusion Fall.
McClung stated emphatically that Fusion Fall will be a safe environment for kids to play in. He and his team are taking extraordinary steps to make it safe and secure. For instance, Crisp Thinking has developed a real-time ‘bad’ word filter. It analyzes conversations and provides alerts. It further looks for patterns in conversations between players over a long period of time. If ‘relationships’ are detected, the warning flag is raised.
While there will not be in game mechanics for reporting inappropriate content, players (and parents) will have an opportunity to file reports at the game’s information and help center.
Everything gets the once-over (or twice-, thrice-…) from Crisp Thinking including names, forums, etc. Developers have also worked within this framework to create a ‘menu chat’ with preset phrases and parental consent will be required for more open avenues of communication between players.
Fusion Fall expects to earn a 6-14+ ESRB rating though the ‘sweet spot’ for players is the ‘tween’ 10-12 year old crowd. Also, Fusion Fall is COPA (Child Online Protection Act) compliant already even though it isn’t live yet. But ensuring the safety of Fusion Fall‘s players is paramount in the minds of developers.
Without actually seeing the game in action but hearing the overt enthusiasm of developers, I can only be encouraged by Fusion Fall. It appears to have the right mix of proven techniques and sounds like a winner.
Next week, the press corps has been invited to lunch by the Fusion Fall team at the Austin Game Developers’ Conference. I know I’ll be grabbing some photos and more information to report.
Fusion Fall is scheduled for beta this fall, with full release by the end of 2008. You can check it all out and sign up for the beta at http://www.fusionfall.com