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Next in our look at kids' MMOs is Ether Saga Online, winner of a 2009 National Parenting Publications Award for tweens and teens video games. Compared with the freewheeling, open-ended approach of Free Realms, ESO presents a more traditional MMO face. Even so, you probably weren't expecting a work of classic literature -- but that's in fact what you'll get. ESO, which was first developed for Chinese players, is based on Journey to the West (often known in the West as Monkey), considered one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature. All that, and it's free to play, too.
Ether Saga Online
Publisher Perfect World Entertainment
Developer Perfect World Beijing
Launched July 2009
What system does it run on? This PC-based game requires a rather sizeable download that may take several hours to download, depending on your internet connection. Minimum system requirements: Windows 98/Me; 900MHZ CPU; 256MB RAM; 6.3GB of free hard drive space during installation, 3.0GB free hard drive space after installation and extracted files are deleted; graphics card or chipset that support Pixel and Vertex Shaders 1.4 or later (hardware acceleration recommended), 32MB of RAM or more; additional specs for Windows 2000/XP, Windows Vista/Windows 7 and suggested system requirements here.
How much does it cost? Ether Saga Online is free to play. Several factors keep the divide between players who use the cash shop and those who don't to a minimum. The only items or services available for purchase with real-world cash are convenience and customization items, such as teleportation devices and mounts, consumables, increased storage space, customizable fashion and gear, and social items and gifts. Players who don't want to put down a credit card can visit an in-game broker to exchange in-game coin with cash shop currency (E-bucks) between players, providing cash shop access to virtually all players.
What's the game all about? Even as it offers a standard quest-and-leveling scenario with 105 levels, Ether Saga Online remains story-driven. As players progress through the story, they meet characters from the novel and eventually become emissaries themselves on the Journey to the West.
What does the game look and feel like? ESO's bright, colorful anime graphics have high kid appeal (a tad more cartoony than those from the original Perfect World game). Each race has its own story and goals, featuring each player as the savior/hero. The possibilities for character customization run fairly deep. There are no blood effects in the game.
Who's the target audience? The game's ESRB rating is E 10+. Perfect World says the target audience is 12 years old and up.
Who plays? Don't assume that other ESO players are children. Despite the youngish feel of the anime-style graphics, ESO says the majority of its players are between 18 and 34 years old.
What play style types will enjoy this game the most? If your kids love to collect and manage pets, Ether Saga Online will inspire their devotion.
What game play and features are available? Players choose from three different races and six classes, each with its own style of play. Pets are a big aspect of the game; every player starts with a pet, and they'll collect and train new ones as they progress through the game world. Players can fuse with their pets to use special skills or even transform into monsters. Players train skills as well as elements; they also gain clan skills and birthday skills related to their character's birth date. There are nine crafting and gathering skills. A basic reputation system allows access to new content.
How does the game address kids' safety? Chat filters catch commonly used offensive language, and the GM staff moderates and takes action against players who try to dodge the filter. There are no parental control features. Children under the age of 13 are not allowed to register (parents must handle registration for younger kids), and Perfect World never publishes account information. The GM staff takes action against in-game hackers and scammers.
What kid-friendly features help guide kids through the content? A quest and navigation system automatically takes players to their quest objectives, eliminating confusion over where to go or what to kill. Group and raid content, easy and hard mode encounters and player-versus-player content help tune the game for kids of different ages.
What might kids find difficult? As with most games, players may discover some points when they'll need to grind mob kills to earn XP. Players who are hesitant about PvP can choose to play on a PvE-only realm to avoid PvP entirely.
What's the social atmosphere? Chat varies by time of day and server; a GM presence theoretically keeps things civil. An extensive menu of emoticons helps players interact with one another. Players can join alliances for group events and socializing.
What else can players do outside the game? Machinima (player-made videos of game play and action) are extremely popular within Ether Saga Online. Many of these videos have gone viral on outlets such as YouTube. ESO offers an in-game tool that records a file of activities you do in the game (similar to the in-game demos players could create in Quake). Players must use a third-party app to create video files in conjunction with the in-game video tool. Forum events (roleplaying letters) and contests, plus seasonal and player-created in-game events keep the community active.
Still looking for more details? Read our article on all the different ways you can evaluate kids' games, or visit the Ether Saga Online web site.
MMO Family offers advice on MMO gaming of the family, by the family and for the family. Have a question about gaming with your kids? E-mail us at lisa (at) massively (dot) com.