I remember when Free Realms was announced and when Laralyn McWilliams showed off a peeing puppy, in real-time, at Fan Faire. Everyone was excited for the new game and world -- even hardened raiders and roleplayers. The demo was just cool-looking and had a very unique feel to it. Most gamers' only experiences with a social or "real-life"-style game were with Second Life, and those experiences were often tainted by run-ins with 40-something-year-old bondage fans.

My experience was slightly more broad. I spent a lot of my earlier MMO years within games like There, Second Life, Furcadia and a few others. While I was not a fan of some of the stranger people who frequented these games, I loved the idea of a game that allowed players to just hang out, to live in a virtual world, and to form relationships. My first experience with disabled players was through There, and ever since then I have looked at MMOs differently. So when Free Realms was announced and released, I looked forward to spending time in a game that revisited that style of "living" in a game world.

Over the last week, I decided to peek back into the world to see how it has been holding up. Click past the cut to find out how it worked out!

I need to clarify that I have played Free Realms, sometimes at great length, ever since its release. I was in the beta and have even hosted a short-lived podcast about the game. It's easy to say that I have always been a fan. After all that, I can say that the main problem Free Realms has had over the years is one of identity. What is the game? Is it a game? Who is the target market? While it would seem obvious that tweens and young adults are the intended demographic for Free Realms, I would have to say that the various in-jokes and semi-complicated puzzle-gameplay begs attention from more than just kids. The casual Mom-space has already shown its teeth with the success of "casual" gaming, and Free Realms is chock-full of casual gaming. Also, young boys or teenagers seem to be targeted, especially with all of the massive weapons and opportunities for combat.

This is not to say that any of these groups should be the target audience or that any member of these groups should want to play games in a certain way, rather that SOE seems to have been looking straight at certain people when designing certain parts of Free Realms.

Still, it's just not that simple. Like you can in any MMO I have ever come across, you can find players from all different walks of life and age groups within FR's playerbase. Heck, we just did a story about an 83-year-old Ultima Online player the other day -- and I can assure you that a game like Free Realms boasts an even more miced-up playerbase. This is the good thing about Free Realms' identity crisis. While in-game, you will find not only all sorts of different players, but also different styles of play. Over this last week, that was more evident than ever to me as I stacked playground-style blocks in my housing plot, explored the beautiful caves under the ground, and spent time minigaming the heck out of it.

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Unfortunately, the game and world really is meant for hanging out with friends. A long time ago, SOE hosted an in-game concert to celebrate the release. When I was in the virtual audience, I hung out with fellow bloggers and writers, and to be seriously and very honest, I truly felt like I was spending time at a real-life concert. People were dancing and jumping, the music was loud, and there I hung on the fringes of the group with my weird buddies, talking about all sorts of things. This is where Free Realms really nabs you: by recreating real-life experiences inside a fantastic, beautiful world. It's like attending a movie within a movie, and it feels pretty cool much of the time. I just wish I had pulled in some more of my friends while on this trip to the recent past, but they were busy grinding away at dungeons or romancing Kaidan from Mass Effect.


"[Free Realmers call it] 'hacking' when one player is simply duped into giving another player a password or private information, leading to accounts that are drained of coins or items."

The social aspects of Free Realms can often be troublesome. I have rarely, if ever, logged in to find a chat that wasn't filled with non-stop spam or requests like "I need a man." While this could easily be some tween sitting alone in her bedroom (while her parents ignore her), it could also be some crazy older man who is using the game to gain access to private information. While Free Realms can in no way be responsible for bad parenting or for what happens outside of the game, it does not help that the game hands out tools for tricking young players. In fact, an entire "hacking" culture has grown up around kids' propensity to fall for anything. Essentially it is referred to as "hacking" when one player is simply duped into giving another player a password or private information, leading to accounts that are drained of coins or items. While SOE tries to educate the players about exchanging passwords or accounts, how do you combat relatively free chat and sneaky players?

There are filters on the chat, but they are mostly annoying and do more to disrupt "normal" players than anything. I suggest that SOE offer a free, unfiltered chat with credit card verification as is done in Wizard101. Block that free chat from younger, unverified eyes and leave it at that. Also, I have no idea why SOE has decided to allow the non-stop spamming to continue. I have played primitive free-to-play MMOs that block such repetitive speech with a simple timer -- yet any gathering in Free Realms is usually disrupted by some dork spamming "I need a pair of shorts for coins! I need a pair of shorts for coins!" Stopping the spam alone would do wonders for the culture of the game.


"Sometimes the variety is a little much. It makes the game feel as though it is spread too thin design-wise. Every player is off doing his own thing, and rarely are players gathered together to do anything but spam for trade."

This is not to say that serious gaming isn't going on. It is. There are players who are busy trying to crush high-scores in the collectible card game, trying to smash their opponents' cars during crash-'em-up derby, or trying to make the sickest house possible. All of these minigames and activities could stand on their own in a lot of ways but instead are wrapped up inside the Free Realms package.

Sometimes the variety is a little much. It makes the game feel as though it is spread too thin design-wise. Every player is off doing his own thing, and rarely are players gathered together to do anything but spam for trade. It sometimes feels disjointed, without purpose or meaning. I'm not asking for more linearity, because the game already offers many linear questlines and jobs, but I would to see a more public cohesiveness. I would like to see more events like that virtual concert not so long ago.

During my week, the annual Valentine's Day event was going strong. It features a giant heart monster that shows up and creates havoc. While it is a total blast to fight the creature with 100 or so of your fellow Realmsies, the event passes and everyone goes his separate way. It's hard to explain, but I wish it were all just pulled together a little more tightly.

Of course, I've been playing the game since the beginning. My return did nothing but reinforce that Free Realms is still a unique and wonderful game that is doing things that no other MMO has ever done. Housing and shopping are still fantastic, cash-shop prices are wonderfully cheap, and adventuring and exploring are still a lot of fun. There's so much to do, though, that it feels a little disjointed and confusing. Perhaps this is a good thing for certain types of players. Still, if you want to spend some time in a world where almost anything is possible, go for Free Realms. Heck, if you want to spend time just hanging out and exploring, this is the place for you. I would recommend bringing some friends with you, though, because most of the current players are too busy spamming to hang out.

Next week we will be looking at Shadowtale, a cool Flash-based MMO brought to us by the same folks who made Adventure Quest Worlds. Find me in game under the name of Beau. Now, go log in!

Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email! You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Raptr!

This article was originally published on Massively.
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