Free Realms has always been one of those special titles. But think about it: We hear from it regularly but often forget to notice just how packed with players it can be and how much variety in gameplay it offers. In fact, Free Realms is probably one of the least appreciated sandboxes in the world of MMOs right now because it has been so successfully integrated into the MMOsphere.
Yes, I said sandbox. Yes, I'm serious. I'd go so far as to say that Free Realms is almost a perfectly designed sandbox, although some of its design is not for everyone. Like Mabinogi, another underappreciated open world of a game, Free Realms might turn off the typical sandbox aficionado, who might not like its graphics or young audience. That's unfortunate because the world of Free Realms is more vast that many of us think.
These options are what open-world fans often look for. EVE Online players talk about limitless choices, and Darkfall grinders talk about being able to do exactly what they want, but Free Realms players are usually too busy playing the game to worry about defining it. Sure, the audience that makes up Free Realms is likely much younger than we might find in one of those other titles, but to me, that's only more proof that the game world is whatever players want it to be. Free Realms is attractive to players from all age groups because it offers so much variety of play.
"Who says that immersion must stem from a fantasy IP only, or that realistic rain effects or a stamina bar are required?"
Third, a truly great sandbox must offer different ways to build a character. Really, character-building is one of the main things that separates MMOs from the rest of the gaming community. Your character is possibly an extension or representation of you or a part of you that you'd like to explore. Even though the vast majority of the MMOs I have played send players on an uphill climb in character growth, I really appreciate it when I also find depth in the journey. I want a character that not only is slowly becoming more skilled or better equipped but is also a unique individual. In fact, I bet no one out there would prefer to play an MMO that doesn't allow for unique character creation. Free Realms allows players to grow from a skill set of 17 or so classes. I can be a miner if I'd like, but with the flip of a switch, I can become a fighter, cook, or explorer. This instant class switching is a simple nod to reality. In real life, I can grab a hammer and learn how to make something. Why should it be any different in our virtual lives?
"Just imagine if you had Free Realms when you were 12 or so. It's hard to think about because our teenage years are so burned into our psyches, but imagine having access to not only a chat room but an entire world."
I prefer to look at MMOs in skeletal form. What are they at their core? What systems do they employ? How deep does the game or world go? Free Realms is very deep and at its base utilizes systems that are brilliantly simple and fun to play with. That's no small task, especially in the typically more grown-up world of sandbox MMOs.
I'm a bit amused at how similar this article is to my Mabinogi version. Like Mabinogi, Free Realms is populated by what seems like younger players, and both titles turns off many adults. But like Mabinogi, Free Realms does more for immersive, sandbox gaming than almost any title I can think of. The cash shop in both titles is close to my ideal, too. While I prefer a completely free model with a cash shop tacked on top, Free Realms is about five dollars a month for a subscription. You'd pay more for a meal at a crappy restaurant. The cash shop is just icing.
No game is without controversy, however. Many players have expressed concern that the only content to be finished has been the kind that is sold in that aforementioned cash shop. In fact, the new area of Sunstone Valley is due to be released any time now. It's one of two major areas that have been talked about for three years.
Even so, I can only wish that other sandboxes will learn from games like Free Realms. Perhaps the popularity of SOE's hit will impress upon tween minds everywhere a love for sandbox gameplay, and a new generation of fans will crop up when we least expect it!
There's an MMO born every day, and every game is someone's favorite. Why I Play is a column in which the Massively staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it's the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.