MMO Family  How kidfriendly games can treat MMO malaise
Let's face it: It hasn't been a banner year for MMOs. We've witnessed disappointing launches, studio layoffs, and even studio meltdowns. There have been reports questioning whether MMOs are a good investment, and some studios have even signaled that they're shying away from traditional MMO development in the future.

With all of these dark clouds looming overhead, it's sometimes hard to stay cheerful about MMOs. But ironically, the kid-friendly genre might actually buck the trend. KingsIsle's launch of Pirate101 and SOE's recent updates to Clone Wars Adventures and Free Realms might help curb the malaise with a blend of old and new styles of gameplay. In this week's MMO Family we'll look at what's new with these titles and why kids both young and old have reason to celebrate.

Bringing old school back

SOE recently added new content to both of its kid-friendly titles. In Free Realms, it launched Sunstone Valley and added a new crafting system designed around the Miner and Blacksmith jobs. The devs also lifted the level cap on Brawler, Miner, and Blacksmith for non-members, meaning players can work their way up to level 20 instead of being capped out at level five. For adventurers, there are several exploration collectibles, and some of them are pretty tricky to reach! In addition, the zone contains overland mobs, similar to the temporary takeover of Shrouded Glade for the pre-launch event.

Meanwhile, Clone Wars Adventures added in a new Battle Class system. Players have always been able to select a class choice of either Jedi or Trooper when creating a character, but it never had any significance. Even if you chose Jedi, you could still purchase and wear Trooper armor and vice versa. Now, players can level up one of four classes: Jedi, Sith, Mercenary, and Trooper. Of course, not everything is free, and players have to purchase the Sith and Mercenary classes, but you can swap classes and level up all four if you choose to do so. The new class system gives a new purpose to both the content and the minigames because you can gain experience on almost everything you play in game. Someone who likes combat can take on the droids in overland zones like Ryloth or hop into one of the instances. Meanwhile, those who like the puzzles and games can do those and still make progress in their class.

Both of these game updates have brought a little of the "old school" back to these kid-friendly titles, and I think it's brought a burst of energy to both Free Realms and CWA. We've seen the more traditional SOE titles shift into the free-to-play and more casual genre, so it's an interesting juxtaposition to see these two games adopt more traditional gameplay in recent months.

MMO Family  How kidfriendly games can treat MMO malaise
Building a base

Meanwhile, KingsIsle has done a tremendous job of building a loyal fanbase with Wizard101, and that's hard to do with a young audience that's more likely to instantly lose interest in favor of the "next big thing." While a game like Pirate101 may not launch with as much fanfare as a game like SWTOR or Guild Wars 2, it does have a large audience ready and waiting, and traffic on columns about Pirate101 have been on par with some of the more buzzed-about titles. The Wizard101 site had over 16 million hits in June, which is an impressive number for a MMO title, particularly one with a younger audience. Players often complain that free-to-play hinders the ability to form a community and a solid fanbase, but KingsIsle seems to have accomplished just that by making a game that respects its target audience. Like Wizard101, Pirate101 seems to strike the right balance for a kid-friendly game. It's challenging where it should be, as in the depth of the "board-game" battles and ship combat. Meanwhile, things like the simple UI, ease of travel, open grouping, and voice-overs are all kid-friendly touches that make the experience less frustrating for younger players who are just beginning to get the hang of MMOs.

Bridging the gap

The launch of Pirate101, along with the updates to Free Realms and Clone Wars Adventures, has given me a bit of deja vu when I've been playing with the kids. Together, we've teamed up to derail several trains in Sunstone Valley, and we've chatted and partied with other players as we waited for Captain Dheeb to spawn in CWA's Umbara (yep, we camped a named!). In Pirate101, my swashbuckling daughter took charge and coordinated our crew member moves to defeat the enemy that much faster (max DPS!), and my son gave advice on which crew members we should each choose as our defaults (group optimization!).

MMO Family  How kidfriendly games can treat MMO malaise
They're excited about the challenges, but they're also there for the fun, and all three games are a nice blend of the two. As we battled Bronzeknuckles in Free Realms' Rumbledrome, I had to fend off sporadic attacks of silly string from my groupmates. In Clone Wars Adventures, we spent one moment defeating Darth Maul in the temple and the next hurling Jar Jar into the air, all in order to level up our Battle Classes. Because these games have brought in casual-friendly features like short games and instances, there's less of a grindy feel to leveling up.

Overall, Pirate101, Free Realms, and Clone Wars Adventures all do a nice job of bringing in the "good" parts of old school, serious gaming, while keeping the focus on fun and kid-friendly elements. KingsIsle has always shown a respect for its younger audience by creating challenging and deep content. With the recent updates to Free Realms and Clone Wars Adventures, it seems that there's more of an attention to content and gameplay from SOE, rather than just new items in the Marketplace, and it's changed the feel of the worlds in a good way.

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to karen@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.
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