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CES 2008: What the heck is Free Realms?

Michael Zenke

The popularity of titles like Club Penguin and Webkinz is undeniable. This past Christmas saw the Webkinz servers just crushed under the new load of happy plush owners. It shouldn't come as a surprise that traditional game-makers are looking to this niche as a new area for profit. Earlier this month we brought you the news from CES that Sony Online Entertainment would be rolling out a new 'pay-it-forward' style community outreach program with the title Free Realms.

But ... what exactly is Free Realms? Today we've got some impressions of that title for you, gleaned from watching pre-recorded video of gameplay at the Consumer Electronics Show. We also spoke with Laura Naviaux, Director of Global Marketing for SOE and SOE CEO John Smedley about the project, to get a feel for their enthusiasm about the game. While generally here at Massively you're far more likely to see us discussing a game like Lord of the Rings Online or World of Warcraft, this is a title well worth looking into. Free Realms is essentially an attempting to combine the look and feel of a traditional MMO title with the conversation and mini-game focus of a kiddie game. With very little exposure to the public in a 'hands-on' format as of yet, it's hard to gauge how successfully the title actually achieves that goal.

Gallery: Free Realms | 99 Photos

The ideas they're introducing with the game are intriguing just the same. The developers have obviously looked to other casual titles for inspiration, and have taken notes from the successes and failures of these other online projects. What results is a mélange of the familiar and the original that almost begs for further clarification. Read on for descriptions of their loose 'class' system (which will be familiar to fans of The Agency), the idea behind their instant play system, and what exactly you're going to be able to buy with microtransactions.

The experience of playing Free Realms starts on a website. The game's concept is very much rooted in the popularity of titles like Diner Dash or Bejeweled - minigames playable from a web interface. SOE is attempting to mimic that functionality by allowing character creation to begin in a browser before moving to the client. In fact, parts of the in-world experience will be accessible directly from the web. Certain mini-games and character elements will be available as flash experiences on the Free Realms website, which (after character creation) will act as a sort of 'MySpace page' for an avatar. Mr. Smedley noted that widgets from that popular networking site, as well as Facebook, will be embeddable in a Free Realms character's page. The ultimate goal is to give player the opportunity to get the feel of jumping in-game without having to worry about the game client.

The only component of character creation is choosing an avatar's race, and then customizing their appearance. At launch, the game will feature human characters, as well as whimsical fantasy creatures they're calling Fairies. The developers have long-term plans for seven or eight total races, including what they're calling 'beast' races – animal forms, perhaps? Updates and additions to the game will be free downloads similar to what EverQuest II players are used to, but the SOE representatives didn't rule out the possibility of avatar features (like race) eventually being available as a microtransaction as well.

Once character creation is complete, it should take little time for an interested player to get started in-game. In this, the SOE designers have taken note of the work of other industry notables. Daniel James, head of Puzzle Pirates creator Three Rings Design, has stated at the last several Game Developers Conferences that casual gamers simply won't wait for a game client to download – and even fewer install. According to statistics he noted in a 2005 talk only 70% of players wait for a download to complete, and of those only 40% actually run the application. Free Realms is designing around this problem, by having the client seamlessly download in the background while the player makes their first avatar on the website. Folks on hand at the event promised that within 'about a minute' most players would be able to hop in-world and start playing.

As the title is a free game, players will sit through a 30-second flash ad at the world loading screen. Subscribers will skip this, and immediately be placed into the game. After character creation that means appearing in one of the starting villages, an area which perfectly represents the game's deliberate art-style. Cartoony, over-the-top graphics are the goal, and (though there will be some tweaking before launch) the images SOE was showing at the event are essentially their 'target look'. The goal, again, was to be as approachable as possible. Even the user interface is extremely streamlined, minimalist. When the game loads there are no demanding windows open, and very few obvious HUD elements. Moving the cursor to the bottom of the screen raises a hotbar into view, allowing access to character elements.

The chat window also becomes available, a feature that raises a good point about their attitude towards child safety: parents have a choice of whether to allow their kids to chat freely or to use 'canned chat' options (as seen in games like ToonTown Online). Freechat will even be limited, in some ways, by a new style of chat they're working on. Players who curse in the chat box will see their words highlighted in red. Chat with red words simply won't be broadcast to the surrounding area – and there won't be any feedback that is what is happening. As they put it, "We don't want to provide positive feedback for the jerks."

Once the player has their bearings, activities in-game are extremely wide open. There's a very traditional questing system available, something that any EQ or World of Warcraft player would instantly recognize. On-screen instructions will strive to make an already simple experience even more intuitive for a new player. Questing ties into the game's overall 'class' philosophy, which is essentially similar to what developers of The Agency are calling "you are what you wear". Players can don a postman's outfit to deliver mail to various in-world inhabitants for a reward, for example.

This action-oriented viewpoint extends to all of the in-game activities. The developers aim to allow players to do whatever they'd actually be able to do in real life if given the proper tools. See a soccer field? Kick a ball around? See a stage with a mic? Get up there and rock out. The game will offer a music-making system, and (as with all these activities) will allow players to collaborate. Similar to Lord of the Rings Online's offering, players can actively create a song in-game. All quests will involve a lot of activity, with many having a simple timed element and some involving platforming-style gameplay. Since questing (like everything in-game) is optional the goal is for questing to provide a short, clear, entertaining task to the player, and have them be rewarded for their trouble.

Rewards for quests might be anything, but one offering that had the folks on hand very excited was the pet system. Each starting village has its own pet (in the human village, a penguin), but there will be many options to choose from over the course of a character's lifetime. Pets can be trained, fed ... even tamed, hinting at the possibility of obtaining a pet from the 'wild'. The virtual creatures also hint at the first elements of the game's housing system. While housing isn't planned as a launch feature, the ability to own a virtual cottage is planned as a substantial set of interlocking gameplay components.

From the village, other areas are available – seamlessly, with no visible zoning. The demo video takes the viewer to the adjacent mines, an area filled with NPCs offering tasks, some of them involving combat. Combat (as with questing, mini-games, etc) is a totally voluntary activity. While there is a hotbar for the player to make use of his abilities, players are more likely to see similarities to combat in a Legend of Zelda game than to another MMO. Those abilities are dictated by what a player's avatar is wearing. In the video the player was wearing a ninja outfit, making use of throwing stars and ninja skills to destroy some cave bats. Mr. Smedley noted that the game's combat looks very rough at the moment, and that what appeared in the video is not representative of what players should experience at launch.

With the demo completed, I chatted with Mr. Smedley and Ms. Naviaux about a few topics not touched on directly in the video. Microtransactions, for example, are still a component they're ironing out. The intent is to make all purchases fundamentally aesthetic in nature. You'll never 'have' to purchase something in order to have fun. Instead, purchases will offer options different than a player might just find in game. An avatar will always be able to ice skate on a frozen lake, for example, but a micro-purchased set of ice skates might allow them to cut a different figure-8 pattern than the norm. The housing component planned as an addition to the game is also likely to feature some microtransactional components.

This philosophy of monetizing a player's sense of style, drawing value from non-core elements, extends to their plans for merchandise surrounding the game. There were a few model plush creatures on-hand in the SOE suite, and plans are in the works for a number of other obvious marketing tie-ins. Free Realms is aimed squarely at kids and their parents, and so SOE aims to walk that fine line between leveraging player interest and making money.

These early impressions are of a game still in various phases of completion, but I walked away from SOE's presentation more impressed than I expected to be. Free Realms was one of the titles I expected to suffer in this MMO-crowded year, and (depending on when it is released) still might encounter substantial difficulty fighting entrenched kiddie titles. What I originally saw as a confused mix of traditional and kid-oriented design elements seem more to blend more organically than I expected. While I don't think anyone is going to give up their adult games to play Free Realms, the beauty for Sony Online is that they don't need you to. If you show up in-game every once in a while to screw around, maybe spend a half a buck or so on some trinkets, they've gotten everything they need out of you.

It's an even more interesting game from a kid's perspective. Most of these kiddie games offer mini-games and humor, but very little of the sticky 'worldliness' we expect from adult MMO titles. What's the overarching story in Club Penguin? "Penguins stand on ice floes and chat." If the developers can offer even a portion of the feeling of involvement we adults get from playing a game like Star Wars Galaxies, it's far more likely to get a kid interested in the plushie/microtransaction/chatting/questing/rocking experience that is Free Realms.

There are still substantial questions to be answered before launch, though. For example: what's the purpose of a subscription? As far as I understood, the only benefit was the ability to skip the 30-second ad when you launched the game. Subscriptions are (at least) reasonable. An individual account is $5, parents will be able to buy a value-pack of multiple accounts for one (discounted) price, and the Station Access pass provides subscriber access to the game. That said, skipping one ad just doesn't seem like a great value for the money. Of course, we'll keep you up to date as these questions and others like them are answered in the game's progress towards release.

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