MMO Family: A parent's look at Free Realms

Lisa Poisso
L. Poisso|01.15.10

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MMO Family: A parent's look at Free Realms
MMO Family is your resource for leveling a gaming-specced family ... From tips on balancing gaming with family life to finding age-appropriate niches for every family member, MMO Family offers you advice on MMO gaming of the family, by the family and for the family.

This week, MMO Family begins a gaming-savvy look at some of the most popular kid MMOs. You know what you like in an MMO – but what about your kids? And what if you're looking for something the whole family could play together? Today's gaming family can nibble from a whole feast of MMOs: games for grownups (we can help you fence off areas for kids who want to play what Mom and Dad do), games for the little ones, games for tweens and teens, and games for everyone to play together. When it's time to find just the right selection for the kids, we'll help you reticle over the most likely targets.

First up: Free Realms from Sony Online Entertainment.
Free Realms
Developer Sony Online Entertainment
Launched April 2009

What system does it run on? Browser-based PC; download a few megabytes at the beginning, and the rest is streamed in the background as you play. Minimum system requirements: one of Sony's suggested video cards; Intel Pentium 4 or greater processor; Windows XP or Windows Vista operating system; broadband internet connection; 512 MB RAM. Sorry, no Macs.

How much does it cost? Download and play the basic game for free. Additional features available with a $4.99 monthly membership and/or purchase via Sony Station Cash. Currently, $1.00 U.S. buys 100 Station Cash.

What's the game all about? A 3-D mix of cartoon fantasy questing, exploration, combat and mini-games. Combat is not a main focus; it's entirely optional and features no blood. Players level up in 20 "jobs" including combat, general adventuring, trade skills, car driving, pet trainer, postman and card duelist. Change between jobs at will; none are "required." Jobs run up to level 20 (or level 5 for non-members, with adventurer and card duelist still going up to level 20).

What does the game look and feel like? The atmosphere is somewhere between World of Warcraft-style fantasy and TV cartoons, with rich, bright colors. The overall tone is whimsical without feeling ridiculous or silly. Choose between two avatar types: fairies or casual, modern kids.

Who's the target audience? The game's ESRB rating is E 10+ (marked for "Fantasy Violence" and "Crude Humor"), squarely aimed at 'tweens and teens. Even so, the tone isn't so childish that parents will feel silly playing along. If you're looking for a game to play together as a family, this just might be it.
Who plays? Free Realms currently has more than 7 million registered players. Most are American; the game is also localized for French, German, Latin Spanish and Castilian Spanish players.

• 50% of Free Realms players are under 13 years of age
• 25% of Free Realms players are 13 years to 18 years of age
• 25% of Free Realms players are over 18 years of age
• 67% of Free Realms players are male
• 33% of Free Realms players are female

How is the game's design tailored to kids? Knowing that most kids aren't likely to go digging through options menus, Sony completely rethought the UI, independent of standard gaming conventions. Controls and features are all available onscreen, with easy-to-decipher icons.

Kids get an engaging play session in limited time. Game play was designed for small bites of 5 to 15 minutes (which is not to say kids won't want to play longer!). The very longest encounters (certain combat missions) take up to 20 minutes.

How is the game's design tailored to adults? Free Realms has been called a "palate cleanser" for the experienced gamer. It offers light, entertaining progress without the pain of a grinding MMO.

What playstyle types will enjoy this game the most? Free Realms' content is shallow but broad. It's easy to race up to level 20 in any single job, but the number and variety of jobs means there's plenty to do. Simplicity is the focus; no complex strategies here. Sony aims for plenty of open-ended content (as opposed to directed activities that tell you exactly what to do), providing entertaining features that encourage players to come up with new ways to entertain themselves within the game.

What game play and features are available? Quests, exploration and collections, trade skills (which are mini-games of their own) and combat. Combat is instanced and may be shared in groups. Features such as launch pads (trampolines) provide sheer fun and encourage players to design their own games and run. Collect exploration tokens, outfits and pets, and decorate your house. Some features such as pet food and supplies are purchased with in-game coin earned through games and activities; others, such as larger houses and furniture or pets themselves, must be purchased with real-world money via Station Cash.

How does the game address kids' safety? There's preset menu chat for beginning typists and less talkative kids; parents can set accounts to use and view only this preset chat. Language filters for user-generated chat cannot be disabled. Children under age 13 must provide a parent's e-mail address to register. Children under 13 cannot read or post on the forums or post unregulated comments on other players' character profile pages. Parental controls for setting allowable play times are in the works.
What kid-friendly features help guide kids through the content? Breadcrumb dots on the minimap, arrows on the ground, and an option to "Take Me There" to quest stages and quest-givers help out if you're stuck on what to do, lost or just contentedly being lazy. Teleport instantly to anyone on your friends list, even across servers.

What might kids find difficult? There aren't quite enough quests to cover all the leveling in some jobs, so a little grinding might be necessary.

What's the social atmosphere? The in-game chat and community are friendly, polite and on-topic. Forum behavior is tightly controlled, and community representatives are visible and active.

What else can players do in game? Community events (parades, home tours and so on) are held weekly. Sony's aiming for a major content update or seasonal content (such as the winter snow festival or February's Festival of Hearts) every month. An in-game calendar shows what's happening. Party areas offer a fun place to gather in groups (must be a member to access, but non-member friends can teleport along).

What else can players do outside the game? Players over age 13 can visit the community forums. There's also a trading card game available online within Free Realms and wherever trading card games are sold.

Still looking for more details? Read our article on all the different ways you can evaluate kids' games, or visit the Free Realms web site.

MMO Family offers advice on MMO gaming of the family, by the family and for the family. Connect with author Lisa Poisso on Twitter at @emused, and e-mail your questions and observations about gaming and parenting to lisa (at) massively (dot) com.

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