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Two years of Free Realms: A retrospective

Karen Bryan

"It's your world."

Those three words sum up Free Realms, and it's no coincidence that it's the title song for the game. It's hard to believe that the game is only two years old -- much has changed since launch, and in many ways, this young MMO has been a pioneer in the market.

To celebrate Free Realms' second birthday, we're going to take a look back at some highlights. From pet training, to Chatdy's name change, to its Guinness World Record, the game has experienced many milestones. Read on for a retrospective as well as a peek at the future.

From the start, Free Realms did things differently than other AAA MMOs. First, it was aiming for a younger audience, something that few MMOs were doing at the time. It also offered both a subscription and a free-to-play option, during a time when "free-to-play" was still considered a taboo, especially for a new game. On top of that, players could do every single job on the same character -- no worries about choosing a class and then having to live with it forever. Just click a button then watch your character do a little twirl and a quick-change into appropriate attire for the job.

Shortly after launch, it reached a million accounts quickly, and five million very soon after. It currently has 17 million players, and Sony Online Entertainment CEO John Smedley predicts that it will eventually reach 100 million.

A world of firsts

Free Realms was focused on what former Creative Director Laralyn McWilliams referred to as "instant fun," and the game definitely accomplishes that goal. With the addition of the welcome window, every minigame, combat instance, and card game is easily accessible and clearly displayed. Players can go right from sorting the mail to kart racing with just a click. What's even better is that Free Realms was one of the first games to offer you the ability to make a video of your game experiences and upload it to YouTube.

In another world first, Free Realms held a concert that took place both in game and live at E3. The Dares performed the song It's Your World, and it was broadcast live to players in game. The Guinness Book of World Records has recognized it as the first concert performed both in game and live, and if you were one of the lucky few to be playing at the time, you probably still have the t-shirt to prove it.

Change you can believe in

The game was not without some pretty big changes. The vault closed its doors a while ago, and players still lobby for its return. Gone also is the pet trainer job, which was removed when all jobs were capped at level 5 for unsubscribed players. And Chatty, the charming squirrel that's featured in Free Realms advertisements, underwent a name change, trading in a d for a second t.

But while some things were removed from game, there was much more added, most notably player-created content. With the addition of housing, and more recently, the housing directory, players have shared some amazing creativity. There are lots of options for decorating, but the one item that's probably the most popular is the block. It seems like the simplest of items, yet players have built some amazing structures in their house lots.

The development team also channeled its creative talents and launched several playgrounds throughout the world -- literally. Players have made great use of the launch pads and challenging obstacle courses. My personal favorite is the one near Seaside. If you can reach the pirate ship at the top, you can access a treasure chest!

Not to be outdone, players have also had the opportunity to leave their mark in the world. Player Roland Spore was selected as the winner of two race track contests, and as a result, his creations have become a part of the game world. You can currently test out his first track in Snowhill, and you'll soon be able to see his second track in Sacred Grove.

On top of the player created content, several new minigames and unique items have been added over the past two years. Soccer was added as a job, and players could level up in a 3v3 instance. And while the game had ninjas from launch, it wasn't until later that pirates were added, in the form of a treasure hunt minigame.

There were several special promotions over the past two years, with in-game items featuring popular characters such as Bambi and Tinkerbell. And during Halloween, players chose either Team Vampire or Team Werewolf to face off in a dance contest, complete with costumes and themed t-shirts. Currently, players can purchase special NBA t-shirts for their characters, but the coolest promotion by far was Domo.

You'd think that a game like Free Realms would be settling down into cruise control, but some of the biggest changes to the game have happened within the past few weeks. The biggest was the launch of Free Realms on the PlayStation 3 console. Few MMOs have successfully crossed over and been available on both platforms, but this game continues to push boundaries.

There were two other new additions to Free Realms -- farming and a new card game called Treasure Wars. Farming is a lot like what you've encountered with that certain Facebook game, but it actually fits well with the world of Free Realms. Players are happily tending their own crops and even offering up their services to help others clean their lots and start planting. Treasure Wars is a milder version of the original trading card game, and it has its own unique card sets and rewards.

The future's so bright...

So what's in store for Free Realms down the road? Producer Nick Parkinson gave some hints in a recent interview with Massively. The long-missed Pet Trainer job won't be back, but he said the team has something coming up that players will enjoy even more. He also said that the items from the vault will come back in-game as VIP rewards. In addition, he mentioned in a recent producer's letter that ranching is in the works, and it will allow players to raise their own pets. Players will also be able to run their own restaurants, making use of all the goodies they raise on their farms. And there are plans for new housing and lots, new rides, new minigames, and yet another contest that will give players the chance to see their work featured in the game world.

If you haven't tried out Free Realms, now is a good time to check it out. There are several special birthday quests and a few in-game parties hosted by the Free Realms referees going on right now. And make sure to snag a Domo pet! You'll be glad you did.

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