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Why I Play: Free Realms


Free Realms has been going really strong, as far as I can tell, since the beginning. I definitely remember the distinct buzz that came from the beta, and I remember bloggers and podcaster friends proclaiming that the game was going to go gangbusters. We MMOers often forget just what sort of impact certain titles have made on the market. As soon as these special titles are released into the world, we become used to them and often take them for granted.

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.

Free Realms screenshot
There are several things that make up a great sandbox. First, the game must offer as many options for play as possible. As I have argued before, a sandbox is not defined by a lack of quests or linear adventures. Those things are simply more choices for the player, and choice is what defines a good sandbox. When I am in Free Realms, I can easily spend the entire session exploring and gaining experience just for searching around. Of course, I can also spend my time farming, chatting, racing, building, puzzling or any number of activities that a truly great sandbox like Free Realms provides.

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?"

Second, a good sandbox needs to be immersive. I may have grown weary of discussing immersion or what makes a game immersive, but it's still a valid topic. To me, an MMO gains that immersion factor when it feels like an open, breathing world. Free Realms is supremely immersive, even if the immersion stems from the fact that it feels very similar to a real society. After all, who says that immersion must stem from a fantasy IP only, or that realistic rain effects or a stamina bar are required? Free Realms can easily be played in linear fashion. I have spent many hours moving through main questlines. The quests are one of my favorite parts of the game, actually. The lore is quite robust and pulls me in every time I discover a new chapter. I feel immersed in Free Realms because beyond that linear questing, thousands of players are living some sort of virtual life. These players are socializing, working on projects, or building up a trade skill. If I spend just a few minutes in Free Realms, I might discover a dozen different active communities within the greater community. All of it is wrapped around a central game world backed up by a strong story and interesting characters.

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?

Free Realms screenshot
I know what players mean when they say it's hard to get into Free Realms. After all, it might feel a bit strange to play a game where obviously younger players are busily enjoying themselves. I run into the same resistance when I tell people how much Mabinogi matters. However, to me, all of our MMOs are filled with "younger" players. Even if the player is 67 years old, the joy of playing an MMO equalizes all of us. No, I'm not about to join in with a Free Realms chat on who is cuter, Bieber or... some other teen idol, but I appreciate the fact that Free Realms might just be a gateway MMO for many young players.

"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."

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, a world that allows you to create a virtual you, complete with your sense of style or humor. Would that access have made you a different person? It's likely. I cannot even fathom it. But I do know that Free Realms, with all of its humor, wonderful art, charming delivery, and lovely music, is one of the most significant MMOs to come out in a long, long time. Even if many of us see it only as a go-to place for tweens, the fact is that if you stripped away its youthful appearance, added in different terminology and a darker character design, it would be discussed respectfully alongside more "adult" MMOs.

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.

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