In the race to capture the wide open market of family based MMORPG's, Sony Online Entertainment appears to be the front runner with their upcoming family MMORPG, Free Realms. Currently, the family based MMORPG space is an undiscovered continent waiting for the first explorers to plant their flags, tame the natives and steal their gold.
As a parent of a 5 year old child and an uncle many times over, I can testify first hand that there just aren't any suitable online worlds for tweens. While Toontown Online is borderline condescending to tweens, Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin are not appropriate environments for them either. Sites like Webkinz World, Bella Sara and other real item based virtual worlds shake down kids and parents alike for every last dollar they can commit to the game. Disney's Game Kingdom and MyNoggin are exceptional and highly recommended online outlets for that age group, but there's just nowhere for young kids and parents to play together.
The game is geared for teens and tweens (5-12 year old range). Some parents opt for letting their young children play more mature MMORPG's such as World of Warcraft or Everquest 2, but when sensible parenting comes in to play, you realize its like having your young children sit by themselves on the sidelines, hoping to be called upon to play in a teenage pickup basketball game at an inner city court with no lights at dusk.
The "MMOG" space for children is very cluttered with flash based web browser worlds such as Club Penguin, Habbo Hotel and the upcoming and highly anticipated Hello Kitty Online MMOG. Free Realms promises a exciting and fully rendered 3D world for whole family to explore, adventure, play and socialize in, together.
Fundamentally, Free Realms is a win-win scenario with SOE, provided they can overcome the black cloud that still hangs over them, whether right or wrong, in the MMORPG industry. If the game is solid and fun at release, SOE has an opportunity to be the major player in the family MMOG market.
Free Realms seems to capitalize on several different gaming genres with an MMORPG core element that ties traditional MMORPG activities such as adventuring, combat, exploring and socializing to non traditional MMORPG minigames. Within the virtual 3d world of Free Realms, players will be able to interact with in game venues such as actually Ice Skating at the Ice Rink, picking up an instrument and playing it on stage, playing soccer in mingame formats.
The game will be a free download for the PC, funded by in game advertising, but users can opt to pay a small monthly fee of 4.95 to remove the ads. Players can also pay to buy additional in game items using real money transactions to acquire virtual goods.
Whether or not Free Realms will be embraced by the portion of the MMORPG community that has previously blacklisted the company is yet to be determined. Quite frankly, I don't think it will have any impact whatsoever on the success of Free Realms.