It took a few hours longer than expected, but SOE launched Free Realms yesterday just under the wire, at 11:30 pm Pacific time.
“It’s funny because that while on its surface Free Realms is a really simple game and easy to get into and easy to play, it’s actually one of the more complex products I’ve ever seen,” explained Creative Director Laralyn McWilliams. “It was a colossal effort from pretty much the entire San Diego studio of SOE to get Free Realms live.”
The latest launch from SOE is aimed at a younger, far more casual audience than what most would expect from them. Unlike most competitors, it’s played right through the browser and streamed in real time to the players. This means people can get in with no major downloads, no desktop clients and absolutely no visible patching.
“Free Realms is really not about the grind to get to max level, but getting into a virtual world and having fun,” said McWilliams. The game, while hard to define is cartoony and full of quirks. “[It’s] very light hearted, lots of pop culture references, having a sense of humor about ourselves as well as MMOs in general.”
The game can be broken down into four distinct kinds of gameplay.
The most obvious is combat and adventure, which should be more familiar to fans of traditional MMOs. Players can explore the world, fight bad guys and level up their toon.
Another aspect is mini-games. This includes things that would normally be “crafting” in most MMOs, like cooking and mining. Each one comes with a distinct, simple, but fun little mini-game. They also have action mini-games, such as racing and demolition derbies.
Socialization is also a huge part of the game. They’ve built in an entire Facebook-esque area for the players to display their toon and their achievements to the world.
Finally, they have simulation elements. The big one for launch is pets, which are full featured companions – think Nintendogs – that explore the world with the user and have their own personalities. McWilliams mentioned that more simulation type elements are on the roadmap post-launch.
The big thing for Free Realms is that all four of these gameplay styles are completely optional. No one needs to do any specific one if that’s not their thing.
“[You] get in the game and do what you want to do,” said McWilliams.
Now fully deployed, McWilliams said she and the team are quite pleased with the uptake of players in the first 15 hours of operation and that since the initial rush –despite the 11:30 Pacific launch time – the numbers have steadily climbed.
As tired as the team is – they mentioned something about mass doses of coffee – the work obviously doesn’t stop. This is an MMO!
On deck for the team are the inevitable post-launch fires.
“Our focus for the next few weeks is going to be on tightening up the game as much as possible, responding to players on the forums,” said McWilliams.
As a team, they’re not just committed to the pursuit of player feedback as a philosophy, but they’ve also built the game with that in mind.
Since all content streams in the background, they can effectively fix bugs or add new content on the fly. This means, each time someone comes into an area, it could theoretically change. It creates a much more reactive product for the developers and theoretically should enable bugs posted on the forums to be fixed in a very brief window.
Unlike typical MMO launches, Free Realms was a quiet one. There was no massive media blitz or lines at GameStop. Instead, they wanted to just launch it when it was done, since they had no retail box to worry about.
That’s not to say SOE isn’t after a retail presence at all. Game cards are available already at Target and they expect them to filter into 711 and other major chains over the next few days.
Like a lot of the recent digitally distributed games, Free Realms employs a kind of hybrid business model. Anyone can jump in and play a single character for free. However, for additional content and two more character slots, players can purchase individual memberships for $4.99 per month. The game also employs microtransactions for pets and some superficial content, like extra clothes.