During a recent family gathering, I was explaining MMOs to my dad, the guy who still doesn't believe that adults can earn their livings making and playing these things. In trying to explain the success of World of Warcraft, I hypothesized that WoW was a gazillion seller because they understand that the rats in the skinner box want a pellet every...single...time they whack a bar.
Free Realms gives you a pellet for thinking about whacking the bar, reaching for the bar, almost hitting the bar, hitting yourself in the face instead, hitting the bar, and raising your hand to whack the bar again.
Naming involves spinning three wheels. Or, you can pick your own name, and spin three wheels for the name you'll use until your chosen name is approved. Character creation is light and cheerful, with tons of cosmetic options. Well, character creation is entirely cosmetic, because your traditional RPG stats are completely hidden from you. They do exist, in a limited sense (in the game, items and potions can increase your health, your mana, your ability to hit stuff with weapons, your ability to hit stuff with magic, your offense, and your defense), but everyone starts out exactly the same.
The tutorial is a work of genius. You cannot click past many components. Even those that can be clicked past have a voiceover that can't be skipped. In short order you learn movement, NPC and object interaction (left clicking, not right, which required major brain rewiring for me), the basic minigame, and the basics of combat. You also get a feel for the tone of the game, which is that everyone is gosh darn glad to see you.
And then you're in.
Anyone with plain exclamation points over their heads are eager to get your help with this or that, or to teach you a career. People with winged exclamation points are only willing to talk to those of you that shelled out your five bucks a month. Five of the fourteen careers are subscriber only.
There are lots of minigames. Lots. Seriously, more than once I thought I was in an elaborately reskinned version of MSN Games. There's chess, checkers, hideously addictive RTS games (Command and Conquer, but with happy little penguins and bees), simulators, trace-the-glowy-pattern-with-the-mouse, and probably more. But the main game you will play if you want to harvest cooking or crafting components is sort of a Bejeweled/Chuzzle thing. You will play this for hours. You will play this in a mindless haze until your wrist cramps up... or until your 60+ year old mother wanders in and says brightly, "How about that! I'm a gamer like you! I play a similar game all the time!"
Travel is a delight. Once you discover a warpstone, you can fly there whenever you want, however often you want, by opening and clicking on your map. Rather than stifle exploration, this feature encourages exploration. You've got nothing to lose by running off down a mysterious path, or getting distracted by side quests, because you can pop back to any city you want in seconds.
The look is cartoony, but very, very clean. The art direction is miraculously consistent, with every environment, every set piece, every item, and every prop working together. The world has been designed so everything you touch, see, and hear is a little bit of sunshine.
For example: The coins your dead enemies drop appear in a shiny pile of gold, and when you pick them up (no keyboard commands or clicking - run over the pile like a console RPG) there's a metallic jingle, a musical serenade, and an enthusiastic text message.
Tickets, coins, points, stars - everything you do gets at least one reward, and usually several. Stars can be spent adding levels to your attack skills. Tickets are taken to the Royal Vault to be traded for a random prize. Coins buy components for crafting, armor, and potions. I'm not clear on what the points are for - probably the gazillion leaderboards, although the website has been unable to display those to me for the last week.
There is a microtransaction level to Free Realms - you can just buy your potions and armor if you'd rather. Honestly, it's not necessary. As of this writing, I have careers ranging from level two to level ten, and I've never come close to running out of coins.
It's light, it's fun, and I find myself logging into it more often than I do with my various traditional MMOs - because it's the first MMO where I genuinely felt like I could accomplish something fun in fifteen minutes. The browser based platform (and associated bandwidth needs) make it as portable as my iPod. I mean, I knocked out two quests and a Mining level while I was killing time at the airport.
And yet, I wonder if "MMO" is really a fair name. This is a first impressions article, and my full review is still a week or more away. It's possible I just haven't gotten to the cooperative bits. Still, I see lots of other people running around, but no one is talking. The chat window feels like an afterthought, a vestigial remnant of the designer's MMO roots. I have yet to encounter any content that encourages grouping, let alone demands that I group. It's in the game, I suppose. I clicked on someone else once (she was blocking the forge), and an array of options popped up. But unlike traditional MMO open chat channels, or traditional MMO content, there is no point or pleasure in interaction with other people.
My first impression, though, is that if you haven't given it a try, you're missing a fun game. I've watched kids from five to twelve enjoy the heck out of it. I'm enjoying the heck out of it. And if the hordes of Bejeweled fans out there discover this product, forget what you think you know about the potential for MMO success. The designers of Free Realms are going to spend the rest of their lives drinking margaritas in the sun.