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Sony Online Entertainment
MMORPG | Setting:Fantasy | Status:Cancelled  (est.rel 04/28/09)  | Pub:Sony Online Entertainment
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Free Realms Progress Report

By Carolyn Koh on February 02, 2009 | Progress Reports | Comments

Free Realms Progress Report
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Free Realms, SoE’s entry to the children’s MMORPG market is less than six months to launch, the already great looking game looks even far more polished than it had when I last saw it at E3 in July and shortly after, at the SoE FanFaire in August of 2008. Targeted toward children between nine and fifteen, the game has already been rated by the ESRB at E 10+ for comic mischief. Not E for everyone? I was curious to know why. “What can I say?” asked Laralyn McWilliams in response. “It’s a fighting game as much as a pet game, so there’s cartoon violence and our dogs lift a leg and pee.” Well, there’s that! Parental controls and menu chat for the younger children? Check. PC and PS3? Awesome! Free to play? Check. Exploration, fighting, mini-games, crafting, pet system, travel portal system and housing? Check. Skill-based, multi-career-path options? Check. Whoa… all this for a kid’s game? Yes. Kid or adult, good game-play trumps all.

This is Free Realms. Free to download and play and supported by ad-revenue, a subscription of $4.99 a month to remove ads and open up 40% more options, $9.99 for a family subscription and micro-transactions for “fluff” items. Free to choose how you play as all aspects of the game are valid career choices. If all you want to do is train a multitude of pets, you can. If all you want to do is play the Trading Card Game, you can. If all you want to do is mine jewels, you can. If you want to do everything, you can too!

SoE has put in a lot of time and effort into this game, utilizing focus groups to make sure that the game will appeal to both genders. “As you may have expected,” said Laralyn, “the feedback from the boys was for more combat, neat combat moves and more creatures to fight. The feedback from the girls was for more pets, more outfit choices and more areas to explore.” Focus group feedback was also important in directing the artwork and look in game. There are two types of player characters available in the game, humans and sprites. Sprites are winged humanoid creatures. Yes, fairies, but sprite was a more gender neutral name and they do have small slim wings rather than the elegant choices available to the ones in, say EverQuest2. The boy sprites are not androgynous creatures either, but “manly-man” winged creatures… or as manly-man as young boys would like.

Free Realms Screen

As mentioned, Free Realms has several types of game play and any of them are valid character progression paths. Players may choose to level in any one aspect, a selection or all of them. Professions or roles were previously revealed. Players unlock each by taking a starter quest which yields them an outfit for that role. Examples are Miner, Postman, Explorer, Medic, Ninja, Chef and Warrior. As players take on more quests for those roles, they gain experience and gold stars which can then be applied to those abilities for those roles and advanced outfits are unlocked as you level in the role.

The world that you inhabit in Free Realms does have a back story and although you will be able read about it on the website, the developers have worked the visual story telling into the world as a quest. Players can read about the great battle of Gloam vs. Gleam and see the statues and monuments of historical figures in game. Like many other online games, there are various areas of the world to visit, each with its own flora and fauna, inhabitants, quests and landscape. From snow covered lands to tropical climes, from dark, spooky woods to wide open grasslands.

Everything you do in Free Realms is a free choice. There aren’t mobs that will jump you or areas too dangerous to wander into. You choose to fight creatures and if you accidentally stumble into a fight quest, you can just as quickly cancel out of it. There are many solo adventures, but group adventures are also to be had. Fight quests do not scale to solo player level, but will scale for size of groups. In keeping with the children’s game concept, characters don’t die. You’re knocked out. Not to worry however, when you’re knocked out, you get to keep all the goldstars you gained up to then. Now, you do respawn in 15 seconds and you are invulnerable for 10, so you can run away if you want to. No, unlike EverQuest, these mobs don’t train to the zone line.

The pet system is likened to Nintendogs by the developers. “No, they don’t die or expire after a set period of time,” said John Smedley who stopped by. “You don’t have to interact with them every day like a Tamagotchi either.” Dogs and cats have different personalities and can be trained. They only come online when a player summons them, and only when the pet is out that they need maintenance such as attention and food. When you put a pet away, it remains in a state of suspended animation until you take them out again. i.e. if the dog is happy and full when you put it away, it will come back happy and full, not starving and unhappy because you were away from the game for a month. Laralyn showed me the various outfits she could dress her little puppy with. She fed and groomed it, and it acted well… like a dog. It followed and played and cavorted around her, ran up to sniff at fences and cocked a leg and peed. Since we had fed it, it also umm… pooped. Luckily, there’s no need to travel with a pooper-scooper as the poop “biodegraded” away. It will also interact dynamically with other players, dogs and will bark at cats, although there won’t be any cat chasing incidents. It’s a game after all, and we want our pets to play nice.

Free Realms Screen

Apart from the leaderboards in the competition aspect, players can also play kart-racing and demolition derby on a track, competing against each other and the AI. What will be interesting is how the soccer game will shape up and whether the game will provide the AI players to make up a team or if players will have to wait ala WoW battlegrounds for teams to fill up.

Unusual in a children’s game, there are no voice-overs. This is because it’s a portal game that streams live across your web-browser. At www.freerealms.com which will be reminiscent of the social sites Facebook and MySpace, players will log in to their profile, friends lists, leaderboards, and possibly, quest journals and inventory. Free Realms is going to be a unique game. The crafting is the most interactive I’ve ever seen as they play out as mini-games. It’s hard to classify the game neatly. Is it a game of roles and professions which range from exploration to crafting to fighting and quests that play out as mini-games and a pet system or is it a game with aspects of exploration, crafting, fighting, mini-games and simulation where you take on different roles to play each aspect of the game? Instead, unique in an MMO, it’s more like spheres of activity. There’s adventure (exploration and combat), simulation (housing and pets), mini-games and social activities (website). Interwoven in there are the roles!

Then let’s not forget the Trading Card Game that’s integrated into it. Since it’s for kids, the game is simple. That does not mean, however, that it isn’t fun, challenging and elegant. Further, the game client keeps track of the rules and does the math for you, making it even easier for young children to get into. This particular TCG will also have a physical issue in partnership with Topps. Every physical game pack will include a loot card that’s redeemable in game for game loot.

Whatever it is, however it’s described, Free Realms is graphically impressive. SoE has used simple stylized graphics with lush saturated colors to create an immersive and visually pleasing world. The trailers look fantastic as does what I’ve seen of the game. Laralyn gave me a few quick sneak peeks of different areas of the world, showing me the varied landscapes. It looks very promising. We’ve been given a look at a game world that has content breadth with glimpses of depth that will only be revealed when we actually play the game and plumb its depths. Will it play out as well as it currently looks and sounds? We’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this one when it launches.

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn has been writing for MMORPG.com since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.