Tobold's Blog
Monday, April 27, 2009
 
Free Realms - beta preview

While looking through the Free Realms beta forums, I just saw that without much fanfare SOE has dropped the NDA. So, mystery solved, the game I am having so much fun in the beta, but couldn't talk about, is Free Realms. Which will come to some surprise, as Free Realms is completely different from what I am usually playing. But I guess I need a break from linear games, so I'm enjoying myself very much in Free Realms. In this post I'll give a short description of Free Realms, and then proceed to list the good, bad, and ugly (controversial) features of this game.

Overview

Free Realms is a game mainly targeted at children, but contains such a vast variety of gameplay options, that even adults will find something to enjoy. You play Free Realms with just one character (although if you pay for a $5 per month subscription, you can make 2 alts), who can be either human or fairy, and either male or female. Character generation is fast and simple, with not very many options; but then, I never understood the need to be able to modify the length and slant of your nose some games offer, especially since you mainly see your character from behind anyway. The novelty of Free Realms is that you don't have to choose a character class: Your character can be everything in Free Realms, and switch freely between 15 character classes called "jobs". Of these 10 are available for free, the remaining 5 only for subscribers.

The fun thing is that you level each job independently. You can concentrate on one, a few, just do those you like, or try to do everything. There is some minor interaction between jobs, like some food you cook as a chef being helpful for combat jobs, or mining producing the metals for blacksmithing. But in most cases game design is horizontal, you have lots of equally valid options what to do next, and not one clear "best" path to maximum power. Jobs are linked to various games, and if you don't like a particular game, there is no need for you to do it. This isn't like World of Warcraft, where there is one "main" game of making your character more powerful in combat, and crafting is just a trivial side-option. How good or advanced you are as lets say Kart Driver has zero influence on you Postman or Card Duelist job. And not only does every job offer various mini-games, there are also lots of quests and areas that offer even more, different mini-games. The idea is that you do things that are fun to you, not just because something advances your character.

The Good

Free Realms has a level of polish rarely seen outside World of Warcraft. SOE really pulled it together this time, and produced a game which is intuitive, easy to learn, and full of fun surprises. The amount of content and different games is great, and that's just with one region finished, with 4 more regions around labeled as "coming soon".

Free Realms is a perfect starting MMO for children, with the usual child protection features like an option to either randomly create a name, or needing to have your own name suggestion pre-approved by a GM before you can use it. The mini-games are designed to be easily explained to children as well, although that doesn't mean they are necessarily trivial for adults. Easy to learn, hard to master, the best games in Free Realms correspond very well to that old rule. And some activities are just for toying around, like training a pet dog or cat that'll run after you and do tricks.

My favorite game in Free Realms is the trading card game, which has simple rules, but surprising depths, and the AI plays it well enough to be challenging.

Free Realms uses some interesting technology. There is no huge client to install on your computer, the game is accessed via your browser, and streams content to you while you play. That works surprisingly well and seamlessly. There are multiple servers, but your characters aren't bound to any particular server, you just play where you want, or where your friends hang out. Apparently the game will also be playable via a Playstation 3.

And best of all, you can play large parts of Free Realms completely for free, as the name suggests. More on that later.

The Bad

By it's very nature Free Realms is an ultra-casual game. If you play it "hardcore", you'll probably level all jobs to maximum in a month and then wonder why there is no endgame or raid content. There are levels to gain, and gear to collect, and money to make, but ultimately this just isn't about the long-term achievement, but for the fun of the moment. Not every player of traditional MMORPGs will be able to enjoy this. And it is perfectly possible that you'll play this with great fun for a month or two, and then just stop and move somewhere else.

Free Realms is in beta, and if SOE knew what they were doing, it would remain in beta for a while longer. The game works quite well *for a beta*, but there are visibly unfinished features and quests, and even a few crashes to desktop, although those usually happen when you are on a loading screen transitioning from one instanced game back to the world, so except for having to restart the client, they don't hurt you at all. The game obviously needs a bit more work to be ready for release, especially to a younger audience which might lose patience faster than the average MMO player. Currently only the "free" content can be tested in the beta, so I don't know how far finished the jobs and games you can only access as subscriber are. Housing isn't in yet either. But apparently Free Realms goes live tomorrow, which is kind of a gamble.

The Ugly (or controversial)

Free Realms has its own graphical style, which I'd call candy colorful cute. I kind of like it, but if you are allergic to cutesy, you might want to stay away.

The most controversial feature of Free Realms will be that of course it isn't *totally* free. The guys from SOE apparently want to have a salary and keep their company alive, or something. I already mentioned that about a third of the game is only accessible with a $5 per month subscription, which isn't all that expensive for what's on offer. But in addition to that you can spend nearly endless amounts of money with microtransactions. You buy 100 station cash (SC, already used in the Everquest games) for $1 or €1 (Europeans get screwed again, paying about one third more at current rate), and then you can buy lots of things in the game: Boosters for the trading card game with 10 cards for 400 SC. A permanent dog or cat pet for 250 to 400 SC. Clothes for your pet (I kid you not) or yourself, including gear that gives stat bonuses. Potions, scrolls that increase your xp and coin drops, food that transforms you into a different shape for half an hour, various items to create funny special effects, you name it, SOE has got it, and is willing to sell it to you. If you want everything, you easily end up paying more for "Free" Realms than for a classical $15 per month game without microtransactions.

That *will* cause some drama with children who absolutely want this or that, although you could take it as opportunity to give them an allowance and teach them about living on limited resources. Maybe some adults will need a similar lesson.

Summary

Free Realms is a great game, even if it is still in beta and not quite ready for release. I'll probably buy a couple of months subscription, and splurge some money on trading cards and other microtransactions. But this will probably not last all that long. Free Realms is no "WoW Killer", because it doesn't have that long-term motivation of making your character all-powerful. I do however think that Free Realms will easily get millions of players, even if many of them will just play the free part. Especially for children Free Realms might actually be the better choice. Blizzard is probably aware of that, the official minimum age to play WoW is 12.

So Free Realms is the "next big thing", it just doesn't look at all how we imagined it. That is because we are still rather niche, if we are completely honest. The only way to beat WoW is to out-mainstream it, and Free Realms is heading in that direction.
Comments:
Just read your thread on the forums before going to sleep and saw you put a review up here. Pretty much the same impression I had, but I was a good bit harder on the game, mostly because I expected more.

I would disagree with this as a starter MMORPG for kids though, only because I've gone through this. While the cost is heavy ($9.99 a month), ToonTown is where I would start most kids, especially the pre-10 crowd, at least as a parent. ToonTown was developed by Disney, and although Sony now manages it, it retains the locked-down parental controls you would expect from Disney (if you've ever been to one of their parks, the objective of safety for kids is constantly in view). The internet is a wild place...it's safer to ease them into it. But, I am an overprotective parent, I'm told.
 
I have a feeling that by the time it goes live, or soon after, free realms will have heavier parental controls.


But two things. One, I believe free realms is NOT aimed at the under 10 crowd, AND I personally think under 10 is too young for an MMO.

Free realms hits the nail on the head perfectly, and even as a 16 year old gamer, I find a lot to enjoy.
 
I've been an unbelievable noob on this one and didn't notice I had a FR beta account because it was in my junk folder (oops). Looking forwards to trying it this week though :) I'll have to keep an eye out for the card game (it beat me quite comprehensively at chess, but then so do 9 year olds).
 
Somewhere I read the parents liked the game more than their kids, who wanted to go back and play WoW. :>
 
I never understood the need to be able to modify the length and slant of your nose some games offer, especially since you mainly see your character from behind anyway.You only ever see your own face in a mirror but that doesn't mean you want an ugly one, does it? ... ;)
 
I will definitely check this out when it comes out of Beta. It sounds like this could finally be the game I can play with my wife and kids that the whole family can enjoy. All previous pretenders to that throne have failed miserably. Club Penguin and its ilk entertained the kids while boring me silly. My wife refuses to play games like World of Warcraft and Lotro because she doesn't like killing things. Wizard 101's curious implementation of an adults game pretending to be a kids game held our attention for all of 5 minutes. Being able to level jobs independently sounds like a terrific idea. I can be off killing stuff while my wife hones her Kart driving skillz. Sounds good to me.
 
I'm a hardcore WoW raider, and absolutely had a blast in the Free Realms beta. I'm certainly going to keep playing post-release, and am strongly considering dropping the cash for a subscription.
 
I really found myself enjoying FR beta much more than I thought I would, being so far below my age-group but I have to agree with the review that it is a lot of fun. It really does seem as if it could be the "Next Big Thing" or at least provide a viable model for some future more serious less cutsey MMO to adopt. Seriously if a similar model were applied to a more adult themed game with some endgame content thrown in, it really would be the one to have a chance of overthrowing the King.
 
If you look at the numbers Runescape has, it's clear FR is going to be HUGE.
 
This is a great starter for MMORPG. Like I stated before a good stepping stone between Club Penguin and WoW. Club Penguin (purchased by Disney) is huge. If you want to do anything fun you need to get the parents to pay a fee also. The amount of kids with bling bling penguins suggest that Club Penguin is rolling in dough. I got duped into buying the upgrade myself.My 11 year old is loving Free Realms and has started telling her friends about it who are excited and telling there friends. I think there will be a huge Penguin exodus.
 
I checked it out on Friday, then for a couple of more hours on Sunday. I know my kids will completely love it when I have them for the summer. I quite enjoy the Miner job, and the harvesting you need to do as a Chef is similar, and thus similarly enjoyable. The variations of the "Tower defense" games out there are silly, amusing, and astonishingly easy, but still quite fun. The demolition derby I'm still trying to figure out the damage model... sometimes I see other cars hit for 75% damage in a single hit, but I never seem to be able to do more than 10%. I have no idea why.

The controls as a racer are terrible, but I'm sure once I get more used to them I'll still be able to start winning some races instead of this constant 2nd or 3rd I seem to always get. I don't know that I'll ever work on the "postman" job again. TBH, the brawler job doesn't really "do it" for me either. I still can't find the ninja trainer, and I have no idea what it will be like to be a wizard or a warrior. Since I have the station pass, I'm told I'll automatically "be a member" once the game is live, so we'll see.

As it is, though... I have had a blast playing it.
 
I still have yet to actually try the beta (or now impending release) but I appreciate that this game exists. Not every MMO has to have the same scope or demand the same level of attention and commitment that traditional MMORPGs have commanded. Social networking MMOs that I can play for 15 minutes during a lunch break, twitch based MMOFPSs that I can play for 40 minute sessions, fantasy MMORPGs with multi-hour raid content - all of these can exist in the market, at different price points, and without cannibalizing the others. I can't wait for that future and I plan to play Free Realms casually and for free for some time to come.
 
"I can't wait for that future and I plan to play Free Realms casually and for free for some time to come."

How many MMOs do you expect to play concurrently? That's the tough one for me. I play one and if I put in 10+ hours a week, I feel like I've spent as much time gaming as I want to.

There are already a lot of free MMOs, but I find that one MMO is about all I can handle. Planetside, for example, you can play with some limitations for free. There's your MMOFPS. Are you already playing it?

The limiting factor in an MMO isn't cost but time. Even if they make an MMO casual, meaning it doesn't require a time commitment, chances are if you like it you will put the time in. Then where is the time for the other MMOs? And the other non-MMO games?
 
FWIW, I am currently (technically) playing 4 MMO's concurrently. I have SOE's station pass thingy, and I still have VG and SWG installed, though I will admit that I only VERY rarely log in to them. Mostly, I just say I play EQ2 and EVE, though. Free Realms will be a nice little addition to play while waiting for game update downloads, or for short play sessions, methinks.
 
I have my son playing Free Realms and Fusion Fall. He much prefers Fusion Fall, but that was until he found the Kart Racer class in Free Realms.

I agree with Tobold that this is a game that could take the lead, though I suspect that the problem with Fusion Fall, was that even I didn't get the commercials until after I found out about Free Realms and tried it out. So I say that was a market failure.

As for target audience .... Free Realms is targeting tweens, no doubt about it.
 
Anything you know how to get hula stuff lol im just keeping asking for tht outfit do you know anything how to get the hula stuff?
 
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