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.
OverviewFree 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 GoodFree 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 BadBy 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.
SummaryFree 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.