Free Realms: All that and the kitchen sink?

For most of the last decade the online gaming market has been
clearly divided between deep diversions for game-savvy adults like
World of Warcraft — which generally cost $15 a month — and cloying,
cutesy fare aimed at prepubescent children, especially girls, like Club
Penguin and Hello Kitty Online.

The sophistication in Free Realms
lies in how carefully it has been designed to appeal not only to both
of those audiences but also to the broad mass of entertainment
consumers who are discovering (or rediscovering) video games through
the likes of the Wii and Guitar Hero.
Free Realms is a bit like a great
animated film: while its core audience may be children, it also retains
enough intelligence and depth to appeal to adults who can appreciate a
little whimsy.

Almost everything about the Free Realms experience
is meant to be as unintimidating as possible. Instead of buying the
game at a store, you just go to FreeRealms.com
on your Windows PC and the client software begins downloading
automatically. The game’s visual style is similar to that of World of
Warcraft, which is to say stylized and colorfully animated rather than
highly detailed and realistic.
Relatively simple graphics allow the
game to run on a broad range of PCs rather than forcing potential
players with old computers to upgrade (or, more likely, not play the
game at all).

Most role-playing games are built around the
concept of classes or archetypes, which determine what sort of
abilities players have at their disposal and what type of activities
they can engage in. A player can choose to be a sword-swinging
swashbuckler or a healing cleric or a sneaky rogue or a mystical
wizard. But those who want to experience different classes must make
separate characters for each one, which can be tedious and annoying.

The
great breakthrough in Free Realms is that your character can hold many
different jobs at once.
You come into the game as an adventurer but
very quickly can assume different roles like medic, archer, warrior,
wizard, ninja or even pet trainer or postman. If you get tired of
racing as a kart driver, just switch over to brawler or chef mode and
try something entirely different. It’s an innovation that much more
complicated games would do well to emulate.

Each of the various
jobs entails a slightly different play style, often built around
mini-games. Mining and harvesting, for instance, involve engaging in a
match-three puzzle game (line up three or more items of the same color)
familiar to anyone who has played a game like Bejeweled. Combat, by
contrast, means using special abilities as one might in a game like
World of Warcraft or EverQuest. Game tables for checkers and chess are
scattered liberally around the countryside as are various additional
mini strategy games.

Video Game Review – Free Realms – Living Nine Lives in Sony’s New Online Game – NYTimes.com

It’s funny, the one thing I found PERSONALLY (not professionally) discouraging about Free Realms when I played was that it seemed to try and be a fantasy world for any & everyone.  I like my context to have some sort of over-arching god-like purpose, not a flimsy “of course there’s a professional looking motor-cross dude in this world of fairies” every-size-fits-all kinda existence… that feels too commercial, too salesy, too $$ in the eyes.

Remember, that’s my personal feelings. 

Professionally? Yeah, it’s pretty smart.  It’s yet another example of a starter MMO for the n00bs.  It has play patterns for all – chess for gramps, checkers for that kid next door, pet taming for the tweens, bejeweled for mom, race cars for cousin joey, guitar hero graphics for the wii-jammers, card play for the pokemon crew, and war for the warriors (ahem, and some dads, ahem). 

Oh yes, and did I mention… U13 – no chatty. None, zip, nada.  U13 can join and play, speedchat yay!  But no UGC communication. Nope.  Not even for parents to unlock.  Scalable solution in the meantime for proof of concept and low overhead on moderation (well, “lower”).  But hey, sweet, right?  And for those over 13 – ignore functions will help!  From what I remember in my playing yesterday, I couldn’t figure out how to individually report a user.  This creates two things (I was playing as an adult, fyi): a) Can’t tattle so i have to deal myself: getting your ADULT community to self regulate is pretty great once it WORKS… takes a bit tho, b) trolls/grieffers are going to be a problemo.

What I find interesting is that – this seems to be one of the first entries into this space that is one size fits all (one could argue Second Life, but I won’t).  I think that Free Realms has the possibility of either spearheading (or being an inspirational nugget that sets off spearheading) a new generation of MMO’s… What I mean is this:

Most MMO/Virtual Worlds tend to BUILD life within the fantasty – it’s own network and community and fantastical existence.  Free Realms is one that seems to USE life within the fantasy- the blend of fantasy with realistic passions on top.  You’re a race car enthusiast wanting to be the circuits best… in a fairie virtual world.  You’re a 5 star Chef… for pets and talking puppies.  You’re a rockstar guitarest… for gremlins.  Do you see what I mean? 

Overall, it’s an exciting venture and TOTALLY work earmarking, eyeballing, examining, and forming opinions about… so go join Free Realms.  I’d love to hear what you think.

Seriously – if you have an opinion PLEASE SHARE!!

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