Chris "Pwyff" Tom previews one of the biggest developments for the MMORPG genre of 2009: SOE's Free Realms. Why should this kid-oriented MMO be such a big deal for all gamers?
If you've been keeping your eye out for the 'next big thing' in the MMO industry, then there's no doubt that you've heard of SOE's kid-friendly MMORPG Free Realms. Set in an ultra-cartoony world, Free Realms is directly aimed at our youngest demographic of gamers and their families who, up until now, have been frustrated by the steep learning curve and dedication needed to master deeper MMOs, or have been unable to retain enough interest in some of the shallower, ultra-easy children's themed games. Now, having spent an inordinate amount of time exploring all that Free Realms has to offer, I'm here to say that this game is definitely a huge step forward for all MMO gamers - children, teenagers and adults alike.
To begin, Free Realms takes a very unique approach to the business model of MMO gaming. Where any MMO with this amount of depth would typically require a standard subscription rate (typically $10-20 USD), Free Realms is entirely Free to Play, with an optional membership subscription that costs only $4.99 USD per month. Not only this, but if you actually look at what the optional membership offers, players will quickly realize that they're getting more than their money's worth. Memberships snag you a massive amount of new content. It gives you the ability to have 30 active quests (as opposed to 10, which is a godsend) as well as access to five more members-only jobs and a plethora of members-only gear. Finally, Free Realms also gives players the ability to make micro-transaction purchases through Station Cash, allowing them to buy things like Pets for about $4.00 (probably one of the best investments of the game), or full outfits for a few dollars per piece, or even really cool looking weapons that run a little bit higher ($3.50 to $8.50 per weapon). While I do wish that there would be a slightly larger pool of equipment for non-members, the fact remains that there are very few games out there (if any) that offer this much content for free, and then offer much more content for only $5 more.
Before my arrival into the world of Free Realms, I'd also like to point out that SOE has managed to make the configuration and installation of the game quite easy. Players simply need to download a small patch client, and from then on, they can launch the game by logging into the website. In the game, Free Realms' UI is nicely uncluttered, with large, friendly icons that let players easily manoeuvre through their menus without too much hassle. Unfortunately, the game does not allow players the opportunity to re-bind their keyboard settings, but controls in Free Realms are simple and intuitive enough that most people end up getting used to their hotkeys within a few minutes, or they don't even need to use them at all.
Free Realms is also quite smart in its approach to jobs and classes, as players can easily switch between all 15 of their jobs (5 come from having a membership), and all jobs gain completely separate experience points by training in their respective field. In reality, only 6 of those jobs are combat oriented (Brawler, Warrior, Ninja, Ranger, Medic and Wizard), and all of the others are entirely concerned with the social and alternative mini-games of Free Realms. For example, levelling up as a Pet Trainer involves doing tricks with your pet, and as you advance, you can teach your pet more and more tricks. Alternatively, there is a Kart Driver Class that is devoted to racing on the circuit and levelling up via races. Finally, as if to demonstrate to players just how wacky SOE can get, players can level up their... Postman class. Yep. You deliver papers and give bones to dogs to prevent them from biting you as you sling your mail into mailboxes. I'm not entirely sure what a level 20 Postman would do, but I suspect it would involve Postmanship of the highest calibre.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, levelling up in Free Realms can be quite easy, or annoyingly difficult depending on your job. Becoming a high level chef, for example, is not too difficult as the cooking mini-game is quite easy to play (but still quite addictive). On the other hand, players who focus on combat jobs may find themselves frustrated by the lack of a full quest line that guides them from level 1 to 20 - after exhausting all quests for my Brawler at level 3, I was told to 'come back' when I was level 5, and thereafter I was left to my own devices. What this really means is that players may find themselves running through instanced dungeons many times over in order to 'grind' out those next two levels.
This also brings me to my next topic at hand - fighting. Free Realms is unique in its approach to combat, in that all of it is 'instanced.' What this means is that there is no way for players to 'MPK' (Monster Player Kill, where players try to use dangerous and aggressive monsters to kill other players) each other, and this also eliminates the annoyance of people stealing your monsters. In reality, while it may sound like 100% instanced combat can get somewhat slow, the game handles it smoothly and it's nice to know you'll never get chased by an aggressive monster when all you really want to do is go mining.
As for combat itself, the current system in Free Realms plays out like a stripped down version of World of Warcraft. Players earn a new ability every 5 levels, with what appears to be a grand total of 5 abilities at level 20. While in later dungeons, players can have lots of fun with party dynamics and really neat scripted bosses, early combat is pretty much defined by pressing 1 and, occasionally, 2. Interestingly, however, while combat is somewhat simple at lower levels, I really enjoyed the smoothness and simplicity of the fights. If there was one suggestion I could make to SOE, it would be to give small bonuses to players for using their abilities intelligently or timing them properly. At the moment, you can basically alternate pressing all of your abilities in rapid fire and you'll fight as well as someone who carefully uses his. Cooking gives you a nice warm glow when you get that 'perfect' flip of the ham or you manage to tenderize your meat with 100% accuracy - why doesn't combat have this?
As for other aspects of the game, Free Realms offers a massive social mini-game sphere that I have yet to see anywhere else. Not only can players group up to go hunt monsters, but there's a huge ocean of things you can do, like sit down for a few games of chess and checkers, or go Kart Racing (which is remarkably smooth, and plays a lot like Mario Kart), or play together with your pets (and show off your pet trainer levels!), or play the in-game supported Trading Card Game, which is fantastic, even on its own.
For those of you who were interested in the Trading Card Game (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collectible_card_game), allow me to note that it has enough depth to qualify as a real diversion without bogging players down with layers of pre-planning. Think of Free Realms' TCG as something akin to Everquest and Everquest 2's Legends of Norrath, or if that's not ringing a bell, think of it as the ability to play things like Magic: The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh, but online! Now, while I know it's fairly difficult to summarize the rules of a trading card game (the in-game tutorial is actually fantastic at this), for players who are curious, I'll try to do it in the clearest way possible:
In order to summon a unit, players need to pay the cost - in this particular case, 'Coin' is what is used to summon creatures to fight on your side. In order to accumulate coin, players just need to take a card from their hand (it can be any card) and place it onto the table, face up, in their 'inventory' pile (it's not 'in play,' and you can only put one card down per turn). Now, when that players' turn comes and he has cards in his inventory pile, every round he is given coins equal to the number of cards he has placed, face-up, into the pile. If anyone has played Magic: The Gathering, this is an ingenious way for SOE to avoid the annoying idea of playing 'land' cards; basically every one of your cards has the potential to become a source of coin - the strategy is deciding which card you'd like to put down (and have your opponent aware that you have that card). Players can also use any of the cards that are face-up (just like they were playing it from their hand), but that effectively transforms it from a resource back into a card.
Anyways, aside from the ingenuity of using every card as a potential source of coin, Free Realms' TCG plays like any other trading card game, except you're limited to three summoned units in play at any time. There is no such thing as an opponents' health - instead, every battle that's won and any time you have the opportunity to attack without being blocked, you score a point, regardless of how much 'damage' you dealt. Whoever makes it to 12 wins the game. The only other addition is the idea of gems and drawing random cards during a battle. While it's difficult to explain here, the basic idea is like having the attacker and the defender roll a dice whenever combat takes place. Before combat takes place, they take the value of their dice roll and they add it to their units' attack or defence, respectively, and then the bigger number wins. The only difference in the Free Realms TCG is that instead of a dice being rolled, it's a random card that's drawn from your deck, and all of your cards have been assigned different values. If you're interested in really finding out about the TCG, I'd highly advise you to check out the game and participate in the tutorial, as I lack the graphical means to convey this idea, and I'm sure I missed some parts.
In the end, Free Realms really sets itself leaps and bounds ahead of other kid-friendly MMOs and it rests comfortably alongside the deepest of MMORPGs on the market. In fact, I'm willing to bet that if SOE really devotes its time to adding on to this massive frame, Free Realms may very well end up being one of the most diverse MMORPGs ever. My advice to all parties would be to check out this great game as it enters open beta - it's incredibly addictive, it has a huge amount of potential, it has a massive plethora of things to do across all ages and, best of all, it's free.
How can you lose?
Christopher "Pwyff" Tom