And now for something completely different...Free Realms. Sorta like White Castle or Guinness Beer, you might love it or hate it, with no middle ground to stand on. In fact, it belongs to a genre of games that you'll usually never see here at JIG; the burgeoning market of "massively multiplayer online games" (more widely known as MMOs, provided you haven't spent the last decade living in Antarctica). Generally, MMOs are huge, beastly things that soak up hours and hours of playtime, along with heaps of money—which is why it's one of fastest-growing sectors in PC gaming. It seems about as far away as you can get from "casual" gaming, doesn't it? But there's something fundamentally different about this particular game, which has drawn in over 3 million players since it launched a little over a month ago.
The MMO market has been mutating. Every publisher on the block started developing MMOs of all different kinds, some with dreams of becoming the next "World of Warcraft-killer," while others simply tried to cash in on the trend, making a quick buck here and there with micro-transactions. Some ideas worked while others failed; many games enjoyed brief success only to fall apart a few months later. The rubble left behind began to coalesce as developers went back to the drawing board, eventually finding hope in the "free-to-play" business model that Free Realms is built upon. The idea is that instead of charging a monthly fee—as traditional MMOs do—the game is completely free to download and play. Revenue is generated from optional features, which can be anything from additional game content to small, in-game vanity items (like clothes or character-enhancers).
But the question still remains; "What's an MMO doing here at JIG in the first place?" The answer is severalfold, although the most important is that Free Realms is (arguably) the most-accessible MMO ever made. It's often compared to the hugely-popular Club Penguin by the media, although I'd personally make that association in concept only, if you're not familiar with the genre. Developed by Sony Online Entertainment, Free Realms is specifically designed to appeal to the teen and adult demographics almost as much as younger kids, which are its bread and butter. Many of the "MMO norms" have been thrown out the window: there's no cost for the game itself (nor is a subscription required) and SOE has made every effort trying to assure parents it's a family-friendly environment.
As to do with JIG's readers, the entire game is built around the concept of mini-games and casual gameplay (perhaps not in the strictest sense that our readers would define it, but more "casual" than any MMO I've ever played). Free Realms takes place in a persistent, quasi-fantasy-themed world with lots of different vivid and lively environments. Less emphasis is placed on the traditional staples of MMO gaming, such as deeply-rooted lore and the progression toward an endgame of epic battles. Instead, Free Realms offers a digital playground of sorts; a world filled with everything kids are daydreaming about while they're at school—and one which they can actually play in when they get home.
Many of the usual MMORPG-based elements like character stats and reward-based quests are still woven into the game, but they're designed in an almost-foolproof way, so as not to get in the way of short-term fun. As an example to that extent, you're given a dotted trail to follow that leads you to and from each quest objective, making it almost impossible to get lost (it can be disabled). The idea is that things will never get too complicated or tedious, and that's where the mini-game aspect comes in... Almost everything that's progression-related is accomplished through a bunch of different kinds of mini-games. Instead of picking a character class at the beginning and being stuck with it, you can choose what class—or "job," as the game calls it—you want to play at any given time. Every job has different mini-games that provide "stardust," used to enhance your skills as you level up. However, you're given the ability to jump into almost everything from the get-go, instead of having to grind away before you get to the good stuff.
The progression system is so diverse that you can choose to play entirely without fighting at all. The combat system in Free Realms is no more prominent than any other activity; it just serves as one of the jobs (again, think classes) you can choose. Instead, you can be a Kart Driver, Adventurer, Pet Trainer, Chef, Miner or almost a dozen more (including several of the combat-based jobs like Brawlers or Ninjas). Some of the mini-games used to "level up" your jobs are simple, like Checkers and Bejeweled-type games, while the rest are originally-created mini-games like go-kart racing, demolition derby, training pets with mouse gestures, finding your way through mazes to deliver packages and a lot more. There's even an original trading card game you can play, with a job as a "Card Duelist" attached to it.
This whole trend of tearing down conventional MMO barriers and being as accessible as possible reaches beyond just the gameplay. If you can believe it, Free Realms is technically considered a "browser-based" game. It's installed via a browser plug-in, which bridges the game client to the server. You can even run it in windowed mode. All of the world geometry, character models and textures are loaded on-the-fly as you move from one sub-zone to another, a technique used to cut down on client size. It's also optimized to run on lower-end machines; the minimum system requirements aren't as demanding as most modern games. But it also means that most content will be loaded from the server-side, so you'll have to deal with loading screens pretty regularly.
Right about now you're probably wondering what the catch is. "No such thing as a free lunch," right? As I mentioned earlier, most free-to-play MMOs use micro-transactions or optional subscriptions to generate revenue. Free Realms uses both. For $4.99 USD per month, you can become a premium member, unlocking five more jobs, letting you play up to three characters and giving you access to certain quests and game items that you can't get with a free membership. You can also buy "Station Cash" to fund your membership, or use it to buy special in-game items that you can't obtain elsewhere. I was pretty amazed when I found out how far Sony is trying to go to make this Station Cash as ubiquitous as possible; their "Station Cash Cards" are sold in like a bazillion brick-and-mortar US stores (even 7-Eleven).
Analysis: One of the nice things about Free Realms is that you're not playing a crippled game if you don't spend money. That's a popular racket for a lot of MMOs these days, usually from companies that don't have enough faith (or financial backing) in their own games to believe that players will spend money eventually, if they enjoy the game. Free Realms doesn't take such a heavy-handed approach, allowing free members almost the same level of access as paying members. Although the whole cheery, cartoony setting really isn't my bag, I couldn't help being impressed by the amount of production value that SOE put into this game. Not only is it well-polished and easy to play, it really can be fun for adults, as well as kids.
But if you've never played an MMO before, you might get a little frustrated at the beginning if you're expecting you'll be able to judge whether or not you'll like the game within the first 20 minutes. It'll probably take you at least that long just to finish the tutorial. Normally I'd say you gotta learn to walk before you run, but I have to remember that many of our readers won't initially find the same familiarities in this game as most of the ones we cover. So instead, I'd urge you to be patient, at least for the first hour's worth of playtime or so. Once you get past the "tutorial speed bump" and learn how to interact with the world, you might discover a lot of enjoyment to be had in all the mini-games and "casually-converted" MMO elements. After you get the basics down, it's entirely possible to log on for just 20 or 30 minutes and have some fun.
Play Free Realms (Note: There's a one-time plugin (approx. 60MB) you'll need to install before you play. Afterwards, it's all browser-based.)
Psst...hey, a little birdie told me you can check out this fansite to find all the "free item codes" that have been released so far.