CES 2008: Free Realms

Free Realms - HelloIf you are a fan of Free to Play MMOs, then we have a new one for you.

Last year, Sony Online Entertainment announced Free Realms, one of the titles in their upcoming 2008 line-up of new releases. There has been some scuttlebutt about it since then, but at CES last week I finally had an opportunity to get a close look at the title.

My first impression of Free Realms is this is no ordinary RPG. A light, fairy-in-the-garden atmosphere brings your attention to the colors and animation, and customization is a top priority for SOE here. Naturally they hope to encourage you to invest in your play time, but they also realize that it's not absolutely necessary in order to enjoy an online gaming experience.

Of course, you shouldn't really expect the in-depth atmosphere and fantastic graphics of a title thoroughly driven by market sales to be found in a title trusting more upon advertising revenue and player upgrade selections. When a MMO is free-to-play, it's understood that you're not getting exactly what you'd be looking for from a title you just $49.99 to purchase, and invest $14.99 a month to play. But that shouldn't stop you from wanting that same experience.

And it shouldn't stop the developers from wanting to provide it.

With Free Realms, I think we can almost have the best of both worlds here.

I'll be honest with you, and tell you that this isn't really my schtick. As I mentioned in another editorial, I'm a traditional down-home MMO player - where my game is almost my religion. So when I first saw Free Realms, I was dubious to say the least. Yet, like any good journalist, I left my bias at the door and sat down with an open mind. My partner in crime, however, was not so inclined to do the same. She was absolutely bursting with enthusiasm at every click of the mouse our hostess gave.

Free Realms - Mines
Laura Naviaux, Sony Online Entertainment's Director of Global Brand Marketing, was on hand to give us a brief guided tour of this latest endeaver by the company. With me was Becky "Tovin" Simpson, our resident News Guru - who was grinning from ear to ear as her eyes were glued to the monitor. Of course, I would be lying if I said it was only her - I must admit that I was also mesmerized by the frolicking of the characters, and the hint of mischief just on the edge of our vision.

This title is being designed with kids in mind... the "teens and tweens", according to Laura. However it is something "the whole family can do together". Rather than sitting in front of boring prime time television in the evening, most of which is filled with more violence and innuendos than your 10-year olds should hear, you can interact with the young'uns online in a game that's both entertaining and educational.

Free Realms - Mine ShopSurrounded by vibrant colors and enthusiasm from the NPCs, you can't help but smile at the screen as you work your way through the various obsticles presented in front of you in this crazy, loveable world.

One sequence we were shown had us helping out the old miner by gathering the necessary items for the foreman. While it seemed simple enough, you definitely felt the pressure of the conveyor belt moving ahead of you while what you needed went out of your grasp!

Needless to say, challenges are presented that to the uninitiated may seem childish - but for those who are anxious for something other than grinding out the levels against mob bosses and grotesque creatures of a murky underworld, Free Realms is a good place to be.

2008 Seems to be a breakout year for SOE in terms of new directions. Along with this title, they are also in the midst of developing The Agency, both of which are "outside of the box" from their normal genre. Is this a sign of things to come? Possibly. It could just be that SOE is catching on to the fact that there is more to the MMO industry than traditional fantasy/sci-fi adventures.

With Free Realms, they're making an attempt at capturing an audience that has long been ignored by the major development companies. Typically you find titles such as this from Asian developers with an anime look. Like every other genre, this style of play has obtained its own unique following, one that is traditionally different from the rest. It seems, however, that SOE is hoping to bring some of that home and gain more footing in the industry as a major player in the field.
I look at other titles such as Toon Town and The Sims Online, and I wonder how Free Realms will compete. Of course, Toon Town and TSO are not the free-to-play models, but they've both been successful at gaining a footing in the market with a wide-range of age groups while still maintaining their distance from the "normal" gaming experience. They both cater to the non-violent and fun-loving market, and definitely focus more attention on the age group that SOE is targeting with this latest direction. Will it stand up? I'm not entirely certain. But I am confident that they will give it the ol' college try.

What will give Free Realms the edge it needs to succeed in a market that is - like all others - very criticizing of something new? Aside from the full customization that is going to be offered I believe this title has a whimsical side to it that others lack. We're not talking the average cartoon graphics for kids... this is more a lighter side of life that we all need a dose of from time to time, without worrying whether or not others will think you need to "grow up". I give Free Realms two thumbs up in terms of Smile Factor - and can't wait to get in and pet my kitty for some lovin'!
Free Realms - Town View


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