Almost everything you need to know about Free Realms is in the title. It's a free to play fantasy MMO that publisher Sony hopes will prove a hit among younger gamers when it's released at the beginning of April. See? Free... and Realms.
If World of Warcraft is the father of the MMO, Free Realms is the junior, a gateway for 10 to 14 year-olds to get into the genre. The game looks like a cartoon, the art style seems influenced by the Shrek movies, and the gameplay is RuneScape-esque. It's low fantasy, light-hearted, family friendly fun.
The idea is that it's easy to play with few, if any, barriers to entry. Once you've signed up for an account on the Free Realms website you get to create your character. You have the option to choose between humans and pixies, male and female (there are no statistical differences, the choice is purely aesthetic). Once done you get a handful of customisation options - Sony has deliberately held back on some of these in this early part of the game in order to encourage players to continue customising once they're in the game. But there are different face types, skin tones, facial hair, outfits, face paint and hairstyles to pick from. While you're customising your character the game client streams in the background - it takes about a minute to stream that initial 25MB footprint.
Once done you simply click play now and you're taken to the server select screen. You're not restricted to a specific server in Free Realms, which is a different approach to more traditional MMOs. The welcome screen shows you your friends and the marketplace, a crucial area of Free Realms. Publisher Sony will be offering premium content through micro-transactions - you'll be able to buy in-game items with points, purchased with Sony Online Entertainment Station cash. Supplementing the micro-transaction system is a "velvet rope" subscription that unlocks certain areas of the game world. Don't worry if you can't pay, though. Sony's currently working out if it can offer premium content supported by in-game advertising. Think medieval themed Burger Kings or Starbucks like how they appear in the movie Shrek - Free Realms is low fantasy after all.
In the world you'll go through a tutorial section that will guide you through the interface and objectives. After that's finished you'll be taken to the Crossroads - the place where everyone starts out. The world that will launch with the game contains a variety of different types of areas. Darker areas are more combat related. Areas like Snow Hill are more casual. In Free Realms nobody can come up and attack you without your permission to enter in a PvP instance. Sony knows that a lot of players may not even be interested in combat, so it's not focusing on it. Indeed there's no death - in combat you just get knocked out for a few seconds and respawm. Sony anticipates lesser play times than in a traditional MMO, where you might spend six or eight hours grinding. Younger gamers might only have an hour a day - Sony doesn't want those players to have to repeat what they've done just because they've been killed by another player.
The job system replaces the classes and professions systems you get in more traditional MMOs. You can switch between them at any point in the game - you're not tied to any one job. If one day you want to be a ninja you can enter into a combat-based instance and fight as a ninja. Then when you're finished, you can change to the chef job and play some cooking mini-games. Each job has a set of special abilities - in a combat instance a medic special ability might be to heal, for example.
The job system is tied to the mini-games, indeed your job will determine the mini-games you'll play. For example, if you play as a ninja you will be playing combat-based mini-games. As the chef you'll be playing cooking mini-games. The flexibility being able to switch jobs at will allows you to do stuff like this: if you're playing as the miner you can go into a dungeon and collect ore, then switch over to the weaponsmith job and refine that ore into a weapon, then switch over to the warrior job and use that weapon in a combat instance.
If the job system is integral to Free Realms' gameplay, customisation is integral to its appeal. You can customise almost everything in the game. You'll be able to dress your character in a variety of outfits for each job - an apron for the chef, for example. You'll also be able to play around with your pets. The game will launch with both dogs and cats, who will follow you around and interact with other characters and objects in the environment. When they do that you can reinforce or discourage their behaviour with a thumbs up or thumbs down, letting you evolve your pet's personality. Want to give your dog a panda suit? No problem. Want to dress your cat as a ninja, just like its owner? Done. You'll also be able to teach your pet tricks, and level up those tricks. Tell your dog to sit and it will walk off, think about it for a bit, then sit. As your pet levels up the sitting animation will become more elaborate. Eventually you'll be able to unlock a dancing skill for your pet. Even vehicles are customisable. In seven different ways, no less - the paint job, the bumper, the fuel. The vehicles are almost like another pet system, in this way. As you'd expect, the customisation plays into the micro-transactions. While many items and costumes will be available for free, you'll be able to buy premium gear with Station cash. Longer lasting potions, or torches, for example.
Sony thinks of Free Realms as a theme park, likening the game's many mini-game nodes, through which you'll actually get to do stuff, to rides you can choose to check out at your leisure. There are combat-based mini-games, Mario Kart-esque driving mini-games, Destruction Derby, football, pet raising, cooking - there are absolutely loads of them.
When you click on a mini-game node the start screen is displayed, which contains background information, objectives and a lobby for other players to jump in and join you. This information will display on your profile page on the Free Realms website, and send a notification so your friends can click on your name and join you seamlessly. You're not going to run into strangers that will mess up your mini-games in Free Realms. It's all very carefully managed.
There's a harvesting mini-game, for example, that plays much like Bejewelled. You have to match a chain of icons - the objectives require you to get 25 water melons, 25 honeycombs, etc. Once you complete the objectives you'll earn star points, Free Realms' version of experience points. You spend them on your special abilities associated with that mini-game. As a harvester, special abilities include Shuffle and Destruct - click on Shuffle and it'll shuffle the tiles around. The star points will allow you to level up the abilities and improve them for that job.
It's obvious that Free Realms is aimed at younger gamers - the cartooney art style and family-friendly structure are evidence of that - but there are elements fans of more hardcore games will find familiar. The combat is the prime example. It uses a point and click system, like Diablo or Dungeon Siege. Smaller combat instances are simply arenas, which only take a couple of minutes to work through, but there are multi-level dungeons that have bosses as well, ala World of Warcraft. You're not forced to have to set up groups to work through them, but it'll definitely help. You can be a ninja and use throwing stars, or a warrior, or a wizard, or a medic and AOE heal your friends.
What strikes you about Free Realms is just how polished and compelling it looks. Free Realms uses much of the technology found in other Sony Online Entertainment games, including EverQuest 2, DC Universe Online and The Agency (cleverly, the points that you use to buy premium content in Free Realms is interchangeable with all SOE games). While it won't break anyone's PC, the quality of the graphics and menus show just how seriously Sony is taking the project - over a hundred people are currently on the Free Realms development team. For a free to play MMO, the production values are incredibly high.
Sony's clearly spent a lot of time making the game family friendly, and with good reason given the target audience. As a result the Free Realms experience is inevitably more controlled than in other MMOs. You'll only be able to communicate with other players via pre-determined phrases - there will be no swearing in Free Realms. Your character name is to a degree generated by the player - but only using suggestions from the game. The game will be heavily moderated, too, by people no doubt looking out for no-good adults.
It's an undoubtedly ambitious project, and an important one. Sony sees Free Realms as almost like a platform in of itself, with smaller game experiences published within it. The game's release is nearing - a beta is planned to open in a couple of weeks - so we'll be keeping an eye on this family friendly MMO.
Free Realms is due out on PC in early April. A PS3 version is due out between July and September.