You may have heard a little bit about it, if you don't follow the MMO industry press; if you do, you may be sick of hearing about it. If all you want is the one sentence summary, I can't improve upon the punchline from Penny Arcade's moderately snide summary ("On Weak Points and Massive Damage," 4/15/09): "One creates a kart racing fairy chef who, when not playing with kittens, explores mines while building decks for a magical card game. You can also be a wizard." But that tells you almost nothing, really. Here's the interesting part:
This is, depending on how you count it, either Sony's fourth or fifth attempt to launch an entry into the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game market since Everquest II, and every one of them has flamed out. Star Wars: Galaxies, The Matrix Online, Vanguard, and Pirates of the Burning Sea were all, really, more Massively Over-Budget Unfinished Shovel-Ware Games. I mean, for crying out loud, how do you lose money on a Star Wars product? But Sony's a big company. They have a lot of profitable product lines, and they're very patient with failure -- as long as they learn something from every failure. Free Realms is a gigantic step in an entirely different direction, for them. And it is the first MMO in the last three years to show any signs of having been designed by a team that has studied failed MMOs as much as it studied the successful one(s). Instead of just buying a copy of 3D Studio Max and spending tens of millions of dollars developing art assets and then trying to bolt a generic game onto them, they spent the first quite a few years of the project building tools. If, like me, you were reading the developers' interviews with various blogs and industry reporters, this became obvious towards the end of the project when you'd see one interview that said "we just got in the concept sketches for (some region in the game)" and then scant weeks later you'd see another interview saying "we just finished (that whole region of the game) and it looks great," complete with a fly-through on YouTube. The current in-game map shows the next four areas of expansion; at the rate they were cranking them out at the end of their development calendar, this may be the first MMO since RuneScape to be able to crank out a major expansion every month.
They've avoided other classic industry pitfalls, too. In an industry that's rushing towards the M rating, Sony designed the user interface, the art, and the stories roughly the way Steven Spielberg designed the Animaniacs: safe and entirely accessible to kids, but with layers of reference and nuance that will turn your hair white if you're old enough to recognize them. This is a game that is marketed specifically as a game that parents can play with their small children ... with, among other things, a running theme of child abduction, and not always in subtle ways. It has robust built-in parental controls, with even better parental controls being added on. It's also rolling out for the PS/3 some time this year, and yes, it does look like it'll be in the same shared game world.
Another recurring industry pratfall: several companies in a row have now gambled tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars each that somewhere out there is an untapped customer base the size of World of Warcraft's that's looking for a game that's just like WoW only "more hard-core." The term "hard core" being defined by veterans of the original Ultima Online, where you could be ambushed and slaughtered by people so far above you you had no chance of escaping, roving in gangs that outnumber you 8 to 1, only to spend half an hour trying to get back to your corpse only to find that all the equipment you spent weeks accumulating is now gone. Oh, and you lost half a character level or more. If the people asking investors to pony up the cash for these vanity projects were honest, though, they'd have to admit that this has been tried, repeatedly, and no, the sum total market for games like that is a couple of thousand people. Well, plus a million or so Koreans and a million or so Chinese. But they don't play American games when that's what they're looking for. So Sony pushed this as far the other way as possible: there are almost no unpleasant surprises even possible in Free Realms. The only player versus player (PvP) in Free Realms is entirely optional dueling; the loser loses nothing but the fight. They even had the foresight to stick duel invites down into the bottom corner, so they don't interfere with whatever you were doing when someone sent you a duel invite. But they went even farther than that: even player versus environment (PvE) is 100% opt-in, player-initiated, too. You can roam the whole length and breadth of Free Realms all day long, and the wandering monsters will only threaten you. To actually fight them, you have to click on them and click through a pop-up dialog box that explicitly says what the terms of the fight will be. Then you disappear into an instanced version of the area you're in, and you (and your team, if any) fight them there. If you lose, you just get knocked out for 10 seconds. If you lose three times in the same instanced fight (five times for the ones rated medium to hard), you fail out of the instance -- and come out standing right next to the non-player character (NPC) you clicked on to start the fight.
They also listened, and listened thoroughly, to the people (like me) who said that doing nothing but fight, fight, fight all the time gets boring, people who wanted a non-combat way to play the game, too, and wow, did they deliver. This is what the Penny Arcade snark was about. There are six combat character classes. Four are hand-to-hand fighters: brawler (balanced fighter), ninja ("glass cannon"), warrior ("meat shield"), and medic (healer). Two are ranged damage, just with different special effects and different in-game story arcs: archers and wizards. But those are just six of the character classes. There are three crafting classes: chef (buffs), blacksmith (weapons), and miner (raw materials for weapons). There are two race-car driving professions, kart racer and demolition derby. There's a non-combat PvP game-within-a-game character class, card duelist. There's an almost entirely social character class, pet trainer. And there are two pure-exploration character classes, adventurer and postman. All of the non-combat classes have their own story arcs, and their own game play that combines searching the broader game world for nearby objects, or playing on-screen mini-games that look suspiciously like the ones over at PopCap. (In particular, I find the resource-gathering minigame that chefs use for harvesting fruits and vegetables, that miners use for gathering raw ore and gems, that adventurers use to sift for Precursor artifacts, and that postmen use to sort mail to be oddly soothing. All of its variations are also scored on a leaderboard, so in addition to leveling up and earning resources, you can compete with other people for video-game high scores.)
Ah, but the adventurer character class, that's the one that people keep underestimating until they've played it; it's probably one of the three coolest character classes in the history of the industry, and completely unique to Free Realms (so far). Early in development, it was called the explorer class, and that's a big slice of how the adventurer levels, by exploring. Are you the kind of person who looks at a spot halfway up a wall in a game and goes, "I wonder if I can get up there?" A surprisingly high percentage of the time, in Free Realms, you can -- and you find a hidden flag, or souvenir coin dispenser, or other surprise that gives you a big chunk of adventurer XP the first time you go there. (The unofficial Adventurer Motto, on the game forums: "If you're not getting stuck from time to time, you're not doing it right.") You get smaller chunks of adventurer XP just by exploring the main towns. And you get even more adventurer XP by keeping your eyes open, and by ignoring the "bread crumb trail" that leads you by the nose from quest to quest in order to find weirder or more interesting ways to get from point A to point B. Because scattered all over the game world are randomly-generated objects, most of them about 2' on a side and knee high, that sparkle visibly: click one, and it adds an item to the appropriate collection. Adventurers are all about souvenir/evidence/sample/artifact collection: collect 8 rare spiders from the sunken graveyard, collect 8 types of winter-blooming roses from the area around the ski resort, collect 8 different types of ordinary keys left behind by the Precursors, collect 6 unique water samples from the ocean just off shore of the beach resort: get another chunk of XP. How many collections are we talking about here? Try about 200 collections, with an average of around 6 items or places to find, each. The rarest collections grant their own unique costume items or props to show off, but really, what we have here is a massively multiplayer, online, persistent, easter egg hunt. I can't get enough of it.
They've also come up with a pretty thorough treatment (if not an all-out cure) for the disease known throughout the industry as alt-itis: the compulsion to start a new character from scratch every couple of days, to see if the grass is greener for another character class. I always say, "alt-itis is a crippling ailment, so, please, give generously to the National Alt-itis Foundation, so that some day, there may be a cure." But blast me if Sony hasn't cured mine, because you can be all fourteen or so character classes at once. Click two icons, change character class, level as that for a while. Get the urge to do something else? Click two icons. If anything, Free Realms gently but firmly disincents alt-itis, since you get rare weapons and items for all fourteen character classes, and have no built-in way to transfer them to your other characters. Many of the best ones are bind-on-pickup; you can't even transfer them with help. But whatever they are, you can use them. For example, here I am (as "Brad Bearheart") in my uniforms as a (currently) level 10 adventurer, level 11 brawler, level 18 chef, and level 20 postman:
I was also really pleasantly surprised by how much more interesting the in-game storyline is than a "kid-friendly" game has any right to be. (With one exception, so far: the ending of the Postman training story arc, at level 20, is pathologically lame.) Of course, so far, I only know the back-story from the pixie perspective, because nobody from any of the other sentient races has been willing to tell me their version of history, but under the Heart Tree Palace the pixies have a Hall of Remembrance with a set of giant stained-glass windows that explain their version of the backstory. As they tell it, some time in our very near future Faerie resumes contact with the Mortal Realm, it returns to Earth, it comes back into phase with reality; the mechanics are unclear, but magic becomes possible and all the classic faerie tale races and one or two others show up on Earth at once: elves, dwarves, pixies, goblins, trolls, yeti, and a race I've never heard of before (that seem to have been a servitor race to the pixies?) called the chugawug. After using magic to solve all of mankind's most persistent problems, all of Earth's intelligent races agreed to be ruled by something called the Gleam Council. But a conspiracy within the Gleam Council, calling themselves the Gloam Council, built a magical artifact that would give them mind-control powers over any being that had ever used magic; by that point, this let them turn every person of every race on Earth into mindless slaves. Fewer than six escaped control, but that's more than the Gloam Council expected, so they didn't do a very good job of guarding their mind control crystal. Besides, they knew it had one really good defense: any attempt to tamper with it would cause it to explode, destroying all life on Earth.
So our nameless heroes did just that, warning everybody they ran past on their way in to run for cover as soon as they got their free will back. The elves threw up a magical barrier that somehow held, and haven't come out yet. A few of the dwarves and the goblins and the trolls retreated into caves, a few of the pixies and the chugawugs managed to burrow underground fast enough to escape the blast wave that rendered Earth's surface uninhabitable. Generations later, pixies stumbled across changeling half-human survivors, went up above ground, started magically rehabbing the surface outward from their home under the long-erased ruins of San Diego, and as the other races showed up, so did the humans. Very peculiar.
But within the area "watered by Queen Ayani's tears" life is more or less wonderful. Magical agriculture and building techniques mean that nobody starves or freezes; the robgoblins and the chugawugs dig up Precursor artifacts for the dwarves and humans to magically power-up. The few races that don't want to get along with others, mostly the trolls and the yeti, have places they retreat to on the outskirts of civilization and mostly they and we leave each other alone (but only mostly). Much of what economy there is is in entertainment and leisure activities, the most famous of which is the happiest place on the reborn Earth, Merry Vale, a pixie theme park where everybody is happy. Ominously happy. Creepily happy. Even the parents who could remember, right up until they ate the cotton candy, that their kids have gone missing. Oh, and speaking of kids, you do get to meet some of the changelings. Wednesday Addams would be creeped out by these kids. *brrr*
And the best part of the game is that you honestly cannot beat the price. No, really, this time. It is genuinely free to play. And I don't mean that the way other "F2P" games mean it. When they say "free to play," what they mean is usually "Free to play the first 1/4 of the game; after that the price goes way up. And even for the parts you can play, you'll suck at the game unless you invest a couple of hundred or a couple of thousand dollars in the item store." Not Free Realms. So how do they do it? Well, for one thing, it was cheaper to develop than you might think; much of the tools budget is being spread across this and at least one other game, their upcoming spy/mercenary shooter The Agency. They do put some of the game behind a pay-wall: four of the six combat character classes (both support classes, both ranged classes) and one of the crafting classes (blacksmith) are only available to people who pay $4.99 per month. I don't miss them. They do have an item store, but first of all, you really don't need it: I've gotten items as rare loot that were just as good as the items sold in the store, just from rolling randomly at the Royal Vault with tickets I earned for running generic missions. And secondly, the prices extremely reasonable: $2.50 to $4.00 (one time fee) to adopt a puppy or a kitten, and maybe a grand total of $15 if you want the maximum load of XP-rate boosters and super-cool-looking (but no better) weapons. There are also some clothing items for adventurers/card duelists, but most are priced at 50¢ to a dollar; for example, I paid 50¢ (on a whim) for that Hawaiian shirt. They also have about 40% of the quests "behind the pay wall," only available to the $4.99 subscribers, but I like how they're doing that, too. They've announced that as they add new quests, those quests will go behind the pay wall and the existing pay-wall ones will go free to play. So I've played this game for a week now, and I can easily imagine it taking me several months just to exhaust the existing free to play content; why pay a monthly fee until I run out of the free stuff? And if they add stuff as fast as I think they're going to, who's to say I'll ever run out?
Oh, and they do plan to make money, ideally hand-over-fist, off of an associated collectible card game that's hitting the game stores any day now, if it hasn't already. You can play it entirely free, including a good starter deck, and additional cards earned by dueling NPCs during your training. But if you want to play it out of game, you buy decks and booster packs, and those out-of-game booster packs or decks come with codes you add to your account to add booster packs or decks to your in-game character, too. That's a trap I'll never fall for, frankly.