Free Realms is SoE's entry into the children's MMORPG market. It has a whimsical, modern look that hearkens back to Anime style graphics and is a unique look created by SoE artists, and based on numerous focus tests with age appropriate children. The title reflects the design philosophy behind the game, that children will be free to play the game any way they like. Every game play style is valid and you do not need to level your character in any prescribed way.
So what is there to do in Free Realms? There is combat, mini-games, simulation, such as pets and housing - similar to Animal Crossing play, and social play which involves community participation via a website with an interface similar to Facebook's look.
Two different types of characters can be played, humans and sprites - which are basically winged, smaller humanoids, which hover rather than walk. Players start out as adventurers and gain outfits when they take on tasks for NPCs. Outfits represent the jobs that characters can do and mini-game screens will show which jobs can be used to complete the game. Completion of games and tasks gains gold stars for the character, and these gold stars can be used to improve the abilities associated with the outfit. As players level, they gain better and fancier outfits.
"A character is basically a walking leader board," said Lead Designer Laralyn McWilliams, "however your outfit doesn't affect your skills."
That is to say, you could go into tough challenging combat in newbie armor, because it's your abilities that really count. Weapons though can have different ratings assigned to them, and there will be some non-visible slots such as jewelery slots for those stat enhancing items.
Jobs in game are diverse and include roles such as Explorer, Baker, Warrior, Ninja, Wizard, Knight, Postman, Miner, Blacksmith, Medic and the like. Jobs are also tiered, and advanced jobs may be unlocked. "Perhaps," mused Laralyn, "If you take both Warrior and Blacksmith to level 5, you unlock the Warrior Blacksmith which will be a new job altogether!"
"The world of Free Realms is really like a theme park," said Developer Sebastian Strzalkowski. Combat is always a choice. It is essentially a mini-game that you choose to play, and as you enter a combat scenario through a gate marked dangerous, you'll get the same opening screen as all tasks and mini games which show stats and objectives that you have to accept."
Group games are also available, including soccer and kart racing, which is Mariokart style with exaggerated physics. Players can take these cars home with them and park them in their garage. Cars can be decorated and customized like houses can be. These features however will be in the latter part of the game. At launch, players will receive a single room which to make their own. How houses will be obtained has yet to be finalized, although the car will be provided as it is part of a mini-game.
A trading card game will also be available online and physical cards can also be purchased. Pets have characters and qualities, and you make that choice when you choose the pet. They are autonomous creatures and can be trained. For example, you pick a dog based on it's characteristics and then you train it. a dog could be shy or playful. It make bark a lot or very little, and you can train your pet by praising it and petting it when it performs the actions you want to reinforce, and scold it by telling it "Bad Dog!"
The SoE designers understand that children's time are not their own, and a child could be hauled off to dinner in the middle of a quest. Thusly, all encounters are under 15 minutes, and there are no death penalties, nor do you actually die. Creatures are stunned and stars revolve around their heads. Players simply lose an encounter and get kicked out of it with all the xp and loot they've gained to date. Other child friendly features include the ability to teleport to friends. There are also teleport stones (waypoints) all over the world and once players encounter them, will be able to teleport back to, from other teleport stone.
Inventory is unlimited so you can never lose an item because your inventory is full, or with any other problems related to having a full inventory. Members in a group will receive the same rewards for completing a quest.
The game is free to play and has a two tier paying business model. 60% of their content is available to players for free. Subscriptions are not expensive at $4.99 a month for one account, or $9.99 for five.
The game gets players playing immediately once they register, as character creation is done on the website while content streams in the background. The subscription will also net an amount in the micro-transaction wallet. That amount has not been determined yet, but may as as high as the cost of the subscription itself. Wallet dollars can be spent in the market place where players will find a mixture of cosmetic items and consumables such as potions of health and mana. The manner in which items may be obtained vary greatly. For example. a +5 sword of fire may be a quest reward, but the +5 sword of ice may be player forged, the +5 sword of earth may bought from a vendor.
As we got toward the end of the demo, we passed the park with the performance stage again. "We plan to feature artists in Live Concerts," Laralyn said. But would say no further. So, that is Free Realms from SoE. As with most online games for children, parental controls are available for in-game chat as well as information displayed on the child's profile. Closed beta will be open for application soon and launch planned for early 2009.