Y’know, For Kids: Thoughts On Free Realms

By Alec Meer on February 16th, 2009 at 1:51 pm.

Imagine a greatest hits of all the games that have found success with non-gamers. The compulsive sight-puzzles of Bejewelled, the dress-up roleplaying of The Sims, the cartoon brawling of World of Warcraft, the micropayment hats of Maple Story, the bumper car silliness of Mario Kart, the customisable animals of Neopets, the ancillary merchandise of Pokemon…

Free Realms, the kid-orienated MMO that Sony clearly hopes will restore its troubled online fortunes, is all things to all children. It has been focused group-trialled to boys and girls alike, and it shows. If your child can’t find something in FR’s long list of mini-games and gimmicks to capture its attention, it’ll probably grow up to be a serial killer.

For boys and tomboys, there is fighting, racing, questing and PvP. For girls and pacifists, there is home decoration, gardening, shopping, dressing up and pet-raising. For any and all, there is puzzling, socialising and, inevitably, the purchasing of customisation items.

While Free Realms, which I trotted off to have a gander at last week, is a fully explorable world (one that drops a vaguely clashing mix of the modern, the steampunk and the anthropomorphic into a Warcraftian cartoon fantasy backdrop) any of its myriad entertainments can be accessed instantly from anywhere. It’s Disneyworld with teleportation.

The immediate concern is that this could be too scattergun. After all, you’ll have fun at Disneyworld for a day or two, but could you live there? Free Realms is a parade of cute, polished mini-entertainments, but what isn’t clear yet is the central reason to be there: while there is levelling and looting, there doesn’t seem to be a big hunk of juicy meat underneath all that delicious crackling and garnish.

The counter to that is that I am not a child of age 12-14, despite being about the same height as one. What I’m looking for from an MMO is not what they’re looking for – hence the appeal of Myspace’s unfocused hyperactivity of chat and self-celebration, something I’ve never quite understood myself. It’s entirely possible that Free Realm’s target audience isn’t interested in a cohesive world – they seek only colourful distractions for themselves and their friends. There’ll also be a Facebook-esque website that may be the required heart of the experience – your personal page will auto-update with your recent achievements and newly-formed friendships. So you organise your play on the site, before heading into the game itself to realise it.

Sony’s secondary intended audience is casual adult gamers, of the sort who’ve gravitated to The Sims, Bejewelled and Maple Story (the latter’s 50 million worldwide players being a clear inspiration). The slew of customisation options on offer – you can dress your pet as well as yourself. What Ninja wouldn’t want a Ninja dog too? – certainly make this goal a realistic one, but the general air of cuteness will likely keep more seasoned gamers away. It is, however, a game you or I could play with our children, should we have them. As well as this constant parade of distractions, it’s also something of a training ground for gaming – the combat jobs offer a diluted, approachable take on the questing, fighting and grouping of World of Warcraft, the racing is pure Mario Kart, and throughout there’s the resource management necessary to master RPGs and RTSes.

It’ll certainly entertain your kid’s eyes, brain and hands, but it’s probably guaranteeing it a gaming future. For some parents, that’s still an uncomfortable prospect: should their young child being playing soccer on a monitor instead of in the garden? That’s a moral conundrum that stretches far past Free Realms, of course, and rather is a difficult decision this entire generation will doubtless have to face over the coming years (note to self – ‘do you want your child to grow up a gamer?’ is probably a good feature idea).

Fears of a paedophile invasion, meanwhile, are allayed by smartly limited communication options – as in Disney’s Toontown, conversation is restricted to gestures and canned phrases, so bad’uns won’t be able to lure personal information out of young players. If you’re over the age of 13, you can opt out of ‘Safe Chat’ and have proper conversations, but any messages you send to anyone with Safe Chat enabled won’t be received. It seems like a pretty decent compromise, so long as kids aren’t frustrated by the inability to natter at length with each other.

The whole thing is indeed free – hence the title – but there will be a subscription option, which’ll unlock new extra stuff. Plus there are micropayment items, abilities and pets. Plus there are in-game adverts and sponsored items (a Best Buy texture for your pet, for instance). Plus there’s a real-world trading card game, with rarer cards unlocking in-game loot. Plus there’s a spin-off comic.

While Free Realms does seem extremely slick, well-presented and undeniably entertaining for kids, it’s this long list of ways to eke money out of children that alarms me. Sony are adamant there’s plenty to keep non-paying players happy, but from a distance I’m concerned children are going to constantly be seeing stuff they don’t have, and can only have by spending yet more cash. Of course, spening is at the parent’s discretion (presuming the kid doesn’t manage to nick their credit card), but there’s a definite Gotta Catch ‘Em All plan behind this. It’s direct marketing to children, and that’ll always be a thorny issue.

Hopefully this won’t be a problem: perhaps the free stuff’ll be a busy enough playground that its players will simply be too preoccupied with the good stuff they can access out of the gate to worry about extra goodies with a pricetag. It’s very clearly a huge project for SOE though – this is no cheaply-made, throwaway project, but rather a calculated, heavily thought-out attempt to kick the free-with-micropayments MMO model up a notch, most especially in the West.

With the traditional, subscriber model looking less than healthy after last year’s raft of closures and apocalyptic subscribers crashes, free to play is one possible future we can expect to hear a lot of this year. Free Realms is undoubtedly going to be one of the bigger-budget offerings, and so long as the breadth of its many ambitions don’t result in a diluted overall experience, there’s absolutely no reason why it can’t go massive.

Free Realms enters beta in a few weeks – more news soon.

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31 Comments »

  1. Pags says:

    I approve of the Hudsucker Proxy reference. Grossly underrated, even if it was a bit sappy.

    Gotta say that this almost seems too specifically geared towards kids and casual gamers. They’ve thrown in practically every gaming zeitgeist they can think of and then painted it in a bright new colour. Now, I don’t have that much faith left in people but I’m pretty sure even the most casual of gamers will see how entirely calculated the whole thing is.

  2. phil says:

    The look of the game, well, the waving man and cow specifically, reminds me a bit of those strange early CGI educational TV shows that the BBC churned out at four in the morning.

    I wonder if I could get on Dragons’ Den to pitch a educational MMO, aimed at ten year olds but marketed to parents, where the players slay drug dealers by cooperatively completing progressively more difficult quadratic equations.

  3. Markoff Chaney says:

    Another game to pass along to the God Sons. Thanks RPS! :)

  4. cyrenic says:

    Whatever that thing is in the first screenshot (disproportionate man fairy?), it’s far scarier than anything in say, Left 4 Dead. Good to see they’re incorporating horror elements into the game as well.

  5. phuzz says:

    If I end up having kids they will be forced to play L4D all the time until they can kill a zombie with one shot from 100 paces.

    Kids are supposed to be useful right?

  6. Daedren says:

    I have 2 kids already. They’re pretty young, but I think zombie genocide training should start early. I have a girl and a boy, so I guess I need to have another boy to fill out the Survivor team.

    I wonder if anyone is crazy enough about L4D to name their kids after the characters? Hi, these are my sons, Louis, William and Francis. Oh, and here’s my little girl, Zoey.

    I’m so going for name changes.

  7. Ginger Yellow says:

    If WoW had Mario Kart gameplay it might be fun.

  8. WoW Guides says:

    I heard they might be offering this on the ps3 as well. Will be interesting to see some mmo’s hit the consoles and how the “console gamer” will respond.

  9. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    @WoW Guides:

    I’m pretty sure they’ll complain about the score it gets.

  10. Xercies says:

    I hate when games are plastered for kids, when I was young I played Prince of Persia(the original), Secret of Monkey Island, and everything else in between. Ah I hate consumerism telling people what kids can play.

  11. The_B says:

    @WoW Guides:

    Final Fantasy Online is on the consoles already, don’t forget.

  12. BooleanBob says:

    Maple Story does not have fifty million world-wide players. I’m sorry to flat-out contradict, but that’s impossible. It is an unmerciful grind of outrageously unfun proportions, and the cute pixel art/anime aesthetic manages to mask that ugly truth for about five minutes. Even the somewhat dedicated (I’ll put myself in that camp, as I managed to get as far as classes and skills – an utterly thankless task that is realised after about ten hours of play).

    So while fifty million people might have been interested enough in the artwork and the price-point to download the client and register an account, to throw the number out – even parenthetically – in an effort to lazily support some ascribed notion of Sony’s intentions is not on. Because it simply cannot reflect reality in any sane world. Such, at least is my belief and my contention.

    That aside, the article made for interesting reading. I personally don’t think that trying to make money from kids is some kind of sin – you yourself used the fairground analogy, and do we consider the people selling candyfloss or enormous cuddly toys at Disneyworld morally repugnant? Of course, it doesn’t hold: a world like this designed for extended exposure will have a far longer window in which to try to get its fingers into the kid’s pockets. Um. For – for their pocket money, I mean.

    You know what, I’m just going to shut down this entire thought process.

  13. BooleanBob says:

    Ahem. Even for the somewhat dedicated. Punctuation errors abound besides; those I am helpless to correct. My sincerest apologies, guys. I made some mistakes on the internet and I have too much ego to simply walk away.

  14. Nuyan says:

    At one hand, I do think it’s nice to have a big virtual world that is very accessible to kids and where kids from all over the world can connect with each other.

    At the other hand, I think it’s friggin’ scary to have young kids playing some sort of EverQuest for children and Sony trying to get them addicted to those grinding mechanics already so they can go on to other MMOs afterwards.

    There are so many young people that wasted a few years in their life on EQ, WoW etc. As a parent I would be very very careful with letting my kids enter a world like Free Realms.

  15. Noc says:

    In the sense that Nuyan’s brought up, maybe the lack of a clear, progression-based game is intentional? Providing a world with a lot of stuff to do that keeps its players by virtue of being able to consistently entertain them is a much healthier model than a world with a set of goals that players need to invest time into to reach.

    It might even be a more effective model for a micropaymently service, as well, since with a subscription-free model Sony’s income from the game isn’t directly proportional to how long they can keep people playing. Instead, the income from micropayments is related to how hungry the players are for new shiny bits with which to entertain themselves, which in turn is related to how well Sony can continue to turn out shiny and entertaining things.

  16. Barky says:

    I wonder whether kids will go for the sugar-coated fantasy look. I reckon that they might want something more down to Earth.

  17. Nick says:

    So.. they are doing subscription AND micropayments AND in game advertising AND trading card game… I thought free games were generally supported by only one of those options.. That said they recently added micropayments to EQ which isn’t free, much to the annoyance of everyone playing it after it had previously been stated they never would.

  18. heartless_ says:

    @BooleanBob

    I hear and agree with you.

    However, Maple Story is making money hand over fist, so some of the 50 million that have signed up are paying to play.

  19. Anthony Damiani says:

    You know, marketing to children is the one area in the western market where I think a micropay model will be the best way to go: kids don’t have credit cards, and trying to explain to Mom and Dad that you want a $15/month subscription is probably a pain. They can, however, beg them into buying small things on a fairly consistent basis.

  20. Moorkh says:

    Hmmm… calculated commercial indoctrination for kids….

    …yay, if’ll hook the next generation on PC games, I’m all for it! :)

  21. Larington says:

    Theres something about this game I find distinctly unsettling, mostly the whole microtransactions thing being setup with pester power in mind (Least thats the assumption any casual observer will make).

  22. malkav11 says:

    If Sony can produce a free MMO that isn’t like mainlining pure grind – EVERY free MMO I’ve tried has been, Dungeon Runners included – they might be on to something.

    And as I play EQII, my belief that they could pull a thing like that off increases.

  23. malkav11 says:

    Also: if I were to have kids, I would absolutely want them to be gamers. Nothing ever got done kicking a ball around.

    (And very little gets done playing videogames, I know, I know, but the better games are a far more enriching experience than -shudder- sports.)

    The thing that I might not want them to get into is MMOs. They have a high addiction potential, the better ones have an ongoing cost, and they can easily suck up every bit of free time available. I know this all too well. Mind you, I wouldn’t be against them getting into MMOs around the stage of life I’m at – done with college, working full-time – but before then? Eh. Potential for interference with schoolwork and chores = high.

  24. Raff says:

    I wonder if SoE will ever make a game that isn’t mind-bogglingly devoid of good art direction. All their games are so ugly, it’s incredible!

  25. Weylund says:

    Today, all kids are destined to be gamers, except the weirdos. (Take THAT, 80s!)

    The only question is, then: which games will I allow my child to build a fondness for? Strategy? RTS? Side scrollers? Insipid MMOs?

    And for the parents making that last choice, we have a new gateway drug. Stand aside, Toontown! Go back to your hardc0r3 gamers living in pup tents in their parents’ basements, WoW! It now is, in the present and contemporarily: Free Realms.

    Neat. I’m not gonna let my kids anywhere near it. I’ll have ‘em play friggin’ Platoon (remember, the one with the booby traps in the huts? Yay!) before I let them play an MMO from SOE. My seven-year-old has described a preference for Conan, and it will be HAD.

  26. James T says:

    I approve of the Hudsucker Proxy reference. Grossly underrated, even if it was a bit sappy.

    Too stylised to be sappy, I say. Excellent movie. The MMO, I don’t care about so much.

    …This MMO, that is. A Hudsucker MMO would be… novel.

  27. N says:

    For the love of whatever, any child that plays this will probably morph into a drooling ball of yarn within the month, a kid is safer on afghan weed than this kind of shit…

  28. Bret says:

    So, what would the classes be in a Hudsucker MMO?

    I’m thinking evil janitor, naive mailboy turned CEO, clock operator, snappy fifties reporter dame, elevator operator, and Bruce Campbell.

  29. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    While Free Realms does seem extremely slick, well-presented and undeniably entertaining for kids, it’s this long list of ways to eke money out of children that alarms me.

    Exactly.

    Now I know you go on to ameliorate this, but the increasing presence of commericalising and marketing in society isn’t exactly a good thing (in my opinion). We are being exposed to and hence influenced by unwanted and unsought-for information more and more. That, and I wouldn’t ever let any young children of mine play an MMO anyway. There’ll be enough time for that later on in their lives if they so choose.

    I’m not against games target at the younger audience per sé, though.

  30. Antonius says:

    @ Bret: Mwahahhahahaha!!!!
    I would happily pay a sub and play any god-awful game if it had a Bruce Campbell class….
    Imagine the class mechanics:
    All Taunts would be Evil Dead Quotes;
    Melee would be a Chainsaw Arm and Ranged WOULD BE MY BOOMSTICK!!!!!!

  31. Wow Cataclysm says:

    Things have changed so much

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