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Y'know, For Kids: Thoughts On Free Realms

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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