I'm not sure if it is a good thing that the best MMO at E3 2008 could be a game aimed at 9-14 year-olds, but I am sure that Sony Online Entertainment's Free Realms is a very good thing indeed. There are plenty of free MMOs aimed at the kid market out there, but they all tend to share certain bad traits. Shoddy graphics, poor-quality interfaces, and an overall lack of polish. SOE is taking the social children's game concept, applying a World of Warcraft level of polish, packing it with personality and mini-games, and unleashing it upon the computing family for free. They are going to tear the kid's MMO sector apart.
Installing Free Realms will be simple enough that even the most clueless parent can do it. Prospective players will go to the web page, sign up for an account, and begin to customise their character while the client downloads directly from the game's site. Once completed, players will be able to launch the game directly from a MySpace-like profile page, complete with lists of their online friends and news about the latest game updates.
Perhaps the most parent and child friendly thing about Free Realms? Despite the high level of polish, the game will run smoothly on a GeForce 3. I am pretty sure my toaster comes stock with a GeForce 3. Even the crappiest laptop equipped with onboard graphics will be able to run the game...a definite plus.
At its heart, Free Realms is really a community games portal with a colourful candy shell. It isn't all about leveling, though you can certainly fight monsters solo or with up to three friends to your heart's content. You can also participate in a wide variety of 2D and 3D mini-games, or play the built-in collectible card game. I was shown a factory you could wander into where a fairy asks you to help construct mining belts, launching a Diner Dash-type 2D mini-game. Nifty!
They've got an API in place that will allow them to add mini-games into the game quickly - in fact, when first logging into the game you are presented with a pop-up window that shows friend status and new mini-games added, allowing you to click to either join your pals or check out the new content right away.
I'd feel a bit silly calling a family MMO experience one of the games of the show if not for the fact that so many of my fellow writers seem to agree with me. Every time I mention the game to other press folks who've seen it their eyes light up with excitement. Several have said that they would play the game themselves despite the obvious kiddie/family target audience. When you show jaded members of the gaming press a kid's game that sparks this much interest, you're on to something special.
I leave you with a feature list, directly from the official E3 fact sheet.
Experience a vibrant new world that's an exciting mix of real-world and fantasy.
Be a wizard one day, and a warrior the next, without having to make a new character.
Join your friends in the game and adventure with them, wherever they are, no matter how long they have been playing.
When you're ready for some excitement, head out to the wilderness and battle challenging enemies like giant spiders and forest trolls in fast-paced, strategic battlegrounds.
Cooperate with or compete against other players in battle!
Explore, quest, and collect items that you can wear, use or display.
Play a wide variety of mini-games to craft armour, weapons, potions, clothes, furniture, and many other items.
Grab a root beer at the inn and hang out with your friends while a rock band plays on the stage.
Interact with humorous, unique characters, become their friends and receive emails from them!
Raise a dog or cat and teach it to be the kind of pet you want—shy, brave, or funny.
Decorate your own house and grow a variety of plants and flowers.
Send links, share images and videos, and chat with friends from your own, personal, customisable social networking page!