Family-friendly casual MMO Free Realms makes its PlayStation 3 debut today, two years after the launch of its PC predecessor. Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley tells us what took so long, and says his game might be better for builders than indie sensation MineCraft.
When I first saw Free Realms way back at E3 2008, I was sure Sony Online Entertainment had something special on its hands. Aimed at parents and their children, the game had a captivating colourful cartoon look, a dozen character jobs to master, purely optional combat, and an engine that would allow new enticing mini-games to be added on a regular basis.
It also had a lovely price point. Playing the game is completely free. A player can log in, play all of the games (to a certain point), and see most of what the world has to offer without paying a dime. The game's income comes from players that subscribe and items purchased for real money in the in-game store. Even the subscription prices are reasonable: $US4.99 a month, or $US34.99 for a lifetime membership.
And it was coming to the PC and PlayStation 3!
But following the April 2009 launch of the PC version, SOE was quiet about the PlayStation 3 version. Months went by. Years went by. It wasn't until last month that SOE finally announced the game was coming to the PlayStation 3 today.
So what took so long?
"It was complicated because Free Realms is inherently a streaming title," Smedley explains. On the PC, players simply log into the game's website, hit the launch button, and they're nearly instantly in the game, with content streaming as they explore. "There's memory constraints on the PS3 that we had to work within."
Aside from the purely technical aspects of Free Realms' console development, there were other issues to hurdle. The team had to create a user interface that works with the PlayStation 3 controller. They needed to integrate voice chat, a feature easily turned on and off via the game's parental controls.
"We had to make sure it's a true PS3 game."
The PlayStation 3 version of the game will function similarly to the PC version. Exceptions include Vivox voice chat, a feature that could move to the PC version if it works out on the console, and the fact that the in-game store is tied to the PlayStation Store, rather than SOE's own online shop.
The console version is currently lagging behind the PC version in terms of updates by about three months, as SOE had to spend some time making it through the PlayStation 3 submission process. "Now we'll be able to do updates a lot quicker, so we intend to be catching up," Smedley tells me.
As it stands, all of the major content added to the game since the PC launch is there, including rides, pirates, the soccer mini-game, and player-created content driven housing, a feature Smedley compares to one of the biggest independent games of the past year, Mojang's MineCraft.
"We've had some crazy people building houses that put MineCraft users to shame," Smedley tells me, "And I say that loving MineCraft."
I'm shocked. I stopped playing Free Realms before housing came into play, and when it did I expected it to be a selection of pre-made buildings you could decorate. Apparently I was mistaken.
"It's the highest engagement, people are spending so much time in housing," Smedley says, suggesting I take a look on YouTube for 'Free Realms housing.'
I do so, and I'm pretty impressed.
"I'm not joking about MineCraft, I'm really not," Smedley insists. "People can build with blocks, just like in MineCraft, only it's a little less tedious. People have built Notre Dame, some other churches, spaceships, and all sorts of crazy stuff."
SOE recently added housing ratings, allowing players to rate each other's creations, adding to the social aspect of the game. Apparently housing is a big focus, and the PlayStation 3 version of the game is virgin territory for hopeful builders.
But isn't this only a game for kids?
Smedley says people look at the cartoony graphics and assume it's a game for kids, but there are plenty of parents playing with their children, as well as older folks that find Free Realms' relaxed atmosphere a welcome change from the MMO grind.
"To me, it's relaxing in a way that other MMOs aren't. You login and you're not feeling like you have to go do something," says Smedley. There are parties to attend, mini-games to conquer, houses to explore, and so much more.
It's aimed at families, but with millions of players actively exploring the Free Realms world, I'm sure there's room for a few older MineCraft players to give it a shot.
To play the PC version of Free Realms, hit up the game's official website. For the PlayStation 3 version, look for it to show up on the PlayStation Network as a free download today.