SAN FRANCISCO--GDC 2009 is well underway, and many game publishers are taking advantage of how all these game press guys (like us) seem to be in town by showing off their upcoming games. One such game company is Sony Online Entertainment, and the game it's showing is the PC version of Free Realms, its free-to-play massively multiplayer game intended primarily for young adventurers ages 10-14. We sat down for an in-depth demonstration of the game and have new details to report.
With Free Realms, SOE seeks to create an accessible and safe massively multiplayer experience for youngsters who may be intrigued by the likes of Harry Potter and World of Warcraft, but may not be completely ready for the wild and woolly world of getting squashed flat by tough monsters (or other surly players in competitive player-versus-player battles). As such, the game is being built with numerous safety features, such as the ability for parents to set play allowance and playtime limits on their children's sessions, as well as alternate chat channels. Users ages 14 and upwill be able to freely chat with other players in the game, while users below the age of 14 will instead use a limited, emote-based chat prepopulated with animation-plus-text messages like "Thank you" and "Sorry." In addition, though there will be players-versus-environment battles against computer-controlled monsters, and even player-versus-player battles between players, all of it will require players to consciously opt in. You can't be ambushed and killed off out of the blue, and even if your characters do get defeated in battle, they'll just get "knocked out" by falling to the ground briefly with a few circling stars floating over their heads until they regain their senses.
Though Free Realms will have experience levels, merchants, and quests, it will have a much more freeform character development system. You'll be able to select your character's profession(s) simply by talking to a trainer, and while some professions, like the warrior, wizard, and ninja, will have powerful combat abilities, there will be other professions that tie into Free Realms' minigames, such as racecar driver (for the game's racing minigame) and demolition derby driver (for the game's car combat minigame), along with "just for fun" professions, like mail carrier.
We saw a few examples of these different activities in action today, such as the racing minigame, which resembles an easy-to-pick up version of Nintendo's Mario Kart games, except with floatier physics and different vehicles (Free Realms takes place in a world with some technology, so the racing vehicles are colorful jalopies, not karts). We also had a chance to see combat in action in a combat zone, a dark, foreboding forest full of hostile spiders. The gateway to the forest was blocked by a giant spiderweb, and hovering our mousepointer over the spiderweb turned the cursor into an icon labelled with crossed swords to indicate a combat zone. As we mentioned, combat will be completely avoidable--you can spend all your time gainfully crafting or playing minigames (which include the aforementied racing and demoliton derby minigames, as well as puzzle games, such as a standard Puzzle Quest-like "match 3" puzzle). However, if you opt in, you'll fight your enemies in real-time by repeatedly clicking your mouse to strike your enemies, while using one or two other special abilities that you can set to hotkey shortcuts.
Free Realms seems like it should definitely provide a safe and child-friendly experience in a colorful, whimsical fantasy world. The game will be moving to advanced stages of beta in the coming months and will launch later this year.