Family MMO Free Realms takes shape

Form rock bands, trade cards, train pets.

In his keynote at the ION 08 online games development conference, Sony Online Entertainment chief John Smedley has explained a lot more about the developer's forthcoming, free, family-oriented MMO, Free Realms. Massively was at the presentation and has all the details.

Free Realms is a "whimsical fantasy adventure game" aimed at 9 to 14-year-old kids and their families. Combat won't be the focus of the game, but instead will share the limelight with pet raising, housing, and a broad variety of mini-games.

The mini-games will include a trading card game, rhythm-action games, traditional casual games - PopCap-style action-puzzlers, in other words - and sporting activities like football and ice skating. Intriguingly, the puzzle games can be used to build items for use elsewhere in Free Realms.

Even more intriguingly, you'll be able to form a rock band party for participating in the rhythm-action elemets. It sounds like SOE is capitalising on both the success of Rock Band itself, and MMO rhythm games like Audition; very clever, if so.

Trading card packs can be bought digitally online or in the real world (SOE announced yesterday that Free Realms would support real money trading) - and you can also hunt creatures in-game and transform them into cards.

Each activity in the game comes with a bespoke outfit for the player's avatar, which can be swapped and customised at will. This is no doubt another area where microtransactions will be used.

Free Realms will be playable for free, if you can put up with video advertising at login, but Smedley also mentioned a low-cost subscription option - currently at USD 4.99 - complete with family value plans offering five accounts for USD 9.99. Another very interesting business model innovation will share revenue with players who host Free Realms advertising on their blogs and personal sites.

Massively was clearly impressed: the article describes the game's interface as "amazingly beautiful", some of the mini-games as "hilariously entertaining", and talked about "lots of high quality production and amazing customisation", comparing the graphical quality and style to World of Warcraft's. Massively also proffers some titbits on The Agency and murmurs about more EverQuest, so be sure to check the report out.

We reckon the kids-and-families market will be the next major battleground for MMOs, with Free Realms and the mighty LEGO Universe emerging as early heavyweight contenders. It sounds like SOE has put a lot of thought into its entry, and we'll be watching it very closely here at Eurogamer MMO.

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