If you're looking for the next big thing in massively multiplayer gaming - we mean really big; multiple millions of players big - look no further. Sony Online Entertainment's Free Realms, a free-to-play, modern-fantasy, mini-game-heavy MMO for PC and later PS3, aimed at kids, is that game. It's the slickest, cleverest prospect due out in the next year - including the increasingly impressive Warhammer Online - with the broadest appeal. It is ruthlessly engineered for success, and it's going to be huge.
Free Realms is, of course, a slightly disingenuous name. Mostly Free Realms Plus Some Cheap Ones would be more accurate. Although it covers just about every business model going - including advertising when launching from its website, and some microtransaction options tying into items and its in-built card game - the main way Free Realms will make money is through an optional five-dollars-a-month subscription charge. This will grant access to large chunks of members-only content - around 40 per cent of the game, says lead designer Laralyn McWilliams - as well as a few other benefits, like three character slots as opposed to the free game's one.
The only reason you'll want to create extra characters is for a cosmetic change (there will be two races at launch, human and pixie, and more later), because you can level up all of the game's classes on a single character, switching roles at will depending what you want to do. We see 12 listed in the clean, colourful, Sims-style interface, and they cover traditional RPG combat roles and crafting professions, but also, intriguingly, the exploration and social sides of the game: blacksmith, warrior, archer, brawler, adventurer, ninja, medic, wizard, treasure hunter, miner, explorer. And postman. Yes.
Blacksmiths will play Flash-style mini-games to create swords, while explorers might level up by finding the routes to mountaintop flags in a system reminiscent of the agility orbs in Crackdown. Non-combat classes can level up all the way without ever fighting anything. Each class comes with its own customisable outfit, and a limited set of skills, which are levelled up independently by collecting stars, contributing to your overall level. There are only five levels per class - McWilliams estimates that's two weeks to a month of play - although you can then specialise, taking your specialist class from level 6 to 10.
McWilliams describes it as "more varied and more shallow" than the traditional MMO experience, with the gameplay focus being on class completism instead. "Kids like variety," she says simply; then variety they shall get. The game has four spheres of activity: adventure (combat and exploration, including some consensual player-versus-player play), mini-games (including racing games, co-op music games and Puzzle Quest-style puzzle RPGs), simulation (pets and housing) and socialisation.
SOE is shooting for a 50/50 audience of girls and boys - an ambitious aim, even in the generally more female-friendly world of social online games. The simulation side to the game is perhaps Free Realms' clearest bid for the blossoming girls' market - especially the pets. The pets are completely autonomous, with their own AI personalities, and although they can't be given commands, they can be encouraged and discouraged from certain activities. They won't be allowed into combat, but they might well prove useful in the exploration and treasure-hunting gameplay.
McWilliams describes the pets as being "like taking a Nintendog into the game with you". It's a hugely appealing prospect to those targeted girls, and, frankly, to just about anyone, if the pet behaviour is convincing and entertaining enough. We can see this feature being copied in many more supposedly grown-up MMOs.
Combat exists only within instanced mini-game areas, clearly marked with Disneyland-style barriers - Free Realms has no shame whatsoever about following the "theme park" model of MMO design. The combat works on a simple point-and-click control scheme at the moment, but it's been designed with the PS3's pad in mind too. Combat missions for groups give every player the same loot, to prevent tears before bedtime, and - oh sweet, sweet relief - your inventory is of unlimited size.
It all makes such devastatingly perfect sense. Of course it will only work if the myriad gameplay formats are fun - and Free Realms, being what it is, can only work if they all are, it can't be supported by solid combat alone. The game is so well thought-out and note-perfect in its presentation, it's hard to imagine they won't be. Even the art is exactly right, mixing equal parts Shrek, World of Warcraft and Nickelodeon, and there's some impish Pixar humour for Mum and Dad that exploits its somewhat bizarre mash-up of the fantastic and the humdrum - Yetis that steal cable TV, for example.
The graphics are solid, colourful, simple enough to run on anything, and the game already exudes a deep, confident polish that few MMOs outside of Blizzard's have ever matched. We see some undeniably cool costumes and creature designs, but the avatars have a rather forgettable, conformist, white-bread appearance that might not give enough room for self-expression, and the environments are a little too clichéd to inspire much curiosity.
That's the only thing that can go wrong with Free Realms: the game will be thoroughly focused-grouped and target-marketed into a characterless, calculating and cold mush. McWilliams herself admits it, saying that it's very easy with a project like this to design out all the interest and end up with something bland. She thinks the SOE team has avoided it. We're not sure yet, but we'll be watching this one very closely indeed to find out.