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Summary:

When it comes to MMOs, freemium worlds for kids are enormously popular and lucrative; for the most part, however, the major game publishers have done little to pursue this market. That changes this month with the launch of Free Realms, a colorful virtual world from Sony […]

free-realmsWhen it comes to MMOs, freemium worlds for kids are enormously popular and lucrative; for the most part, however, the major game publishers have done little to pursue this market. That changes this month with the launch of Free Realms, a colorful virtual world from Sony Online Entertainment. Since this new franchise is targeted at kids, including girls, Sony changed its approach from the ground up. The developer of the Everquest series and other MMORPGs aimed at the 18-34 gamer dude demographic threw out long-held assumptions about what made online worlds appealing, and used market research to learn what kids actually wanted. Turns out that instead of dramatic backstories and complex gameplay, kids want free-form fun and tools for telling their own stories.

Has Sony’s kid-friendly effort succeeded? Based on my first-hand look at the beta version of Free Realms, I’d say yes — at least enough to prove that the big game developers can play in the space. However, I’m not convinced that Free Realms can capture attention away from Habbo, Club Penguin, and other scrappy pioneers in this field just yet. Here’s my take.

The Good

Unlike most kids’ MMOs, which are web-based, Free Realms streams the world to a downloaded client. Still, it’s nicely integrated with the official web site, which gives each player a social network-style profile page; that’ll surely appeal to kids already used to such features on their virtual world or social network of choice. The web-to-world integration also happens in the other direction, most notably with a button that uploads gameplay video footage directly to your YouTube account — a great tool for sharing and telling stories.

Since Free Realms is billed as an open-ended world, I was surprised how easy it is to have a classic MMORPG experience. You can, if you choose, slay monsters, search for treasure, and so on — but it’s also made clear in the orientation stage that you can jump between entirely different experiences in the game, too. Be a chef who gains achievements by playing a series of cooking-themed mini-games, then go back to bashing monsters if you like (or not.) The result is an interesting and fairly unique mix of fantasy MMORPG gameplay and casual virtual world fun that could appeal to players of existing tween MMOs who want a more involving game experience, as well as to MMORPG gamers who want a lighter alternative to the typical “level grind” they’re used to.

The So-So

Despite its kid-friendly trimmings, Free Realms is a full 3-D game. This is another departure from the established market, because most virtual worlds popular with kids are 2.5D. And since Sony has expressed a desire to make Free Realms appealing to girls (who are embracing virtual worlds in droves), opting for full 3-D seems like a big mistake. In a Georgia Tech study of 13- and 14-year-olds gaming preferences, 70 percent of boys studied opted for a 3-D game, while 70 percent of girls in the study opted for 2-D.

Beyond that, there’s a premeditated quality to Free Realms that could hurt Sony’s chances to create a passionate fanbase; little room seems left for the unique quirks and personality evident in the look and feel of the biggest tween MMOs. Next to the retro videogame graphics of Habbo or the irreverent, anime-flavored Gaia Online, Free Realms seems sleek, generic, and aggressively eager to please.

With millions of users each, the Habbos and Gaias of the industry have a huge head start. If Sony hopes to catch up, it may need to lean a little bit less on its market research, and take more creative risks — giving kids not only what they ask for, but also what they weren’t expecting.

Image courtesy FreeRealms.com.

  1. [...] With the dropping of the NDA on the Free Realms beta, a few MMO players have put up their views and impressions of the game. (Edit: And Terra Nova now has a discussion post about it and Gigaom is in on it too.) [...]

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  2. Great Article. I totally agree about the need to take a little creative risk. What’s so fun about Club Penguin, Gaia etc, is precisely their quirkiness. My girls will love the storytelling/sharing aspects. What I”m wondering is whether Sony is working on any cross-marking initiatives to bring traffic to Free Realms? They have such strong customer relationships (and data) already…

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  3. [...] GigaOM (USA) – Can Sony’s Free Realms Compete With Club Penguin? “When it comes to MMOs, freemium worlds for kids are enormously popular and lucrative; for [...]

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  4. i think free realms can beat club penguin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  5. Free realms ownz all ^^ !

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  6. Just read that Free Realms just hit the 3 million registered player mark as of today! This is quite an awesome accomplishment since the game launched less that 7 weeks ago… Really glad it’s going so well! I’ve been having a blast fighting robogobblins, and the racing your friends online is sweet too. If you haven’t signed up for a free account, you totally should ;)

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  7. [...] developing retail and subscription-based MMORPGs, for example, Sony Online Entertainment last April put out Free Realms, a freemium, casual gamer-friendly title, and was duly rewarded with some 3 million registered [...]

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  8. [...] developing retail and subscription-based MMORPGs, for example, Sony Online Entertainment last April put out Free Realms, a freemium, casual gamer-friendly title, and was duly rewarded with some 3 million registered [...]

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  9. club penguin is sooooooooooooo much better than Free Reals!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    1. we can’t compare club penguin with free realms because they are both different.free realms is platform for gamers who love the 3-d popular today than club penguin the 2-d platform.we can still purchase clothes in free realms but in club penguin they alway’s ask for money to buy a thing.free realms has way bigger area than club penguin and are those who like fun because it hold’s everything racing to combat.

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  10. Here are a few new features Free Realms has added for the summer… Enjoy!

    -Seaside Summer Splash with a treasure hunt that rewards players with Seaside Stickers that can be redeemed for fireworks and other prizes. Also, a TCG scenario that rewards card duelists with the exclusive Star Shot Candle item
    -The Summer Sparkler Bundle is available now for Members only! Members must log in and claim this blue and green sparkler

    Find out more about these cool features here: http://www.freerealms.com/article/detail.action?articleId=136

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