Can Sony's Free Realms Compete With Club Penguin?

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 (s sne). 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.

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