Hiatus...and a milestone
Pretty sneaky, Sis.

Tough crowd


Ask an actor to name the toughest crowd he's faced, and he's likely to say it was a auditorium full of squirrely kids. Children's theater is thespian boot camp. When kids get bored, they don't quietly doze off or check their Blackberrys. They let you know about it. At one performance I attended a few years ago, a boy left his seat, approached the stage, and loudly inquired "When can we leave?" 

Kids are brutally honest, and that makes them an ideal test for writers and performers who need to learn about narrative compression, clarity, projection, and pacing. If you fail to provoke kids' imaginations or hold their attention, you're toast. 

But, if you do manage to engage them, I can tell you from first-hand experience that no on-stage success feels more magical or rewarding. Kids are a tough crowd, but when they love you, they really let you know it.

I mention all this because I've been playing Free Realms during my vacation. Yeah, that's right. Sony's family-friendly, chock-full 'o whimsy MMO adventure game. The one with winged pixies. The one that recently hit 12 million registered users. 

This isn't my first time with Free Realms. I became interested in the game back in '07 after reading about Sony's desire to broaden its demographic (85 percent male and 32 years old at the time) and its decision to hire two women - Laralyn McWilliams (Creative Director) and Rosie Rappaport (Art Director) - to helm the project. I was keen to see what they came up with.

So I played the game shortly after its release last year and found it interesting, but oddly conceived. The interface and art style (and tiresome tutorials) seemed to target MMO newcomers, but its core gameplay and mechanics felt like WoW-Lite - too steep for casuals crossing over; too simple for vets of MMOs. It was hard for me to see the audience for such a game.

I created a character and completed a few tutorials, but the game didn't hook me. My initial impression of Free Realms was World of Warcraft meets Dreamworks with a dash of The Sims...and a cumbersome UI. I wanted to like it, but the launch version of Free Realms spent too much time explaining itself and too little enticing me to play. That was then.

One year later, Free Realms is a vastly improved game. The developers at Sony San Diego were clearly taken to school by their players, and they responded with a series of smart iterations that have opened up the game and transformed the player's experience. Nearly everything has been tweaked, upgraded, or overhauled, including the game's UI, job system, inventory management, guild structure, and combat mechanics, among many other elements.

For example, the "starter zone" has disappeared. Now a new player can create a customized character, enter the world, and wander freely. No more "Do this, talk to this person" tutorials. An on-screen atlas is available with dozens of destinations to explore immediately with no apparent gates limiting access to any area. When you're ready to try something new, context-sensitive help appears to guide you. 

Free Realms' colorful new UI is the best I've seen for any MMO. It requires a few too many drill-down clicks here and there, but overall it's an incredibly well-designed and intuitive interface that's easy on the eyes. Its flexible navigation system - especially its atlas/mini-map combo - puts WoW's to shame.

I like Free Realms for what it doesn't do. It doesn't force me to choose a single character class. All jobs are open to me, and I can switch among them at any time. It also doesn't force me to fight or kill things. I can cook, forge, mine, or simply exist in the world as an adventurer, applying various skills to different situations. I can be a soccer star, a card dualist, or even a postman. 

The game offers a variety of navigation aids, like a Fable II-style glowing quest path (which can be toggled on or off). After completing a quest, I can choose "Take Me There" and the game will steer me to the quest-giver automatically. I can also walk there myself or teleport if it's far away. These are little things, I realize, but they're thoughtful options that suggest a design that has evolved to accommodate a range of play styles.

Not all the iterations are about making the game easier. The action combat system has received a big makeover, adding more nuanced weapons, passive skills, and tougher monsters. Free Realms will never match WoW's battle feature set, but there's plenty here for players who want to play as an Archer, Brawler, Medic, Ninja, Warrior, or Wizard.

The game even boasts a robust trading card game you can play virtually in-game or IRL with physical cards. I've spent less than an hour playing it, but what I've seen looks fun, with familiar tasks like building decks, posting trades and battling with other players.

My favorite bit of iteration in Free Realms is the Game Guide, which now appears in the game dock at the bottom of the screen. Choose it, and up pops a map full of activities occurring throughout the world. Job-related activities like Fishing, Forging, and Battles appear - as well as a wide assortment of mini-games like Tower Defense, Kart Racing, Chess, and dozens of casual Flash-type games.

I'm admittedly less interested in Free Realms as a game (though I continue to enjoy playing it) than in the many ways it illustrates responsive iteration and clever, user-friendly design. In a recent piece she wrote for Game Developer Magazine (April '10), Laralyn McWilliams discusses the challenges she and her team faced creating a casual virtual world within a culture steeped in traditional MMO development:

SOE is a flagship studio for MMO development. Everquest is going into its 11th year as a live service. We have an unprecedented depth of experience in online world design and development. That’s also a lot of history and habit to overcome when you try to make something new. Even with a huge amount of team enthusiasm for the concept, phenomenal support from the entire company, our seasoned leads and directors, we struggled as a company to overcome all our ideas and preconceptions about the way an online game “has to work.”

She goes on to discuss the lessons they learned and the balance they've tried to strike between depth and accessibility in Free Realms. And while I'm recommending reading, I'll also point you to a terrific interview with Rosie Rappaport in which she discusses her visual concept for the game.

I encourage you to give Free Realms a look. Even if it's not your cup of tea, I think you'll find it's full of ideas - some big, some small - about what an MMO is, how it works, and whom it's for.