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July 2010

Blood, and Steel, and Bacon

Deathspank_keyart_paint_sm I'm wrapping up my series of 'infatuated critic' posts on DeathSpank with my latest column over at GameSetWatch. I discuss the evolving role of comedy in games and why I think DeathSpank is worth noting in this regard. In a desperate lunge at objectivity, I also explain why I think the game falls short in a few places. 

Here's a snippet:

As a comedic game, DeathSpank advances the ball down the field in some creative ways, and I'll discuss those in a moment. But I also think DeathSpank exemplifies the conundrum faced by video games that try to be funny. We can illustrate that tension with two apparently contradictory claims:

Claim 1: Video games are well-suited to making us laugh. Like a well-crafted game, a successful comedy is highly technical, based on a set of clearly-defined rules, and carefully engineered to trigger a calculated response. It relies on the precise execution of a final build, fine-tuned through iteration and feedback.

Comedy, as Henri Bergson observes in his seminal "Theory of Laughter," is "something mechanical encrusted on the living." One could easily apply the same phrase to describe games. Game developers understand how to build complex systems for interactive communication, and that's exactly what a successful comedy is. Comedy is aimed at the intellect, and gamers are smart. We can do this!

Claim 2: Video games are hopeless vehicles for comedy. They may manage to deliver wordplay and 'wackiness,' but desperately trying to 'be funny' usually results in an outmoded brand of one-liner comedy that died with the Borscht Belt. Furthermore, player agency in an interactive world (a defining feature of modern games) is mostly antithetical to comedy.

When choice, pace, and timing are handed off to the player, the potential for comedy dissipates. We may play an interactive role watching a live stand-up comic, but we don't write the punchlines; nor do we decide when to deliver them. In the same Bergson essay referenced above, he describes comedy as a "social gesture." Nearly all the 'funny' games we've seen are single-player affairs, lacking the spontaneous group-mind formed when we experience comedy in other media. We're out of our league!

You can read the whole essay here.

Arab shooting gallery


I've never been terribly concerned about the popularity of FPS war games. I'm not personally drawn to shooters (mainly because I'm lousy at them), but I'm not convinced they're ruining our kids or pushing other sorts of games off the shelves. 

I do sometimes worry, as Leigh Alexander suggests, that countless hours dying and respawning on virtual battlefields are inuring us to the harsh realities of war. But I'm more persuaded by Roger Travis' contention that our fascination with armed confict is nothing new. "War-games...trivialize the human experience of war. They always have, just as the Iliad trivialized war into something ancient feasters could listen to while they ate."

A new game arrives today that forces me to question my detached view of FPS war games. It's called Heavy Fire: Special Operations, and it's an on-rails shooter for WiiWare by Polish developer Teyon. Before reading any further, you should probably watch this clip:

Set in "exotic environments of the Middle East," the game encourages players to:

"Grab your Wii Remote™ or Wii Zapper™ and take out enemies...using your light-gun from the ground, armored car or helicopter. You will need a quick trigger-finger to...restore the balance of the terrorized Middle East region. Get additional points for smashing the environment."

Killing a minimum of 4 enemies quickly, one by one, earns you the "Uncle Sam Would Be Proud" bonus.

Teyon may choose to call Heavy Fire an "Explosive Arcade Experience on WiiWare!", but a more apt description would be "Arab shooting gallery." Whatever narrative or thematic values we may find in games like Call of Duty 4, however meager, are jettisoned in Heavy Fire. This game puts a gun in your hands and a collar around your neck; then it locomotes you from one terrorist-infested location to the next, always directing your attention to the next target.

Your job is simple: kill or blow up as many Arabs as you can. The game rewards efficiency. Pay attention. Where will that nasty Arab pop up next? Look! There he is! Shoot!! How many can you kill? It's Duck Hunt in the desert.

Heavy Fire: Special Operations is atrocious. Nintendo should be ashamed for approving it as a WiiWare title. It crosses the line, not merely because it eliminates any semblance or illusion of player choice, responsibility, or contextual behavior. Heavy Fire turns a painful and bloody contemporary conflict - June was the deadliest month of the 9-year war in Afganistan - into the setting for an arcade shooter. It makes killing hordes of dark-skinned foreigners feel like a carnival ride. It's despicable.

Depictions of Muslims and Arabs in games (and other media) continue to reinforce stereotypes and simplistic ideas of a hostile Other. If you're interested in a thoughtful essay on the ways Muslims and Arabs are represented, and represent themselves, in video games, I highly recommend Vit Sisler's Digital Arabs, originally published in the European Journal of Cultural Studies


Happy-camper-plate My long-promised essay on DeathSpank is finished. I decided to use it for my monthly GameSetWatch column, so when it appears there I'll let you know. Our discussion here about comedy in games was quite useful to me, and I incorporated a few of those thoughts into the new piece. So, thanks.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about the splendid world of games recently and wondering if others find themselves in a similar state of euphoria. The short story is this: I'm swimming in terrific games - so much so that I've begun to question myself a bit. Have my standards fallen? Am I a sucker for the latest shiny thing? If I wave my flag for too many games, do I risk compromising my critical credentials?

I'm looking at a pile (real and virtual) of games I've played recently, and I can't think of a time when I've felt more satisfied as a gamer. Here's a list of games - limited to summer releases- all of which I've enjoyed. I don't claim all are masterpieces (in fact, some contain serious flaws), but each is a high-quality game I found great pleasure playing. By the way, I can't claim to have finished all these games. I do have a life, folks. :-)

  • Blur (multi)
  • DeathSpank (multi)
  • Dragon Quest IX (DS)
  • Joe Danger (PS3)
  • Kometen (iPhone)
  • Limbo (360)
  • ModNation Racers (pending forthcoming load-time patch) (PS3)
  • Monkey Island 2: Special Edition (multi)
  • Out of the Park Baseball 11 (PC)
  • Persona 3 Portable (PSP)
  • Red Dead Redemption (multi)
  • rRootage (iPhone)
  • Sin & Punishment: Star Successor (Wii)
  • Super Mario Crossover (PC)
  • Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)
  • Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11 (Wii)
  • Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition (360)

I'm also waiting for an unheralded downloadable indie browser game called StarCraft II, which may turn out to be worth a look. I'll let you know.

We used to think of summer as a dry spell for games, but, increasingly, interesting and ambitious games appear throughout the year. With the usual spate of release delays accounted for, we can no longer point to a specific period on the calendar as prime time for new games. In fact, I'd say this summer makes last year's holiday season (typically the ideal release window) look like the dry season.

I fear I sound like Dr. "best of all possible worlds" Pangloss, when I say it, but video games are making me very happy these days. Is this Arcadia, or am I living in a fool's paradise?

In the soup

Mrs. Teasdale: As chairwoman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms.
Firefly: Is that so? How late do you stay open?

Duck_soup In my last post I promised to write about DeathSpank as a comedy, and that's precisely what I planned to do when I sat down to write this. I soon realized, however, that I need to do a little more table-setting before moving on, if only for myself. I'm one of those teachers who believes writing is a form of thinking, and I suppose that's what I'm up to here. Hope you'll bear with me.

I'm interested in comedy as a system, and I think we can turn to useful examples in other media that illustrate how such systems work. I don't reference films here as often as I used to, partly because of the apples and oranges argument, but also because I worry the game industry's infatuation with film limits the potential of games to chart their own course. 

In this case, though, looking back at a film made during a transitional period makes sense to me. Besides, do we really need an excuse to watch five minutes of Duck Soup? Of course not, so here we go. 

Would you kindly watch this brief scene from the Marx Bros.' Duck Soup (1933, dir. Leo McCarey)? It could be the best five minutes you'll spend all day.

Within months of the advent of talkies, Paramount Pictures signed the Marx Bros. to an exclusive contract and quickly released two films based on their Broadway hits: The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. These films showcased the Marx Bros. signature anarchy, but both were primitively shot by pedestrian directors, and both look like what they essentially are: filmed stage productions.

In 1932 Paramount assigned Leo McCarey to direct what would be the Marx Bros. last film for Paramount: Duck Soup. McCarey was a veteran filmmaker from the Hal Roach studio where he first teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy and helped shape their film personas. 

McCarey understood that Duck Soup's screenplay, which skewered fascism, jingoism, and warmongering, required more than a collection of vaudeville-style routines. Duck Soup needed the language of film to fully deliver its comedic payload. Fortunately, according to Marx Bros. biographer Joe Adamson, "McCarey was the only man on earth who could teach the Marx Brothers a lesson and come out of it with his life."[1]

McCarey also understood that the Marx Bros.' brand of raucous comedy required filmic mechanisms that could amplify their humor without squelching it. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico could be counted on to do what they did best: Groucho the sardonic wit; Harpo the silent man-child; Chico the (sometimes crude) ethnic. Duck Soup's famous mirror scene and lemonade vendor's hat routine (pure comic brilliance) are drawn directly from the Marx Bros. vaudeville days. 

The Marx Bros. may have been comic geniuses, but it may not always be possible to cut and paste such genius from one medium to another. Duck Soup transcends the Marx Bros. previous work because its comedy functions systematically within the film. 

Cross-cutting for comedic effect (Groucho asleep in his bedroom while his grand entrance is heralded below); lavish faux production numbers, expertly edited and shot with a fluid camera; close-ups and 4th-wall-breaking asides featuring Groucho speaking directly to the camera - all transport the Marx Bros. from verbal-medium theater comedians to visual-medium movie stars. 

The quips and one-liners are still there, but they've been recontextualized and repurposed for an art form that, in 1933, had only recently discovered its voice.

Firefly: [into radio] This is Rufus T. Firefly coming to you through the courtesy of the enemy. We're in a mess folks, we're in a mess. Rush to Freedonia! Three men and one woman are trapped in a building! Send help at once! If you can't send help, send two more women! Make that three more women! 

And so, in McCarey's hands, the Marx Bros. inimitable comedic style is elevated to film poetry. I can think of no better evidence than Duck Soup's final bunker scene in which Groucho randomly appears in five different military uniforms (Union soldier, Confederate general, Boy Scout troop leader, Revolutionary War British general, and a Davy Crockett outfit) as bombs explode all around him. Even the establishing shots shift nonsensically from a WWI-era bunker to a cavalry fort. 

Groucho's wisecracking persona combines with McCarey's continuity-be-damned filmmaking to produce a movie that remains one of Hollywood's most potent diatribes against the madness of war. But more importantly for my purposes, they demonstrate a unified vision of sound-era comedy that filmmakers like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder would soon extend much further.

This is the lesson worth taking. Games have tremendous potential for comedy, but not if we relegate it to 'writing' or 'dialogue' or 'performance.' Interactivity would seem to be a barrier - comics rarely let us write their punchlines - but are we overlooking opportunities that only an interactive medium can afford? What can we learn from comedic games that continue to inspire legions of loyal fans, years after they were released?

Okay, I'm done setting the table. In my next post, I'll suggest how video games can find a unified vision for comedy - a systematic approach that connects all the parts - and I'll try to explain why DeathSpank is such an encouraging step in that direction.

Knock em dead

Marx Brothers (Go West)_02-781336 Today's video games don't do comedy. Sure, there's the revived Sam & Max series and Penny Arcade Adventures. GLaDOS is funny in Portal, and Brucie Kibbutz has some choice lines in GTA IV. Battlefield: Bad Company brings some dark humor, and MadWorld takes it to an unhinged extreme. 

But for a medium that generates so much entertainment content, it's surprising how few modern games can be described as genuine comedies. It wasn't always the case. 

Back in the day - roughly the decade bookended by Duke Nukem ('91) and Conker's Bad Fur Day (2001) - we saw a steady stream of games designed to tickle the funny bone: Crazy Taxi, The Monkey Island series; Day of the Tentacle; Sam and Max Hit the Road; Grim Fandango; Banjo-Kazooie; Crash Bandicoot; Earthworm Jim - the list goes on. 

Before that, of course, Infocom, Sierra and others produced sharp-witted games like Leather Goddesses of Phobos; Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; Leisure Suit Larry; King's Quest; Space Quest; and the Zork series

What happened to all the laughs?

Actors and writers often say comedy is hard, and that's because it honestly is. Comedy is tough because it can only exist as an unwieldy 3-headed beast. Comedy is cerebral, technical, and deeply human. If you don't understand the joke, it's not funny. If the gag isn't perfectly timed or executed, it falls flat. If you don't see yourself in someone else's predicament, the humor leaves you cold. 

Video games can handle the first two with ease, but the third element - the human factor - is where most recent games fail.

It's no coincidence that as next-gen games grew more photorealistic, they also grew less funny. The uncanny valley is nobody's friend, but it's an especially harsh environment for comedy. We can create amazingly detailed worlds populated by characters who walk and talk and ride horses fairly convincingly; but despite all the progress we've made, it still feels just a little stiff and awkward. And when comedy feels stiff and awkward, it dies.

So writers and designers have increasingly come to rely on comedic dialogue to deliver the laughs in games like GTA IV and puerile offspring like Saints Row. Toss in a wacky sidekick, an assortment of nutjob NPCs, and a stream of sardonic observations from the hero, and presto, you've infused your game with comedy. Wisecracks are everywhere in today's games, but ripe comedic situations are in short supply.

The problem is that comedy can't be delivered like a pizza; nor is it an ingredient stirred into a recipe. Comedy is a system. It's a living body made up of interdependent parts forming a unified whole. A game that wants to be a comedy must be a game channeled through a comic vision that defines the project. Back in the 80s, Infocom regularly provided such a cohesive experience, drawing the player into the comedic world of the game from the moment he opened the box. 

Happily, a new game has arrived that conducts a virtual clinic on how to do video game comedy right. It's called DeathSpank, and it's easily one of the best games I've played this year. I'll discuss it at length in my next post. In the meantime, I encourage you to check it out for yourself. A demo of the game is available on both XBLA and PSN.

The waggle wanes


My left index finger hurts like the dickens. Yesterday I played Sin & Punishment: Star Successor into the wee hours (the Wii hours?), and my poor digit took quite a beating. I've mapped the 'dodge' button to the left bumper on my controller, and this game has me dodging ninjas, frogs, missiles, lasers, fireballs, and any number of other projectiles with my name on them. 

If you're a fan of the genre, Treasure's new bullet-hell shoot-em-up on rails is everything you could hope for. It's an an old-school game re-tooled for a modern audience, with a difficulty spectrum broader than any I've seen in other games. Played on Easy with a Wiimote and nunchuck (and a co-op partner helping you), this beast is positively tamable. Played on Hard, however, the game delivers a seismic beat-down the likes of which I haven't seen since Ikaruga, the only game to provoke me into an apoplectic fit of digital media disc destruction. Ah, the Dreamcast days. But I digress.

I'm playing S&P with Nintendo's new Classic Controller Pro, which ought to come with a 'scratch and sniff the irony' sticker on the box. Here we are 4 years and 71 million units into the life of the Wii, and Nintendo finally devises a gamepad properly suited for its Virtual Console catalog of SNES, Genesis, N64, et al games - but it only works if you tether it to the wireless motion-control remote that made such gamepads 'obsolete.' Sadly, despite the Wii's backward compatibility with Gamecube games, the new gamepad won't work as a Gamecube controller, even though it matches all its buttons, triggers, and d-pad. Grrr.

Taking nothing away from Nintendo's elegant implementation of motion-control in games like Super Mario Galaxy 1&2, it seems to me developers (especially 3rd-party) have finally embraced the notion that waggling the Wiimote may not always be the best or even necessary option. Looking over the list of Wii games I've played over the last 6 months, I see lots of terrific games that made little or no use of motion-control (or rendered it purely optional), and none suffered for the loss.

Sin & Punishment aside, the two Wii games I've spent the most time with in 2010 are Monster Hunter Tri and Cave Story, both exceptionally fine games that simply have no use for motion-control. I can imagine that someone at Capcom must have briefly considered the possibility of whacking monsters by waving the Wiimote around, but mercifully abandoned the idea. In years 1-3 of the Wii's existence, I'll wager those waggle chops would have made it into the game.

An Art Style game like Orbient could easily have tacked on pointing or tilt control, but the designers wisely kept things simple. If you haven't tried any of the Art Style games available on WiiWare, I encourage you to give them a look. I especially like Orbient and Rotozoa, but they're all graceful games with simple, intuitive controls.

And then there's the forthcoming Metroid: Other M. Here's what Team Ninja's Yosuke Hayashi had to say recently about his team's decision not to use MotionPlus:

"It [Metroid] is not compatible with the Wii MotionPlus. One of our major goals with this game is beautiful game design and as we were progressing through development we discovered that it [MotionPlus] was actually not working with what we were shooting for."[1]

"Beautiful game design" may be enhanced by smooth, smartly implemented motion-control (Metroid Prime 3: Corruption), or it may undermine an otherwise wonderful concept. Consider the case of Max & the Magic Marker

Max & the Magic Marker's core mechanic is based on drawing with the Wiimote. The goal of the game is to get Max to the end of each level, and the player draws objects onscreen to enable Max's progress. Unfortunately, the imprecise nature of the Wiimote renders what might have been an inspired design into an exercise in frustration. 

But let's say those controls worked perfectly and I could easily draw whatever Max needed. The real problem with Max & the Magic Marker is a lack of imagination in its most basic element: level design. A platformer that requires the player to draw items on-screen sounds like an ideal twist on the genre for the Wii...but if nobody bothers to design interesting levels, you're left with tiresome derivative gameplay based on a gimmick, and gimmicks wear thin quickly.

It took awhile, but maybe we've finally turned the corner designing games for the Wii with control schemes that suit them. We'll see what happens next with Kinect and Move. Something tells me I'll be waving my arms again soon.

Pretty sneaky, Sis.


If you're a serious gamer (my wife prefers the term "certifiable"), you probably find yourself tracing the lineage of games you enjoy. You do that, right? Please tell me I'm not the only one.

Certain genres lend themselves especially well to genealogy. We can track, for example, the platformer line from Donkey Kong and observe it slowly metamorphosing all the way to Super Mario Galaxy ... branching at Metroid, spawning Castlevania (with a self-contained lineage all its own), branching again at Super Mario 64 - whose 3D design and mechanics clearly influenced non-platformer Ocarina of Time, which forked the Zelda series (with a self-contained lineage all its own)...

Well, you get the idea. It's fun to do and often leads to animated discussion among longtime gamers. "Pikmin is a Nintendo-ized version of Populous mixed with Lemmings." "What? No it's not!"

I've been thinking about genre bloodlines lately, provoked by one of my favorite recent DS games: Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes. If you haven't played it, I strongly recommend you grab a copy...or hold off until later this summer when developer Capybara releases its HD version for XBLA and PSN. For what it's worth, the DS edition is my idea of a perfect portable game: conducive to quick bursts of challenging play with achievable short-session goals. Simple mechanics, elegant gameplay. Pause wherever, resume whenever. Perfect.

This post isn't intended as a review, so if you'd like an evaluative essay on why Clash of Heroes succeeds so thoroughly, I recommend Brad Gallaway's review over at GameCritics.

Clash of Heroes is a genre mash-up: a puzzle-strategy-adventure game with RPG elements. But mostly, CoH is a Match-3 game, and unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last decade, you know all about the Match-3 genre. According to developer PopCap, a Bejeweled game is sold every 4.3 seconds, translating to sales of over 50 million units. 

Tally free-to-play versions on the internet, trial downloads, and PC pre-installs, and an estimated half-billion people have played Bejeweled in one form or another since its release in 2001.[1] We've been playing variations and transmutations of Bejeweled ever since:

Add Tetris-style falling blocks, a launch mechanic, and an emphasis on speed, and you've got Meteos

Change the falling blocks to 2x2 squares, add a music and rhythm component, and you've got Lumines.

Translate the Match-3 puzzling as combat, set the game in the Warlords universe, add quests, EXP, classes, and side missions, and you've got Puzzle Quest

Reformat it for the iPhone, add a time-lock and tilt-screen controls, and you've got Aurora Feint. 

Shift the RPG to the Ultima/Wizardry end of the spectrum, add turn-based strategy, army recruitment and resource management, and you've got Clash of Heroes. Voila! Bejeweled begets Clash of Heroes (with many incremental steps omitted in my brief, admittedly simplified account).

But hold on there, pardner. We started with Bejeweled because it's the 800 lb. gorilla of Match-3 games, but PopCap hardly broke new ground there. Gamers of a certain age may recall Pokémon Puzzle League, a Match-3 game for the N64, which appeared before Bejeweled and was essentially a Pokémon-skinned version of Tetris Attack for the SNES...which itself was a Yoshi's Island-skinned version of Panel de Pon, a Match-3 falling block game never released in North America.

So it all goes back to Panel de Pon, right? Actually, no. As far as I can tell, the first electronic Match-3 game was Shariki developed for DOS in 1988 by a Russian programmer named Eugene Alemzhin.[2] Before Shariki, matching colors vertically or horizontally was strictly a tactile experience. 

Matching them diagonally, on the other hand ... such nefarious strategies are best left to sneaky siblings.**

**Readers under the age of 30-something are advised to play the above clip.

Are you interested in video game genealogy? Does it influence your choices or your perceptions of the games you play? If so, I'd love to hear about it.

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.