Trans Geek Girl Meets Mundane World

Go ahead, mock me if you will. I’ve eased up on playing Eve Online and moved into Free Realms. And I’m enjoying myself quite a bit.

Free Realms is Sony’s entry into the free-to-play space, and it’s an impressive one. With well over three million users since launch, the game has proven immensely popular.

Part of the “secret” of its success is that it borrows liberally from a wide range of successful games such as Bejeweled, Magic: The Gathering, NeoPets, Mario Karts, and World of WarCraft.  The result is a melange of minigames for almost any taste. You’re not restricted to any one class, so you can change hats as often as strikes your fancy and experience all the careers.

This is a kid-friendly game, and as such, it may be a bit saccharine for hardcore gamers. You “knock out” enemies rather than kill them, the colors are bright and cheery, even the requisite evil swamp feels more like an unused Scooby Doo set than anything too scary. In honor of the 3 mil user mark, Sony gave out a pet pack with argyle sweaters for your dog or cat. The character choices are human or pixie. If you’re making gagging sounds by this point, this probably isn’t your gaming nirvana.

There are a few things about the game I take issue to. First of all, the pressure to subscribe is continuous and unrelenting. Everywhere in the game, from the loading screen on, there are continual reminders that subscribers have options not open to free players. There is an upgrade button eating valuable UI real estate.  Subscribers have exclusive access to gear, designated resource nodes, extra character slots, and roughly half the jobs in the game, including most of the combat careers. If I had a kid, I wouldn’t let them play Free Realms without the expectation that sooner rather than later, they’re going to want to subscribe.

If you do subscribe, the nagware changes gear and you’re pushed to buy Station Cash, which is the only way to acquire pets or booster packs for the trading card game. The only way to get Station Cash is to pony up some real cash. Fortunately, the nags for Station Cash are less obtrusive than the nags to subscribe.

The chat system is, to put it charitably, rudimentary. You’ve got local chat and that’s about it. You can instantly port to a friend’s location to talk in person, but long-distance conversation isn’t supported.

Social gamers may also be put off by the soloability of the game. Frankly, for me it’s a selling point, but there are no real reasons to group up with others. Combined with the dysfunctional chat system, and it’s really sort of an online single-player experience. Again, that’s the way I tend to play, but it’s not going to appeal to fans of mega-raids.

You hit the level caps in short order. I maxxed out mining to level 20 in one weekend, and I haven’t maxxed anything since UO. Part of this was due to my obsessive attempts to finish a pair of quest challenges that require you to score 100,000 points on the mining minigame. Apparently I’m match-challenged… I needed high-level gear bonuses to get past the level 5 challenge, and I’m entirely gated on the level 10 version. You don’t need the quest string to advance, obviously, but it does provide gear.

The MMO elements are extremely simplified. This would serve as a great introduction for somebody who’s never played MMOs, but it’s far too shallow for anyone experience in the genre.

There is no marketplace. You can sell items back to the vendors, or maybe hawk your wares in the town square (haven’t tried it yet), but PhD candidates are not going to base their theses around this economy.

But the Bejeweled-style challenges are satisfying for those of us who tend to get addicted to that style of puzzle, and the trading card game has much the same crunchy texture as Magic: The Gathering (fair warning; like M:TG, it also looks like a substantial real-money sink if you want a competitive deck). The simplified MMO fits well if you’re on a tight time budget. So there’s more than enough candy to entice me to stick around for awhile.

I’m not sure if Free Realms will have legs for me, but it should at least tide me over until the next wave of MMOs; Champions, Star Trek, and KOTOR.

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