After last weeks fiasco at attempting to socialise with other virtual human beings in the pastel coloured world of Free Realms, I decided this week to focus on trying out some of the job systems that the game has to offer, from fighting to farming, mining to motor car racing, in an effort to better understand the economy of this strange new world and, moreover, the mechanics of play that go to keep people hooked to the experience.
Whilst handling a very important quest for one of the thousands of NPC inhabitants, namely heading to the rescue of a nearby fishing hole overrun by Moblins, I decided to break up the repetitive nature of brawling with side missions. This invariably involves taking part in skill based chunks of gaming tacked onto the implemented job system because, in Free Realms, there’s an attempt by the developers to approximate an economy of sorts, that you must take part in if you wish to progress. It’s an almost feudal system of agriculture and goods creation, performed on land owned entirely by Free Realms, with a little bit of plain old capitalism chucked in for good measure! Its nowhere near as complex as something like EVE Online’s economic structure, but it does encourage the player to learn skills and abilities like mining and crop gathering to help pay for additional materials to complete quests, or trade items for gold.
The mini-games range from using the game engine to render a destruction derby competing against other players for fame and fortune, to simplistic puzzle game affairs that can, if caught unaware, drag you into the world for hours on end. What equally fascinates and baffles me is that even during these economically challenging times the real world is currently facing, free entertainment is not being championed as often or as prominently as it should be, and Free Realms is no exception. The game could be seen as a collection of every single popular casual game available: Petz Sim, Connect 3 Clone, Imagine Spoilt Brat, they’re all here, and work better than most of the dross that’s badly packaged to the game playing house wife and her offspring. Couple that with FR keeping a record of your achievements, supporting text chat, and having the ability to add friends to your party, and its an extremely attractive free package. So instead of going to a horrendously designed flash site with as many viruses as your local pig farm, you might do a lot worse than logging into Free Realms. Yet these features are just that, features, and whilst the RPG aspect is being played up in the enthusiast press, the well made and intuitive Cooking Mama-esque mini-games receive little to no attention at all. For gratis, the content is certainly nothing to be balked at, but this eastern based free model that Sony has adopted is also part of Free Realms biggest problem.
To keep Free Realms from being a financial black hole in the already unstable Sony Entertainment universe, the monetization of the product comes in the form of optional subscriptions and micro transactions. Specific quests, are locked off for subscribers only for example, as are a handful of very specific classes. Instead of levelling and earning the right to access these jobs or roles, the player is instead asked to delve into their real world pockets and stump up the space bucks.
And for me, thats the catch! The mere thought of parting with cash is almost repulsive with this title, and its all because its offered for free in the first place. It’s like being offered a complimentary chocolate hobnob but only being allowed to consume half of it’s crumbly goodness before being told that the rest of the oaty treat must be paid for. It’s more than enough to whet your appetite, sure, and you don’t actually need the other half of the biscuit to have a good time, but you still feel a little cheated. Some other content is pay per item too, meaning that if you think someone’s going to let you dunk that bad boy, you’ve got another thing coming! Pets, for example cost Station Cash or SC for short, which can only be obtained by exchanging real world money, so while anyone can access the ‘pet trainer’ class, you only get 20 minutes with each animal to teach it to sit, stay and roll over before your ‘trial’ runs out.
Having had my fill of working in my free time, understanding a little better why online economies are so appealing, so lucrative, and yet so flawed, I hung up my pick-axe, leash and ladle, and stepped out once more to continue my adventure. Join Xero and myself on our epic quest during the coming week in Free Realms, and check out part 4 of 30 Days next week!