I have developed an interesting love/hate relationship with Sony Online Entertainment's Free Realms. The game is nothing but puree du MMO at nearly its finest. I tend to describe it thusly: it's Guild Wars, but... you know, for kids... with a bit of Puzzle Pirates thrown in. Those two comparisons particularly stick out in mind to describe the game, but there's bits and pieces that I've recognized from all over the MMO spectrum, including from my stints playing Disney's ToonTown and the more recent Cartoon Network's FusionFall. [1] Then there's a little bit of Mario Kart, the Petz series, and even a collectible card game for good measure. It's hard to find a more vasty collection of "kid-crack" games under one massively-multiplayer roof.

To be perfectly honest, I've spent most of play experience in a sort of "perpetual deja vu". Just about every game mechanic is borrowed from somewhere else. However, the game is executed admirably well. There certainly is a high degree of polish to the art and visual style. I've encountered more than my share of bugs, but I'm sure that most of them have been combinations of growing pains (two million registered players in a month is certainly strong growth, even if probably only a fraction of that is yet monetized) and what seem NAT traversal issues, which I have some small bit of control over. [2]

Allow me to use my earlier main referents to frame the remainder of my discussion: I think the game compares very favorably to Guild Wars. I've pointed out before that I'm not a huge fan of Diablo-style RPGs, and still have yet to complete even the original Guild Wars campaign, but I fell in love with Guild Wars at a visual and technical level. I'm one of those poor souls that is always enthralled by Bloom Effects, and Free Realms happily supplies much of the same shiny over-bloom that Guild Wars does. Of course, FR uses a bit more complex lighting scheme than GW originally used, taking from recent developments in "high definition lighting" since then, but all the (many) bright shinies are bright and shiny. [3] The water defraction shader is fascinating and the rainbow effects are fascinating. (Not many other games can inspire a "shader versus timed/random texture" debate over rainbows.)

The client technology certainly seems reasonably well built: the bootstrapper is only a couple megabytes to download and the character creator is a simple Flash tool that the website allows you to play with while the bootstrapper pulls the initial asset load (approximately 60 MBs). The rest of the game's assets (including and especially some of the mini-game assets) get downloaded and/or updated mostly in the background during play, with only the occasional load (generally trying a mini-game for the first time) blocking gameplay and usually even those are "cancellable". The overworld appears mostly seamless (there are some obvious "bottlenecks" that appear to be background loading zones, but these "caves" and paths aren't all that noticeable unless you are looking for them and generally blend in). Actual loading screens do appear, but generally only for teleportation across the realm or teleportation into a mini-game instance. The game does have a slow asset leak with memory ballooning over the course of several hours, but that's a very understandable problem and certainly not terrible (particularly because the game is very easy to quit and relaunch, and also because marathon sessions are probably a bad idea anyway).

Server-side tech appears to leave a little bit to be desired, but is still better than so many other games out there. I managed to be in the game during a server update deployment (which was done at a very early/late hour) and the update seemed to force about an hour or so downtime. (For comparison: Guild Wars server deployments happen side-by-side. When a server deployment happens, the server will refuse to load new instances for clients running the old version, but will happily continue to serve clients running existing instances of the old version, letting players decide at their own pace when to finish up what they are working on and restart the game when ready to move to a different instance.)

The comparisons become less favorable against Puzzle Pirates. FR and Y!PP share the basic conceit of mini-games as "jobs". I think that Y!PPs collection has a somewhat wider contrast. Particularly in that Y!PP very slowly added Match-3 variants over the years (Bilging, Treasure Haul, Foraging, and now Rigging), and tried hard to differentiate them in interesting ways (Rigging has some extra constraints that make it somewhat unusual, Treasure Haul is a nice rarity/gift and is meant to be "easy" and familiar). FR uses Match-3 like a crutch, and with surprisingly little differentiation between variants other than item theme for the most part. Off the top of my head, these consist of: Harvesting, Mail Sorting, Archeology, Mining, and Blacksmithing, and I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting at least one more. In FR's favor, most jobs consist as combinations of puzzles, rather than as a single puzzle. For instance, a Chef needs to Harvest ingredients, but then gets to Cook them in a Cooking Mama-esque series of mini-games. Perhaps the oddest 1-2 punch of the lot is the interaction of the Mining and Blacksmithing jobs: most Blacksmith recipes require mineral bars obtained first by Mining ore (Match-3) then smelting (Smelting Mama, so to speak) and then finally Blacksmithing (Match-3).

Here's what I find a particularly interesting comparison when speaking of Puzzle Pirates: one obviously is very piratical in theme and FR has a Ninja job and it speaks to the heart of the play styles of each. Y!PP absolutely requires socialization and aggregation; manning a ship alone depends on the support of several players and several different mini-games/jobs. Then there's Y!PP's strong player-centric economy where most of the other jobs have interesting webs of inter-dependency, with player-run shops and easy-to-use markets interfacing the various crafts between and amongst each other and player consumption.

FR is "massively single player" in nearly the same manner as Guild Wars. You see other players walking around (it did take me a while to realize that to differentiate between other players and the vast number of NPCs you can use an entirely too subtle color difference (light blue versus lighter blue) in a person's name), but you don't have nearly as much reason to depend on other players. There is strong multiplayer support in PVP, but it seems most of the PVE encounters are quite soloable. There is crafting, but without markets/auction houses, much less player-run shops, there doesn't seem to be much of a demand to polish your crafting skills other than to make stuff for yourself. Not to mention that most of the crafts don't seem to be far removed from what can be obtained from NPC shops and/or random drops. Player to player trading is possible (and encouraged in several ways), but there don't seem to be easy forums to encourage it.

The game makes grouping with other players extremely easy and has a somewhat nice invite system to deal with the somewhat chaotic nature of a group of random people each pursuing different quest agendas, but if you don't already have a network of friends in the game you'll probably see few reasons to make use of them.

Overall, Free Realms is fun, and a wild success for such a recent launch, and certainly it should be worth a try for nearly anyone interested in a simple free-to-play game. Just be clearly warned that the game makes several appeals for you to pull out your wallet. For instance, can you turn down paying 4 dollars (plus a $5/month membership) for a very cute ghost cat or dog to follow you around and do tricks for you? Seriously, it is a ghost and a cat, and entirely too cute. Just wait until Penguin adoption starts sometime soon...

[1]Obviously, I have no qualms about playing "kid" games.
[2]It's very interesting to see how the client reacts to one of my wireless networks at home; the game becomes a mysterious glitchy ghost town. It took me a short while to realize that the reason I was seeing something of a "tale of two realms" here was simply dependent on which wireless router I was connected to when playing.
[3]I don't normally consider myself all that ADD or OCD, but Free Realms certainly manages to bring out the hyperactive ferret in me. I have succumb to "ferret shock" more than once.