While I personally have zero interest in playing FreeRealms myself (shocker I know), I am interested to see how it all plays out for SOE given some of FR’s design decisions. FR all along has been marketed as a kid-friendly game, one set more to challenge Club Penguin than WoW, and certainly not a game aimed towards MMO gamers who are currently playing WAR/LoTRO/EQ2 etc. Is the ages 12 and under market big enough to support FR, especially at a free or $5 a month price point, and is the design behind FR the right one to keep that market playing for months on end?
The first issue I see is the market/price. At $5 a month, FR needs 3x the number of paying subscribers to make the same revenue a standard MMO makes. In other words, FR needs 900k+ just to match WAR’s 300k+ in terms of income. FR also has RMT elements, but those might be balanced out by the far larger group of free players still using bandwidth and customer support. It’s yet unproven whether dropping your price down to $5 will encourage 3x the number of people to pay, all other things being equal.
The other issue I see is player retention given its design. With no upfront cost for a box, the option to see 40-60% of the content for free, and needing each customer to play 3x longer to equal the same revenue of other MMO games, FR relies on its paid content to excel in order to succeed. While I can’t comment on the actual quality of the content itself (reviews seem to be mixed on this), I think the way it’s delivered could pose some problems. With all classes and content being instantly available, FR seeks to reduce the usual MMO ‘grind’ to get to the good stuff. In theory it’s a more ‘friendly’ approach, but MMO history raises some issues.
In WoW, pre-dailies, players would only play one of the four available battlegrounds in order to grind out welfare epics. The one battleground played was not because it was the most fun or entertaining content, but simply because one could grind out the most points in the least amount of time. To a lesser extend, this also happened with instance runs, players ignoring the tougher or less rewarding content and only farming the highest gain spots. The addition of daily heroics and weekly battlegrounds changed this, not because they made the content more fun, but because the reward was increased enough to attract players to it, therefore extending the contents shelf life. How many players delayed quitting WoW because they had yet to finish grinding towards some daily reward, despite the fact that they were still playing the same unchanged content?
In WAR, RvR is clearly the games best feature, but that content was largely ignored until Mythic added significant player incentives. Prior to this, many players sat in warcamps and chain-queued scenarios, again not because this was the best content, but because it was the most rewarding. Only after changing the reward balance did the players adjust their playstyle, and overall helping make the best content in WAR possible (and the game better overall)
While FR is not aimed at the same crowd WAR or even WoW go for, it’s tough to think an entire player base will game so radically different than everyone before it. Playing for the fun of the content, rather than the epix it provides, is more a DarkFall mentality than a mass-market MMO mentality, and I don’t think FR is aiming for DarkFall numbers. While the solo player activities won’t suffer much from this, what happens to the group-based ones? What if (just an example) kart rider is less rewarding than mining, and so the majority of players grind away at mining and ignore kart rider, leaving only a few players to sit in long queues just to get a race going. Will this issue only become more prevalent because all content is always accessible? And if you allow players to grind away at their given activity, how long until they tire of that content, even if it’s of high quality, and stop paying the fee to use it? Players are well known to over-focus on rewarding aspects of a game, many times to their own determent. How does giving players all access instantly play into this, especially when the goal of your product is to retain that player for months? (and theoretically that player already had a much shorter attention span due to age)
While I don’t doubt FR will attract a lot of eyes to its product, I’m skeptical how many of those eyes it can convince to pay for select content, and even more skeptical on it’s ability to keep them paying for months on end. The tween market is notorious for jumping from one fad to the next, often at random, and it will be interesting to see if a product like an MMO is able to retain them long enough to profit.