FreeRealms from a distance.

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.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Darkfall Online, FreeRealms, MMO design, Warhammer Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to FreeRealms from a distance.

  1. Cuppycake says:

    “At $5 a month, FR needs 3x the number of paying subscribers to make the same revenue a standard MMO makes.”

    Not actually true. Considering you can pay for stuff ON TOP of the membership fee, like clothes, cats, etc…there isn’t a cap to how much people can spend. So, they won’t need 3x the subscribers. How many they’ll need is a number we can’t project until we see how much the microtransactions actually take off with this particular game.

  2. Tipa says:

    If you had the experience I do with games targeted to similar markets like NeoPets and Wizard101, you wouldn’t need to ask. These next generation of gamers are hardcore in a way you or I couldn’t understand.

  3. Yeebo says:

    FR seems to me to be a different model of MMO. You can advance levels in games that have next to nothing to do with eachother. I don’t know what a maxed out mailman gets, but it will surely have little bearing on the character’s performance at cart riding or combat.

    Those interested in some particular subset of games such as card battling or pet raising will surely flow along the path of least resistance in their realm. However, the path of least resistance in one realm of activity does beans for you in another. This style of game is not boiled down to one activity for all players as easilly as something like WoW, where getting the best gear you can is ultimately all that is worth doing.

  4. Yeebo says:

    @Tipa: I love Wizard 101, it’s a lot of fun. But I can see what you mean about “hardcore in a way you couldn;t understand.” I play the bejeweled style game there quite a bit to refill my potions. I’m not too bad at it, if I decide to really play I can go for a good hour. However, I’m still nearly an order of magnitude off in my scores from the best players. I honestly can’t imagine getting good enough or playing long enough to get onto the top ten list.

  5. Chris F says:

    The difference is Syn, you are looking at FR from a “current” MMO player perspective after admitting they aren’t aiming for that audience. My 5 year old will play the exact same level, over and over, for hours on Wii or the PC or any game/platform. As long as he is having fun. He doesn’t care about progression, min/maxing, racing to the “end game” etc. Plays for fun. As long as FR is fun for the audience it is intended for and turns a profit, good for them.

    Would be weird if MMO players did that, eh? (myself included, end game player, min/maxer – I just can’t imagine the thought…)

  6. Melf_Himself says:

    “Playing for the fun of the content, rather than the epix it provides, is more a DarkFall mentality than a mass-market MMO mentality”

    Ahh, but they’re not going after the (current) mass-market MMO crowd (aka, carebears addicted to purple pixels). They’re going after the “casual gamer” crowd, who play stuff like Wii Sports and Guitar Hero, which they do *purely for the fun of the content*.

    Of course, if their content sucks balls like other MMO’s, then they will have to fall back on the tried and true crack-on-a-stick loot system.

  7. Anne says:

    Good read, these are many of my thoughts when it comes to playing MMORPGs too and how they have changed. How does one get that balance between fun and rewards.

    Playing a game for gameplay (rather for phat epixx), used to be a reality in MMORPGs, sadly that has changed. Rewards for playing should be an after-thought, sure, they should be there, but not because they are the purpose of the gameplay. And with achievements its only going to get worse, IMO anyway, all games should move away from achievements or at least have them as a small bonus rather then the main reason to play a game.

  8. mbp says:

    I have stuck my neck out and predicted that Free Realms will grow to be bigger that WOW. This is an incredibly foolish prediction given that I know very little about the game but I will try and justify my foolishness. Some time ago I guessed that the game to de-throne WOW might be console an/or browser based, casual focused and make less demands on its players. From what I have heard Free Realms ticks all these boxes plus it appears to have a very high level of polish plus it has the backing of one of the World’s major corporations. Its not that I expect Free Realms to ssteal a whole bunch of players from WOW / EVE / Lotro etc. What I suspect may happen is that it could attract a whole bunch of new players who have never mmo’ed before. You shouldn’t underestimate the revenues to be got from selling games to kids (case in point – Club Penguin) but I think Free Realms may have what it takes to appeal far more broadly than just to tweenagers. From what I have heard the flexibility of classes seems particularly innovative allowing the game to be many different things to many different people and yet allowing them in some sense to all play together.

  9. Werit says:

    I think he has a point about the ‘flavor of the month’ tendency with kids. It can be easily seen with social networking sites and the like. They’ll hit one hard, then when the old folks come, they’ll find a new place. Things haven’t changed all that much :)

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  11. Bonedead says:

    I’m considering giving it a shot. I showed some of the trailers to my fiance and she might be interested in playing it (FINALLY!) thanks to the cute little puppies that can dance and stuff. Plus it is so childish that everyone can get into it (from what I can see). Like if you enjoy playing a goblin in WAR you can play a more goofy version of it in FR (looks wise at least, imo). I look at it as more of an online multiplayer puzzle book, who doesn’t like puzzle books?

  12. Jim says:

    I am going to give it a try just because I want something I can play during lunch at work. This is that game. I do not know if I will spend any money on it but I will play it. I will probably introduce it to my kid too. They should of made it netbook friendly.

  13. Anjin says:

    Please no one shoot me for this analogy! Syn, you wondering how FR is going to work is like me wondering how anyone could watch Barney. Just because we’re not the intended audience doesn’t mean there is no audience at all.

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