Note: No EverQuest II content.
When FreeRealms was launched in April 29, 2009, Sony Online Entertainment pondered the question: Can a Massively Multiplayer Online game produced and sold in America support itself with Real Money Transactions (RMT)?
On November 2nd we found out the answer:
Effective November 2nd, the free-to-play classes available to NEW players of FreeRealms will shrink from Ninja, Chef, Postman, Kart Driver, Demo Derby Driver, Brawler, Adventurer, Card Duelist and Miner to just Adventurer and Card Duelist. Starting November 2nd, all players will be able to sample all character classes up to Level 5. Existing free-to-play characters of those original classes are not affected at this time.
Not For Lack of Trying
I don’t think there is any question that Sony is putting their weight behind FreeRealms. If you read the FreeRealms Blog, you know a lot of new content is coming this year. Player Housing, new Pets, more Holiday events, Daily in-game events, a streamlined User Interface, a unified Coin Market (instead of visiting vendors around the world), Item Dyes, new Combat system, more Minigames, etc.
SOE has dumped a ton of money into promoting FreeRealms with various tie-ins, TV commercials, and getting FreeRealms-branded StationCash cards into major retailers. They went after an audience that were traditionally not MMO players. They launched the GIRL (Gamers In Real Life) program. But it’s clear that most of those 5 million players that FreeRealms managed to attract weren’t buying much.
So why didn’t the FreeRealms model work?
Was it something SOE did? Was the balance too much on the Subscription and not enough on “must have” RMT items? Was it the name? FreeRealms always implied to me that someone could play a good chunk of the game for Free, and that RMT and Subscription were optional. Perhaps a lot of other people felt the same way. Incidentally, the Free in FreeRealms, according to SOE, has always meant “free to do what you want”, not an implication that the game was free of charge.
Is it a cultural difference? Free-to-Play with RMT games are widespread and wildly popular in Asia. Microtransactions are just accepted. Americans in contrast are somewhat sensitive to being “nickle-and-dimed”. I received a link to an interesting article about the differences in Game Design between Asia and North America. It’s worth a read: Game Designers – Everything You Know is Wrong
I see FreeRealms undergoing a transition. While nobody is being booted from the game (you can still keep your friends, play the game, travel the world, and still play a fair amount of content), the direction of the game is now clearly steering towards a “velvet rope” model. What was previously viewed as a “free” game becomes a generous Free Trial which lets you sample every class in the game and decide if you want to subscribe. Everything after that requires a Subscription. I’ve been told it’s similar to Toon Town and Club Penguin although I don’t know those games.
Frankly, the FreeRealms subscription is really not expensive. And it can be paid for with cards purchased at major retailers. For $4.99 a month, you get some nice benefits, like additional Jobs, 3 Character slots vs. 1, and 400 more Items and Quests. It is unknown whether Housing and the other content will require a subscription, but I think it’s a safe assumption.
If you would like to read a more “Just the Facts” type of posting about the changes coming to FreeRealms, check out this posting. Also, there is a public discussion on the FreeRealms forums about the changes as well.
A Cautionary Tale
Normally I would have a witty conclusion to such news. However I don’t. FreeRealms has to do what makes sense for their business model. It was never advertised as a game where an incredible amount of hard work was required to receive certain rare, powerful items, followed by those items becoming available with RMT.
It was built from the ground up as a casual, fun, RMT game designed for the largest possible audience with a large variety of playstyles. I think there are a lot of folks having fun out there playing FreeRealms, and enough of those folks will upgrade to the subscription to make the game self-sufficient. I don’t see a lot of folks quitting, since nothing currently changes for those “free” players.
However, I do want to close this posting with a warning:
RMT clearly wasn’t enough to cover the costs on FreeRealms. This revelation should strongly guide the decision-making on how items are added to SOE’s existing subscription-based games like EverQuest and EverQuest II. Never assume that RMT will be able to keep a subscription-turned-RMT game alive, if it couldn’t keep a game built from the ground up for RMT afloat.