Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.
"How do you beat World of Warcraft?" is a question I've heard asked plenty of times in the past four years. It's the wrong question. Other developers and publishers have been asking the right questions all this time - questions like "what can we learn from the success of World of Warcraft?" and "how do we co-exist with World of Warcraft?"
Many companies have tried to clone the success of Blizzard's game, with extremely limited success. Others have attempted to appeal to the hardcore audience who, some argue, are marginalised by the mass-appeal of WoW - a generally doomed endeavour, since that audience may be noisy online but it's actually extremely small in size and not hugely lucrative. Others still have tried genuinely new approaches, but have failed to learn WOW's vital lessons about accessibility and progression, and have paid the price.
Sony Online Entertainment is one of the companies which has struggled to get the questions right. From being the largest operator of massively multiplayer games in the western world, thanks to the success of the Everquest franchise, SOE has seen its fortunes decline as Blizzard's star has risen. Everquest maintains a legacy audience, but new launches such as Vanguard have badly misjudged the marketplace and failed to attract significant subscriber numbers.
This week, however, SOE is the darling of the online gaming world, thanks to the launch of its much-trumpeted free-to-play MMOG, Free Realms. Just a month after its arrival, Free Realms has signed up two million users - and that's on the PC client alone, with the PS3 version still in the pipeline.
Free Realms is exactly the kind of departure from the WOW formula which is likely to succeed in the market. It's aimed at a different market segment, with a focus on appealing to young teenagers - and particularly girls, who make up a third of the player base at present. It's built on a radically different business model, with the game being free to play but expandable with the purchase of in-game items or upgrades. Those purchases are supported by the sale of Station Cash cards at a widespread retail network of big US brand names like Blockbuster, Best Buy and 7-Eleven.
Yet this departure from the norms of the MMOG world is tempered with a clear understanding of the things which make games like WOW appealing and addictive. Free Realms, from the first glance, is accessible, entertaining, and takes care not to overwhelm the player with stats. Its interface is simple to navigate and its character archetypes are fun and easy to comprehend even for newcomers to the fantasy genre.