To a certain extent, of course, there's a sense of foreboding about Free Realms' early success. We've seen the same huge claims a couple of times recently, most notably in the cases of Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, both of which trumpeted vast early subscriber numbers which then rapidly reduced in subsequent months. The caveat on Free Realms' success is that there's no way of telling how many of those two million players will continue to return to the game in the months to come.
However, even with that in mind, Free Realms is one of the most interesting efforts yet at breaking MMO gaming out of the niche it presently occupies. World of Warcraft widened that niche significantly, but it's the companies working at the edges of the genre which are doing the most to bring massively multiplayer, interconnected and online social gaming to the wider audience.
That spectrum of gaming extends from Facebook games at one end (many of them are, by any definition, social and extensively multiplayer games) through to hardcore MMOs at the other end. World of Warcraft sits at the hardcore end of the spectrum, albeit rather closer to the centre than any of its kin. Free Realms plonks itself down squarely in the middle; if I were writing the marketing pitch for it, I'd describe it as bridging the gap between WOW and Facebook. If it can attract players from both sides of that divide, it'll be a huge, long-term success.
Even if it can't quite achieve that lofty goal, it clearly signposts one of the directions which this market needs to take. Potential markets for games exist across the spectrum of online socialisation. The core ingredient which makes WOW appealing to its players, the simple magic of playing in a world populated with other people - even if you're not directly playing with those other people - can be applied to a huge range of games, and appeals to almost every audience.
Appealing those audiences, however, is going to require a change in approach and perspective for many game developers. One of the greatest accomplishments of World of Warcraft is just how stable and bug-free the game is - running happily even on fairly old hardware. No buggy or demanding game will ever conquer a more lightweight audience, where attention spans wander as soon as a technical challenge appears. (For the same reason, old conventions like separate servers or "shards" need to go out the window; no casual player will tolerate such an artificial separation from their friends and acquaintances in the same game environment.)
Even WOW, however, demands that users download big patches - and even the straightforward process of installation may be enough to drive users away at the most casual end of the spectrum, where browser-based games that require no installation or patching are likely to dominate. The challenge for developers will be to deliver compelling experiences, bug-free, using the thinnest clients possible - a fairly radical departure from the client-heavy experiences game developers have been creating for the past few decades.
The early enthusiasm for Free Realms provides evidence, if any more were needed, that there is an audience out there keen to engage with this kind of massively multiplayer experience. If game creators can tap into that audience as effectively as Blizzard has targeted the more hardcore gamer market, then even the most optimistic of projections for the growth of the MMO market may turn out to be conservative.
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