"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 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.
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.