Its very name was a declaration of rebellion against the status quo. In an era that had yet to shift from a subscription-only model for MMORPGs, Free Realms came onto the scene with creative ideas and a radical approach. Instead of targeting older and more computer-savvy players, this MMO would try to appeal to a younger audience. And instead of requiring money up-front, Free Realms would be, well, free.
Today we’re going to look at the story of this ambitious MMO that promised a world — but became only a fleeting dream.
Color and whimsy
Following World of Warcraft’s meteoric rise to success in the 2000s, other studios earnestly investigated that MMO’s formula to see they could replicate the elements that made it so popular. While most copycats looked at the solo questing format, Sony Online Entertainment realized that the colorful and stylized graphics boasted a broad appeal across all age groups and demographics. Considering how many MMOs on the market lacked that kind of vibrancy, it set to work creating a world called Sacred Grove that would embrace these storybook hues.
Free Realms quietly came onto the scene in 2007 with an attempt to cultivate a future playerbase through viral marketing and word-of-mouth rather than a non-stop hype campaign.
SOE already had many teen and adult gamers in its pockets with titles like EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies, but if it could crack that holy grail of making a popular children’s game, then it would be literally training its next generation of consumers. John Smedley noted that there was an “endless supply of children that have a hunger for gaming” that theoretically could be satisfied by a constantly updating title.
The only problem? Kids didn’t have a lot of disposable income or a way to spend it online. The studio would need to provide a zero-dollar point of entry so that kids would get hooked and THEN go to their parents with a request for money.
The million-strong Free Realms army
As a result, in the same year that Dungeons and Dragons Online was making headlines for embracing a free-to-play model, Free Realms became the first F2P game that SOE published. It was made further accessible via an easy-to-access web client for character creation and multiple platforms (including Mac in 2010 and PlayStation 3 in 2011) for potential players to enjoy. An optional membership and other ways to spend money on the game were set up to reap the revenue from a (hopefully) generous playerbase. There was even a family membership for households that wanted to play together.
The approach of the game wasn’t to make a nonstop combat simulator in the vein of a DikuMUD, but rather to fashion a whimsical world that was full of a variety of activities, from fishing to farming to kart racing. And, yes, there would be some combat (but it wasn’t the central focus). Players could choose activities they enjoyed the most and pursue character growth in those realms. Those… free realms.
Free Realms launched on April 28th, 2009, to generally positive reviews. Critics noted the wide variety of activities and the amount of free content that could be accessed before any sort of pay walls kicked in.
SOE had an instant hit on its hands, seeing a million players sign up for the game within its first month and three million by June. A year later, that number that climbed to 10 million registered users. By April 2011 and with the title on the PlayStation 3, Free Realms had crossed the 17 million total player mark.
SOE President John Smedley saw a big future if those trends continued: “[17 million] is a phenomenal number, and we’re very pleased with its success–and it’s really keeping going. I don’t see this thing stopping until it hits 100 million. I think it could take five or six years.”
‘No more kids games’
Despite multiple rounds of layoffs in SOE during the 2010s, Free Realms’ future seemed bright. The dev team worked to bring a major expansion, Sunstone Valley, to the game in 2012. A trading card game and a comic book series also sought to expand the IP into a widespread franchise.
Unfortunately, those big numbers and content updates didn’t necessarily spell financial profitability. When it came time for SOE to make drastic cuts to its game library in 2014, Free Realms suddenly found itself on the chopping block. According to comments made by Smedley at the time, Free Realms simply wasn’t worth the money spent on upkeep despite its thriving playerbase. In fact, the whole experience soured him on kids games: “No more kids games,” he said. “Kids don’t spend well and it’s very difficult to run a kids game. Turns out kids do mean stuff to each other a lot.”
“It makes me really sad to shut down [Free Realms],” Smedley said in the same AMA. “But the truth is we need our resources elsewhere right now.”
On March 31st, 2014, the freest of realms went dark, leaving fans with naught but memories, screenshots, and a burning desire to return to those lands again. Happily, it looks as though a volunteer effort to create a rogue server, called FR Sunrise, is gearing up for public play here in 2021.
Looking back at it, it’s a shame that Free Realms didn’t get the backing to go the distance when titles like Wizard101, Roblox, and Minecraft show that there is a huge market for kids games — and yes, a way to support them financially.