Friday, April 24, 2009
Free Realms Trading Card Game
Today is the official release date of the Free Realms Trading Card Game from Topps, although boxes have been sighted in some toy stores already earlier this week. The FRTCG is a simplified version of Magic the Gathering. That isn't necessarily a bad thing: I was certified level 1 DCI judge for MtG at one point, and you wouldn't believe the amount of rules and exceptions and interactions you had to study for that. The Free Realms brand is targeted at a younger audience, and there will be NPCs in the Free Realms MMO playing this trading card game, so both for kids and AI a game with less complex rules is better. Less complex isn't the same thing as dumb, and the FRTCG still offers the familiar and fun combination of resources, creatures, and spells to boost those creatures, which is at the heart of MtG as well.
Nevertheless the boxes of the Free Realms Trading Card Game in toy stores pose a problem: They make it more evident that Free Realms the MMO is missing its targeted release date of April 2009. People who buy boosters will find codes for ingame items in them, but if they visit the Free Realms website they'll only get the option to sign up for the beta, unless they happen to have a beta key. To me it appears pretty evident what happened: SOE and Topps planned a simultaneous release of the Free Realms MMO and Trading Card Game, the MMO got delayed, and for some contractual reason the release of the card game couldn't be postponed as well.
This somewhat embarrasing start doesn't stop me from believing that Free Realms is going to be the next big thing, the next MMO that will get over a million of players. In "number of players" or even "number of concurrent users" it might even surpass World of Warcraft in a year or two. But of course that is because most of these players will be younger than the average WoW player, and will play for free. I do think the Free Realms brand will turn out to be extremely profitable for SOE, with optional $5 monthly subscriptions, microtransactions, and a trading card game in both virtual and paper form. But it won't get as profitable as World of Warcraft. And on the radar of most hardcore MMO gamers, Free Realms won't even show up, unless they happen to have children for which they are looking for a suitable game. For very casual WoW players Free Realms might actually be a good alternative, but it is more an indirect competition to WoW than taking on the market leader head-on. Seeing how the games of last year fared, that is probably a clever move from SOE.