Offer barely 24 hours advance notice.
Ah well, it's free to try, and I have other things that I'm playing at the moment that are non-free, so I see no reason to spend the time dealing with the inevitable launch day server issues and bugs. I might do some creative subscription fee juggling to clear some time for this later in the month once I hear how it's going.
Further reviews, mixed
The initial blog reaction to the game's NDA drop (which we now know to be less than a week out from its public launch) was all strikingly positive, but Oz from Kill Ten Rats has come in with a more mixed review.
The post incurred the Wrath of Tobold for a pair of factual errors (one concerning the price of the game's CCG, and the other because Oz did not actually try to pay money to upgrade his soon-to-be-wiped beta character - if he had, he would have learned that the upgrade button was non-functional). Fact-checking aside, Tobold, the author of the genre's most prominent source of what Scott Jennings refers to as "player-centric commentary" ultimately concurs with Oz's most serious accusations.
Tobold writes that "Free Realms is in beta, and if SOE knew what they were doing, it would remain in beta for a while longer" due to bugs. In describing the business model, Tobold notes that "If you want everything, you easily end up paying more for "Free" Realms than for a classical $15 per month game without microtransactions."
Concerns about the business model
Reading the more recent reviews, I do see some complaints that sound concerning.
- Oz's followup post notes that non-subscribers may climb a mountain only to find that the quest icon on their minimap was for subscribers only. That sort of thing will get old really fast. The game's biggest draw for me is the prospective of having a secondary game I can pick up from time to time on a pay-for-usage basis rather than a flat rate (that I will get less and less value out of as I split time between multiple games). Being locked into a monthly fee, even if it's low compared to traditional subscription games, kind of defeats the purpose.
- Oz also notes that the game's non-combat professions level by repeated grinding of Bejeweled-like minigames which recently had their exp gain nerfed, and that some combat professions are similarly lacking in quests. As with EQ2, SOE is helpfully in the business of selling exp potions. In some ways, I would prefer NOT to be given the option to play the game at a non-fun rate of advancement. Maybe it's just a quirk of my psychology, but paying $1 for an hour of gaining exp on a fun class and not getting ANY exp when I'm not paying feels like I'm paying to get something. Having the option to gain exp at a non-fun grindingly slow rate for free with the option to pay the same $1 for an hour of exp at the reasonable rate feels like I'm paying not to have something taken away.
- Finally, Cuppy's otherwise glowing review of the game notes that it is strange from a business perspective that it costs money to buy pets, given that sales of pet accessories are a potentially major revenue stream for the game. Oz elaborates, noting that the pet trainer CLASS is freely accessible to non-subscribers, it's just the actual pets to train that cost money. On the upside, buying a permanent pet is a one-time cost that, if I'm reading things right, won't require the subscription fee. Still, this type of thing illustrates the quirky situation that the transaction model creates for content - even a non-subscription job that can earn SOE lots of money in transactions has to be designed in a way that allows them to lop off some cash here and there. Adding content to a game like that is going to be even more tricky than balancing design priorities for a traditional subscription MMO.
It'll be interesting to see what happens tomorrow, when this game finally goes beyond the realm of beta testers (who probably aren't representative of the market as a whole, simply for their willingness to pursue a beta key to get in). I'd certainly like to see the game succeed and emerge as a viable pay-for-usage world, but they've definitely got a few challenges to tackle before they get there.