E308: Membership and microtransactions in Free Realms

We know that SOE's upcoming title Free Realms will be free to play, but that begs the question of how SOE might profit from the title. (Especially considering that Lead Designer Laralyn McWilliams stressed that Free Realms is just as important to SOE as the other titles being shown off at E3, The Agency and DC Universe Online. Said McWilliams, "We have the same size team working on this as we do on those titles.") The answer is two-fold: memberships (which, for a monthly fee, will allow the user access to more content) and microtransactions (allowing you to buy items for your character for small amounts of money). When we had a chance to catch up with SOE's John Smedley back at CES, he told us that they were looking into the microtransaction model, saying "In order for people to see the games, they have to be able to play them; we're opening them up to that possibility by letting them play for free." Free Realms seems to be the final result of a lot of soul-searching on SOE's part as this traditional MMO company tries to find its way in a genre increasingly crowded by free-to-play titles.

What will membership buy you? McWilliams tells us they're still working out what sort of content they'll be putting behind the member's only gate. There will certainly be additional areas and content for members, with their own quests and story-lines, but it may also be certain features (you would be able to get a sample of these features as a non-member, but would have to be a member to really engage in them). "An example might be pets," McWilliams said. "It could be that you have to be a member to have your own pet, but you could walk other people's dogs and play with their pets without having one." We are, however, assured that there will be plenty of free gameplay for those uninterested in membership.

What will microtransactions buy you? It's a more difficult question than you might first think -- will microtransactions be non-gameplay items (like clothing) only? Will microtransactions provide players boosts to their abilities, potentially giving paying customers a large advantage over non-paying customers? It sounds as though SOE hasn't quite finalized that. "We recognize the importance of people earning things in the game but at the same time one of our fundamental tenants is we don't want to dictate to people how to play our game," says McWilliams. "So if people want to buy a potion that increases the speed at which they gain experience, who are we to say that's not acceptable?"

They're still deciding what type of items to offer for sale via microtransactions -- and think a lot of the balance decisions will come out during beta testing. McWilliams explains, "There's nothing in Free Realms initially that you have to work that hard for. It's all about variety. So we don't know how much you'll need to buy that stuff [experience gain boosts, combat boosts, etc] at this point. We're focusing on game mechanics that are inherently fun, so you don't want to shortcut your own experience by buying stuff. There's an amount of joy in buying something that's going to make you beat everyone in car racing, but after a while, you want your own skills to be what lets you win in car racing, not stuff you buy."

To participate in microtransactions, you'll have an in-game wallet (shown in the screenshot above) that can be filled with real cash. (For parents in the audience, this means you could give your child a certain amount of money in their wallet, but no more.) At present, the game uses a real dollar system to be compatible with the PlayStation network, (the system has been built from the ground up for PlayStation 3 compatability), though the real dollar part may change in the future.

Free Realms at E3 2008 Interested in Free Realms? Then check out all of our E3 coverage of SOE's latest free-to-play online game!
This article was originally published on Massively.