Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Sun Also Rises: The Unlikely Return Of Free Realms

On March 30th, as TAGN duly noted, Club Penguin closed its doors for the final time. Wilhelm chose to lead his brief eulogy with a quote from John "Smed" Smedly, who said somewhat wearily during a Reddit AMA that "Kids don’t spend well and it’s very difficult to run a kids game".

Smed was speaking off the back of the sunsetting (aka closedown) of the MMO he had once held out as the future for Sony Online Entertainment - well, one of its futures anyway. Free Realms was the game that marked SOE's first step towards what would eventually become the company's mantra - "Free To Play - Your Way".

Moving away from a strict subscription model may or may not have worked for the company - and the industry - as a whole but it didn't appear to work for Free Realms. Designed as a full feature MMORPG for younger players the game never received anything like the development that was promised.

Unlike other SOE MMOs of its day, Free Realms didn't get an expansion every year or a series of ever-updating holiday events or any of the other bells and whistles you might have expected. There were a few updates along the way but the game that ended on March 31st 2014 was pretty much the same game that had opened just under five years earlier on April 28 2009.

And that you might very well think would be that. A kids' MMO that never really took off ran for a few years and then closed down. Find another game to play. End of story.

Only MMOs aren't like other video games. They're hard to kill. Just unplugging the server at the wall isn't always enough.

Just as the last Penguin waddled dismally out of the Club, turning off the lights as he gently closed the door, this thread was posted on the forums of Free Realms Sunrise. The opening of the alpha was clearly timed to match the sunset three years ago to the day but the synchronicity was impeccable.

These days we almost expect to see emulator projects grow out of the ashes of a popular MMO's pyre but who would have bet three years ago on Free Realms making it back? Although, when Sony traded SOE to Columbus Nova for a pocketful of gold, there were murmurings... this odd, unsourced news squib on the Zam network's Free Realms page (and who knew there was one?) claiming that "Daybreak Games has announced that Free Realms is coming back in the Fall of 2016." That didn't happen and I can't find any sign of who said it would.

But we don't have to rely on the kindness of venture capitalists, thankfully. Not when we have the wisdom of crowds and the fervor of fans.

I liked Free Realms a lot. I played it quite a bit although not as much as I wished I had when I found it was closing. Sacred Grove was a characterful, colorful, fun place to spend a few hours. Maybe I never wanted to live there but I'd like to go back and visit.

And now, if all goes well, maybe one day I'll be able to do just that. Congratulations to the Sunrise team on getting to Alpha and here's hoping they make it all the way.

And that Daybreak and their lawyers cut them the same slack Smed cut Project 99. Come on DBG. Do it for the kids. You know they weren't going to spend any money with you anyway.

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