Free Realms hits 9M players, closing in on World of Warcraft

It’s time for World of Warcraft to start looking over its shoulder. Free Realms, the free-to-play online game from Sony Online Entertainment, has surpassed 9 million registered players.

World of Warcraft is still the mother of successful online games. It has 11 million subscribers who pay up to $14.95 a month to subscriber to its massively multiplayer online fantasy role-playing game. It is a cash cow that generates $1 billion a year or so in revenue for Blizzard Entertainment, a division of Activision Blizzard.

Free Realms probably makes a lot less revenue, since players can play it for free. (And it isn’t clear how many of the 9 million are active users who played in the last month, as Sony doesn’t release that number). Only a small percentage of its user base actually pays real money for virtual goods in the game.

Still, the momentum is clear. Just a month ago, Free Realms had 8 million players. And while WoW launched in 2004, Free Realms launched just a little less than a year ago. And at 11 million players, WoW is down slightly from its peak of around 12 million.

“With Free Realms, we’ve been able to reflect the needs and wants of our players by keenly listening to their suggestions and feedback,” said John Smedley, president of SOE, in a statement. “We believe the persistent exercise of capturing in-game research inside Free Realms has been a huge contributing factor as to why we’ve attracted over nine million players in less than a year. It truly helps us give our players a game where they can do and be whatever they want.”

Sony Online Entertainment is continually investing in themed in-game events and persistent marketing support to draw a constant influx of players into the game. Last month, it introduced Rides, which allows players to hop on the back of a T-Rex or Dragon and travel anywhere at 150 percent of their normal speed. Only players who have purchased a memebership can do so. Horses are next. Those are clever inducements to get players to pay for the game. Players who don’t have credit cards can also go into stores to buy Station Cash cards which can be used redeemed for Station Cash and used to buy virtual goods or membership.

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