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EA's Real Racing 3 a hit despite 'freemium' gripes

The mobile racing simulator boasts more downloads in its first week than Real Racing and Real Racing 2 combined. Also, don't expect a Real Racing 4 anytime soon; there are no plans for one.

EA's Real Racing 3 is off to a strong start.
Electronic Arts

Complain about freemium all you want, but that isn't stopping the momentum behind Real Racing 3.

Despite early complaints that Electronic Arts had turned a beloved franchise into a nickel-and-dime operation, Real Racing 3 has proven to be a solid title for the company. EA told CNET that downloads of the game in the first week exceeded the total for the first two games combined.

Some of the other statistics are impressive: 350 million races have been completed since the game launched late last month. On average, 25 million races are completed each day, with players spending an average of 25 minutes a day on the game. In total, players have spent 14 million hours playing the game since launch.

The game has hit the No. 1 spot in Apple's App Store in 90 countries, although it currently sits at No. 10 in the U.S. store.

The success is fueled by EA's decision to switch from a simple pay model to a freemium model, which allows players to download the game for free, but pay for upgrades and other perks. In this case, players could pay for vehicle upgrades or to shorten the time for repairs and upgrades.

"There's no question that going freemium was the right way to go," Nick Earl, vice president of the company's mobile and social studios, said in an interview. He added that he felt "vindicated early" from a financial perspective, although he declined to specifically detail the profitability of the game or the exact number of downloads.

Initially, some players attacked Real Racing 3 for the change, which they argued took away from the core Real Racing experience. The shift sparked some early critical reviews, although it currently boasts four and a half stars in the App Store.

Indeed, the first version of Real Racing 3 was deemed too punishing for players who didn't want to pay for upgrades, and EA made some changes. Earl said he believes the company has moved past the initial complaints.

Electronic Arts

"The vocal minority lashed out at freemium," he said. "We respect them and understand, but the market has spoken. That's just where things are going."

Real Racing 3 represents a broader shift to freemium games following the success of titles such as The Simpsons: Tapped Out, which continues to rank in the top 10 in terms of highest-grossing games in the App Store. While EA would enjoy a higher short-term boost in sales from the simple sale of a game, the company gets a potentially longer-term revenue stream with sustained in-app purchases from even a minority of players.

Earl said he plans for Real Racing 3 to be a marquee game for EA for years to come, and there are no plans for Real Racing 4.

"Our expectation is that this is a service that can live for years," he said, adding that FireMonkeys, the studio that developed the game, is still working on updated content for Real Racing 3.

Alongside better graphics, more cars, and a wider variety of races, Real Racing 3 features a multiplayer component it calls "Time-Shifted Multiplayer." Players can run a race on a track, and that run can end up in a friend's race at another time. So while you can't race someone in real time, you can populate a race with friends instead of just computer-controlled cars.

The success of Real Racing 3 comes a little after the disastrous launch of SimCity, which is run out of a separate business from Earl's mobile and social group. But Earl had his own problems with the first launch of The Simpsons, which was so overwhelmed by traffic that the game had to be shut down and the infrastructure retooled for several months before a second launch.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

EA suffered from the same kind of service outage when traffic from its newly released SimCity, which requires a constant online connection, took down its server infrastructure. The company has said that the game is nearly back to 100 percent, but the incident left a lot of critics questioning the decision to maintain the online connection.

"Believe me, I know what (Lucy Bradshaw, EA senior vice president and Maxis general manager) is going through," Earl said. "You literally don't sleep at night."

While extremely painful, Earl said The Simpsons meltdown was a "positive and informative" event for EA, and has helped shape future game launches. He pointed to the smooth release of Real Racing 3, which similarly requires a constant online connection for the multiplayer feature. He noted that every game since the relaunch of The Simpsons last year has been stable.

Ultimately, Earl said, the lessons learned from the SimCity meltdown will go into improving the infrastructure and ensuring a smoother experience with future PC games.

"It's a right of passage, but it's really painful to go through," he said.