The Steam release of Realm of the Mad God marks a new mainstream focus for the free-to-play browser MMO. It's a combination of Rogue, Robotron and Diablo, an isometric fantasy shooter where quests are handed to you on the fly, where you're never given a reason to stop running, shooting, or farming experience – until you die, and your character is deleted forever. It's simplistic and supremely silly, but also one of the most distinctive multiplayer experiences around.
Mad God knows how rudimentary it is, and the main reason it's enjoyable is that sense of being let in on the joke. It reduces MMO mechanics to the point of absurdity without rejecting them, revelling in the festive pointlessness of haring around with your mates blowing up an improbable number of elves.
Wide-eyed sprites and a looping up-tempo soundtrack contribute to this thrill of being swept up in a tidal wave of manic consumption. Being absorbed into one of Realm of the Mad God's 'trains' is something every gamer should experience at least once: a gang of players that reaches a critical mass where no monster can stop it, then tears through the world in a leaderless stampede. Such Skinner Box game mechanics would be cynical elsewhere, but when accelerated to the point of ridiculousness they become charming, like listening to a despot give a speech on helium.
It's easy to emerge from one of these trains with a max-level character, and for the committed this is where Realm of the Mad God actually begins. Collecting special potions from bosses maxes out your character's stats, enabling you to take on tougher bosses and eventually several variants of the Mad God himself. Then you die, and your character's achievements are totted up and served back to you as a 'fame' rating, which contributes to your account's total score.
It's a game that's happy to discard your efforts in a heartbeat, and that complicates the inclusion of microtransactions. Everything you can buy with real money is cosmetic, with the exception of dungeon portals that allow you to skip straight to a specific encounter. The cheaper items – armour dyes that cost between 25p to £1 – are lost with your character, while more expensive unlocks such as pets are permanently bound to your account. The game invites throwaway spending with the same anarchic spirit that encourages players to chase pretty green numbers in the wilderness. One is harmless, the other isn't.
If you rationalise the money you spend as a way of tipping the developers, it makes more sense. You're invited to participate exactly as much as you want, whether that's jumping in for 20 minutes or dedicating yourself to unlocking every class, buying every hat, and killing every god. It's your choice, after all – just don't be surprised if people think you're mad for trying.