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Interview: Why  Dungeons & Dragons Online  Went Free-To-Play
Interview: Why Dungeons & Dragons Online Went Free-To-Play Exclusive
June 10, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

June 10, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Yesterday, Turbine made the surprising announcement that its next upgrade to Dungeons & Dragons Online will do more than raise the level cap and add new quests -- it'll change the game's business model entirely.

DDO is going free-to-play, though it'll still offer the option of the same monthly subscription model in the form of a "VIP" user program. Existing subscribers get access to premium content, while free users will be able to shelve the $14.95 per month subscription fee in favor of paying for content and items -- although Turbine director of communications Adam Mersky says no one will be able to "buy their way to the level cap."

"We wanted to make it so that the guy with the biggest wallet doesn’t have an unfair advantage," says Mersky. "All the best loot is still in the game, and the hardcore can play their way from level one to 20 totally free."

Such a transition lends itself to speculation that perhaps the game was not continuing to succeed on a subscription model, but Mersky says that’s not the case. "If that were the case, we wouldn’t have kept rolling out two, three, four updates a year. We were doing fine as a business."

As it turns out, the company’s been seeing a lot of diversity in the audiences coming in to Lord of the Rings Online thanks to the mainstream appeal of Tolkien’s universe, and has been learning from the variety in play style among newer consumers.

At the same time, Turbine is focused on global expansion, recently launching LOTRO in South Korea and is preparing for a rollout in China, and believes the alternative business models that are the dominant paradigm in Asia will continue making their way to North America and Europe.

Thanks to the proliferation of digital delivery and the success of pay-for-content services like Apple’s iTunes, the Western consumer is coming to expect the ability to pay for content on their own scale, rather than paying a flat fee. "It’s no longer an all-or-nothing thing," says Mersky.

And he says DDO was a "perfect fit" for Turbine to start working with alternative business models, and it made much more sense to the company to try a new business model with an existing, successful title than to import and adapt an Asian game or build an entirely new one.

"Looking at DDO having moderate success, but definitely a niche game, it was definitely well-suited," he says. Just the nature of Dungeons & Dragons as a property lends itself well, Mersky adds -- players of the pen-and-paper game know what it’s like to visit the hobby store regularly for new dice, miniatures and modules to add onto their existing play set.

"We’re always trying to lead and do things interesting in the market as it evolves, and it made sense for this product," he says.

And far from a last-ditch decision in response to subscriber levels, Mersky stresses the transition for DDO has been carefully planned for over a year, from both a roll-out and a game design perspective.

"The important thing that we first did was we knew we couldn’t just bolt a store onto this game and call it free-to-play," he explains. "So we re-engineered the game, improved the front-end experience, player experience and social tools. We looked at the way loot was awarded and started to engineer with this in mind."

Mersky says it makes sense for MMO companies to reconsider the "either or" approach to free-to-play versus subscription.

"This is all about player choice," he says. "You can be the subscriber and play your 20, 40 hours a week, and we’re going to make sure you have what you want. But how are we going to open up for older guys who used to play D&D, for example, or who have kids now?"

What was formerly thought of as the hardcore audience has reached adulthood, says Mersky, and those players are looking for more scaleable ways to access game experiences as their quantity of free time decreases thanks to work and family.

For one example, Mersky says it’s a benefit to these limited-time users to be able to individually purchase update modules that have traditionally launched regularly to DDO subscribers. "There’s no reason to keep paying $16 a month for us to keep adding content that you can’t catch up to because you don’t have the time," he notes.

"All we're doing is expanding the market," he says. "What we’re not doing is what a lot of other games have done -- just taking off the [subscription] price and throwing ads or some kind of microtransactions model in the game. We've been working on this for over a year, and we're completely reinvesting in the franchise. We think it's a great fit."

And Turbine hopes to be able to use the lessons from DDO’s transition for other projects. "LOTRO is not designed for this," he says. "And we’re not talking about our console projects, but clearly, getting a better sense of how microtransactions work in a persistent online world is going to help our console project down the line."

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Erik Hieb
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This is the kind of model I've been thinking about for an MMORPG for awhile now. Subscription and free play. The question becomes whether they can make the micro translation prices worth it. I feel that most games charge too much items that aren't worth what people are paying for. Spending a dollar for a single exp potion is garbage (that is an exaggerated example of course), you should be able to buy an entire pack of long lasting exp potions. This allows people who can't play all the time to have the option of keeping up with their friends or people like me who get bored with MMORPGs after a month or two to actually feel like they're making progress, with or without a subcription, and not having to spend outrageous amounts of money per month to do so, which is another nice thing about their subscription model since it give you free points every month in addition to all the other benefits. The other nice thing is that they've said you can earn store points adventuring. Probably not a huge amount per month, but that's a nice little perk for everyone. Might save a few dollars here and there or might get those few points you need to buy that new item that showed up on the store today without having to go in and buy a stack of points when you've just bought points the day before.

But I think the key goal of micro transactions, with the exception of say unlocking classes and content, to make it so the player gets a very good value for their money and not end up spending ridiculous sums. And a lot of games don't really do that, the prices are too high and only certain players buy from the store instead of items being priced so that people that want to play for free want to buy from the store.

Nick Twining
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While I applaud turbine for their move to a free to play model part of me keeps hoping that they learn from City of Heroes or Neverwinter Nights and open up a 'design your own dungeon' update. After all, much of the fun of Pen and Paper, especially from a DM side, was coming up with your own unique tale that your friends and their friends could enjoy. Granted City of Heroes also showed how user created content is incredibly difficult to regulate and opens the game to massive exploits the potential to exponentially increase the amount of content seems too big an opportunity to pass on. Perhaps turbine could take submissions and, like the iphone applications, pay the designers of a dungeon or quest line a percentage of the profits from the downloads. If you pay the designer 70%, which is currently apples going rate i believe, then a 99cent D&D download nets you $70,000 for every 100,000 downloads. That is a win for designer, company, and consumer.

Then again who knows, perhaps that is where they intend to head anyways.

Dave Sodee
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Cool..might actually try this now

Thomas Detko
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All of the official responses sound like PR. I wish that companies would just get down to the bare bones of why and how.

I think this was of value

"What was formerly thought of as the hardcore audience has reached adulthood, says Mersky, and those players are looking for more scaleable ways to access game experiences as their quantity of free time decreases thanks to work and family."

I fall into this category as well. one can only play "hardcore" for so long.

I think at the end of it DDO is lacking in population. F2P will really swell its ranks fast in the short term. If the F2P model they plugged in works at all then they should be able to retain some of them. I will try it.

Robert Rhine
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I'm curious as to how players feel about free to play games, especially players who have already been paying a subscription fee. I suspect that the hardcore players would eventually just sign up for a premium content package, even if they did try out the free way to do things first. I want to play DDO, and I tried the demo and liked it, but I'm not willing to pay a subscription. What I'm concerned about is a feeling of gimmick or of being nickle and dimed. Are the potions mentioned earlier really going to be worth real money? I think many people (myself included) are psychologically more willing to shell out a flat fee, but would gawk at actually paying for an in-game item. If this really is a problem, could developers mitigate it by offering content packs, or even a tiered system? I have avoided micro-transaction based games, not because I don't like the system as a marketing strategy (despite my aforementioned concerns), but because I have not seen any well developed, compelling games that institute anything but a full subscriber system. I would love to see quality MMOs become a diverse medium.