In the universe of massively multiplayer online games, there are two primary business models: The classic subscription-based model that's more popular among Western games such as World of Warcraft, and the free-to-play model that's most prevalent among games that come out of Asia, in which companies make their money mostly through microtransactions.
For game developers, the decision about which model to pursue for a game in development is more than just a binary call. The decision will profoundly affect both the development of the game in question and the back office support infrastructure that the game will demand.
No one knows this better than Turbine Entertainment, the Boston-based development house perhaps best known for its high-profile Tolkien-licensed MMO, The Lord of the Rings Online.
Lately, however, the company has been making news of a different sort by making the radical decision to move Dungeons & Dragons Online (now called Dungeons & Dragons: Eberron Unlimited), the licensed title based on the great-granddaddy of all role-playing games, from a standard monthly subscription model to a free-to-play one.
Doing such a thing on a live game is roughly equivalent to switching a moving car from gasoline to electric without slowing down -- and the challenges the company faced offer interesting lessons to other developers on the intricate connections between gameplay, monetization and customer service issues.
Dungeons & Dragons Online was released by Turbine Entertainment in February of 2006. The high-profile game based on the Wizards of the Coast-created world of Eberron garnered solid, if not stellar, review scores (Metacritic average: 74). Interestingly, most of the praise and criticism of the game feel into two general categories.
The praise was for the dungeon-crawl experience. True to its paper-and-pencil heritage, Dungeons & Dragons Online was built around the idea of a small group of five to six players traveling through a carefully-crafted instanced dungeon at a relatively slow pace to discover all its secrets and treasures.
The main criticism among many of the reviews was that outside of dungeon crawling, there wasn't much to the game that offered kind of expansive social experience required by the genre. The game's single city was small and cramped, solo play was extremely limited, and those without a solid group of friends who agreed to play together found that pick-up groups ruined the dungeon crawl experience -- the game's greatest strength. In short, it didn't seem like the kind of MMO gaming experience that was worth paying a $15 a month subscription for.
Fernando Paiz, the executive producer for Dungeons & Dragons Online, explained the initial decision to go with a subscription model as at least in part a product of the times. "(In 2006) there was a certain amount of inertia regarding what business models were viable for MMOs," Paiz said.
"We certainly talked at the time about whether we might want to have some sort of microtransactions but there was a feeling that the market wouldn't accept it." According to Paiz, the company's major worries about the microtransaction model were that the customer would feel constantly nickel-and-dimed and that most-of the initial hardcore player base would consider paying real money for anything in-game as cheating.
Adam Mersky, the company's director of communications, described what he calls "free-to-play myths" that had much more force in 2006 when the business model was still perceived as being confined to games developed for the Asian marketplace. "The biggest one is that free-to-play games are terrible," he said. "What drove our decision in 2006 has begun to reverse itself in 2009. We sat down, put our gamer hats on, and really looked at the shifting perception of both free-to play-games and the alterations in the MMO market as the player base expands, ages and play patterns begin to shift."
Mersky himself goes so far as to believe that conventional wisdom on the merits of free-to-play versus the subscription model has reversed itself. "Nowadays it's actually the subscription model itself that acts as a barrier to entry. It's the classic 'gym membership' problem. Paying a monthly fee starts a clock in people's heads where they feel like they're locked into playing a certain amount of time every month or they're throwing their money away."
Expanding on that thought, Mersky pointed out that players on a monthly subscription find it hard to sample other games -- especially ones that themselves have subscriptions -- lest they lose momentum in their primary game. It also locks them into one particular gameplay paradigm, creating the perception that the monthly fee is going to the development of content that only of the hardest of the hardcore will ever see (the classic high-end raid).
"Unless you're a college student with a lot of free time, you simply don't have 30 hours a week to devote to an MMO," Mersky said. "The free-to-play model allows developers to build in different ways for players to consume the content the way they want to consume it and spend money the way they want to spend it."
That's not to say that Turbine has abandoned the subscription model entirely. Dungeons & Dragons Online is offering players a premium "VIP" subscription package that offers access to all content, priority access to servers, upgraded levels of customer support, monthly grants of in-game currency and more.
According to Mersky it's set off a flurry of back-of-the-envelope calculation in the official forums over the most economical content path to follow for the game's biggest fans. This has apparently delighted the developers at Turbine. "It's about offering value for the consumer," Paiz said.