Half-Orc Smash! A DDO Q&A with Turbine’s Fernando Paiz and Erik Boyer

Updated Thu, Jul 22, 2010 by jeffprime

DDO shook the MMOG world when they switched to a free-to-play model. To get the inside scoop of why the change was made and what’s in store for DDO in the future, Ten Ton Hammer tracked down Fernando Paiz, Executive Producer, and Erik Boyer, Producer. After plying them with numerous flagons of ale and casting charm spells on them, they agreed to talk.

This interview took place on Ten Ton Hammer Live July 17th.

Question: Can you tell us how successful it has been for DDO going to free-to-play?

Answer: It has been really great. Honestly, it has exceeded our expectations. It’s been a thrill to be a part of it with DDO. As far as saying how successful it has been, the best indication of how successful this model has been for us is that we just announced a little bit back that we’re taking Lord of the Rings Online to a similar free-to-play model. We are believers in the free-to-play model and, specifically, with the implementation that we did with DDO. So much so that we’re taking our other big franchise here at Turbine with Lord of the Rings on to the same model. It’s been really great. We’ve seen millions of new players come join the game. We couldn’t be happier.

Not to mention in that time we had the Warner Brothers acquisition, and so we’re favored in that we’re a successful MMOG company and to draw that kind of attention and to take Lord of the Rings in the same direction. We’re definitely riding the successful wave here.

Question: It’s not just that. You guys were frontrunners in bringing microtransactions to the West. There have been other companies who have done that as well, but I think everybody’s eyes opened up when you did it with DDO. I think that was a catalyst for them to say that this model could work and we should try it out ourselves.

Answer: We’re one of the first in North America, but foremost was that the game was already launched as a subscription model, which is the typical model. We took something that was established and re-launched, with game changes as well to fit the new model, as an existing product with a new model.

It hasn’t just been about getting into the free-to-play space and copying the model of everything else that is out there. One of the big design challenges for us from the beginning of this project was doing our own take on what free-to-play means and what the Western audience really wanted out of a free-to-play type game. The reason that it may have not become prevalent yet is that audiences haven’t reacted positively to some of the things in the Asian games. We’re very proud of the free-to-play model that we created for DDO. I even love seeing the naysayers in the forums where you’ll see some naysayer going, “Gosh, I hate these microtransaction games, but if you got to do it, then do it like DDO because they did it right.” That’s the biggest compliment to me.

Dungeons and Dragons Online

Question: Why did Turbine decide to go free-to-play?

Answer: There are a couple of things combined that made us decide to go free-to-play with DDO. I guess the first, and most obvious, is making it easier for a lot of people to get into the game. We really thought that the game had come such a long distance since launch, and that so many players, if they got into it and tried it, would really enjoy it and realize that we’re an unique MMOG and not another classic open world RPG like so many others. We have a unique take that we bring to the genre, and we saw this game as being worthy of a lot more success than it had at the time. Part of it was getting people to come in who weren’t necessarily willing to pay a subscription. That’s the number one reason why people don’t get into an MMOG is because they fear the recurring subscription.

Another reason is that we really believe that this model was going to become very important in the market here in the West and in North America in particular. Rather than wait on the sidelines waiting for somebody else to figure it out, we decided that we, at Turbine, were going to pioneer here and develop this model and adapt it to the West. Once we decided on doing that, it became clear that DDO was the right choice for the game to do that. We’re very excited that those things worked out.

Going back a little bit, we were getting ready to launch in China when we started looking at this. Obviously, this has been a successful business model in China, but hasn’t been adopted in North America or taken to the level that we have this year. That’s when we started playing with is this something that this game could do? We were looking at it from the perspective of that market, and then ultimately realized that there were a lot of things that we could do to fit into the North American market. The types of offerings we would have of not making it a game that you could buy your way through it, but making it something that offered you conveniences in the game. That was the kind of approach of what things we would make purchasable.

Dungeons and Dragons Online

Question: One of the things about free-to-play games is that new content is rare. DDO, however, continues to put out new content. How do you do that in a free-to-play market? How do you decide what to do next?

Answer: It’s something that Turbine has always done. Asheron’s Call has had monthly updates for ten years, and we had set a quarterly precedence with the subscription model. It’s something that the fans expect and as long as the revenue model supports it, we found that we could do it as the new model has been very successful. We want to keep pumping these out. We’re doing a total of six updates this year, and that will be nice since the re-launch last year. Specifically, with new content, every one of those has new systems that are entering gameplay, either targeting an issue or improving accessibility. We listen to the feedback of players who tell us if something was frustrating and not worth coming back for. That’s the reason for a lot of the drive to continue to do the updates is that there’s so much more that we want to do with this game, and we have such a huge fan base of players who say they want to move on and do this now. We’ve got so many ways to play the game with the classes and races and any combination thereof. There are several underlying stories as well as an overall hierarchal story to build on and we’re not quite done with that yet.

Question: Is that something you have to keep in mind as well? Speaking specifically of another game that has been around a long time with umpteen expansions, the problem with that game is that going back to it now for a returning player or a new player is that there are so many new systems, it’s impossible to keep up with it all. I assume that would be a challenge when you’re adding in new systems consistently to keep it user friendly in terms of new players coming in so they don’t feel overwhelmed.

Answer: For us, it’s about striking a balance between introducing new things into the game and polishing existing parts of the game that we want to make better. It’s important for us not to just have a flavor of the month new system coming out all the time and then forgetting about it and lay it by the wayside.  We’re always going back and revisiting parts of the game and making them better. That’s really a part of our prioritization process. You asked about how we prioritize the many things we might do, and that’s a challenge for any large game world in the MMOG space. For us, we have long lists of backlogs of things we want to do for our hardcore veteran players, for new casual players, and mid-level players in-between. There’s also many different problems we want to solve like it’s not always easy to meet up with other people in your level range, it’s not easy getting into a guild, or players don’t think guilds are currently rewarding for example. We’re always weighing those different options and then prioritizing, along with some other business owners here, what are the right things to target at this point in time. We’re careful to not only focus on the end-game and the very high level and neglect the rest of the game, especially with this re-launch since we have so many new players that are just working their way through the game now. We have fresh feedback from them of what’s working for them, fulfilling their needs and which things are not.

Question: How big is the team working on the game? Is it a bunch of departments with all these department heads talking together or is it much more casual?

Answer:  We have a policy not to give specific numbers of teams, but it is more of a joint team development approach. We have a dedicated group in product development who work on nothing but Dungeons and Dragons Online. One of the great things working at Turbine is that we do have these other share teams who are always looking to help us out, whether that be our creative studio who develop new art and animations for our game or our technology team, who also work on Lord of the Rings Online and some of our future projects, who are always bringing that tech back to games like DDO. Likewise, there are scores of people in QA, customer service, operations, and so on. We’re over a 300 person studio, and at any time, there could be a third or up to half of those people touching DDO in a particular month.

Question: What’s the biggest challenge of putting out these content updates? How do you keep that up?

Answer: The pace is pretty intense. We have friends who have moved on to another company and they say, “Wow, I’m doing console development now and we have just one release and it’s so much easier!” We really do have a grind from one release to another, where we’re getting one thing through QA and we have to start planning on what we’re doing next. We need to get our art requests in; we have to get the cycle moving. It’s pretty non-stop. We don’t have any down time between releases. In fact, in some cases, it’s an overlap where our dungeon builders need to be working on the shell for the next concept; we need to be writing the theme; if we’re going to be doing a new system, we need the specs so the techs can get a head start; and all these components need to fall together. Not to mention the things on the client side, the downloadable side, there’s the back-end work. We have a shared engine across our games and we’re moving those things back and forth. So the pace is just non-stop.

That being said, it comes down to the things that we can manage to do and keep track of one person’s workload. If you want to get into the crunchy parts of it, we use a SCRUM process where we use sprints of a certain cycle. We evaluate as we go through that, and when we get a release done, we’ll start planning the production while the testing is being done. It’s just that for thirteen months of the year.

Dungeons and Dragons Online

Question: Can you tell us about the DDO store? How do you decide on what items to put in the store and what to keep out?

Answer: We have a couple overarching philosophies there of how we approach that question. With each release, we’re asking ourselves and we’re being asked what portions go into the store? I guess the first philosophical point for us is that we want all the core parts of the game to be accessible to all of our players including our free players who may choose to never pay us anything at all. We want the game to be a complete game experience for everybody without having to use the store. Any time we might consider putting something in the store, we make sure that it doesn’t violate that. For example, we just released some guild features in update 5 and all the core parts of that, including some of the higher end airships and features that you can put on your airship, are accessible with in-game coin so you don’t have to use the DDO store.

Another core guiding principle for us is that we don’t want you to buy the end-game. That’s some of the concerns that we saw in some of the other free-to-play games where you start off with the first few levels and it’s fine and easy, but by the time you get into the higher levels, you feel that the only way that you can possibly succeed in this dungeon is if I load up on this consumable from the store and that’s the only way to win. For us, that’s not ok. We absolutely feel that we don’t want the player to feel that they have to pay dollars in order to succeed in the game. More so, if you’re a dedicated player who has put in lots of hours into our game, we want you to be able to effectively get ahead of somebody who has put in a fraction of the time but is willing to spend thirty dollars on the game in a particular month. We are aware of that and we want the game to feel rewarding to the people who are playing it the most and make sure that they’re getting that satisfaction.

Question: What type of items are consistently your best sellers?

Answer: There’s a few categories that always stand out and rise to the top, and really, they’re not very surprising if you play our game or similar games. We always see the Resurrection Cakes being very popular (those are the items that let you bring yourself back to life where you are without having to go back to the entrance of the dungeon or find a shrine or go back to town to heal up). That’s a convenience item and that’s how we categorize it. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it saves the player a few minutes and maybe saves them the pain of getting back to the same point of the level again, but it is not a game-breaker. The experience boost items, which we sell in 10 and 20 percent flavors, are also very popular. We know that many players only have so much time to play each week, and they really value that 10 to 20 percent. Whereas other players will look at those items and say why would I want to do that when I can get to the level cap anyway in a matter of a couple months? The other category, which is very gratifying for us to see, is our content races and classes category which started off a little bit slower when we first launched, but has now proven itself and has risen to being one of the top categories in our store on a consistent basis. The reason that that’s exciting for us is that we designed the model in a way that would keep the value of the content and allow us to keep releasing content to our players on a regular basis. Seeing that play out ensures that we can keep delivering this great content to our players, which is exactly what we want to be doing.

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