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

DDO shook the MMOG world when they switched to a free-to-play model.

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.

Can you tell us how successful it has been for
style="font-style: italic; font-weight: bold;">DDO style="font-weight: bold;"> going to free-to-play?

It has been really great.
Honestly, it has exceeded our expectations. It’s been a
thrill to be a part of it with style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">DDO.
So much so that we’re taking our other big franchise here at
Turbine with style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">Lord of the Rings
in the same direction. We’re definitely riding the successful
wave here.

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
style="font-style: italic; font-weight: bold;">DDO style="font-weight: bold;">. I think that was a
catalyst for them to say that this model could work and we should try
it out ourselves.

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 style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">DDO
because they did it right.” That’s the biggest
compliment to me.

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alt="Dungeons and Dragons Online"

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

There are a couple of things combined that made us decide to go
free-to-play with style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">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.

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alt="Dungeons and Dragons Online"

One of the things about free-to-play games is that new content is rare.
style="font-style: italic; font-weight: bold;">DDO style="font-weight: bold;">, 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?

It’s something that Turbine has always done. style="font-style: italic;">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.

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.

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.

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

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 style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">Lord of the Rings Online
and some of our future projects, who are always bringing that tech back
to games like style="font-style: italic;">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
in a particular month.

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

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

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.

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alt="Dungeons and Dragons Online"

Can you tell us about the
style="font-style: italic; font-weight: bold;">DDO style="font-weight: bold;"> store? How do you decide
on what items to put in the store and what to keep out?

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 style="font-style: italic;">DDO

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.

What type of items are consistently your best sellers?

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.

Is there anything in the store that you put in and was
surprised by how well that item was received by the community?

We’ve always hoped that the cosmetic stuff would take
off, and that started off really slowly. That’s a big
role-player and social thing, so we really wanted to push that part of
the game because it keeps the game vibrant and alive. We just started
off with some hair and some hair color, and then we started to
introduce some hats and we saw that take off. Of course, that was
something we were really hoping would take off and we didn’t
have any real data to say if that was our game or not. Now
we’ll be expanding on those types of things because we see
that it is proving out. I think that the one item we didn’t
know would be so popular would be the item that we call the Bell of
Opening, which allows you to unlock a chest that has a lock on it so
you can loot it so you get an extra pull at the treasure table.
That’s one of our most surprising success items.

How many of the player base, percentage wise, actually uses
the store?

I’ll answer that in two parts. For people who may not
know, one of the cool things about style="font-style: italic;">DDO
is that you can earn points from
playing the game. We actually give you points for playing and amassing
favor, which is our patron system where you accomplish more and more
quests for certain patrons, you get more favor from them. As you get
more favor, you will earn Turbine Points to spend in the store.
That’s been a very successful part of the model, and as a
result of that, we see about 70% of our users in a given month use the
store. That doesn’t mean that all those people are spending
dollars. The number of our active users who are spending dollars on
Turbine Points is around 20%, but I would note that this number is a
very successful number compared to other games in this genre.

Going into this, we had some third party research numbers that were
showing from 7 to 12 percent, so we’re building things based
on that expectation. We found that our choice of what we put in the
store led to us being more successful than that. You have to be pleased
for doing better than the average.

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How do the numbers, player base and revenue, compare with the
free-to-play with the store as compared to the old month-by-month model?

This is another case if I answer too directly, the corporate police
will come in and snatch me out of here before the end of the interview.
What I will say is that shortly after launch, we revealed that our
revenue numbers had grown to be 5x from what we had seen before with
the subscription model and that our active player numbers had grown to
be 10x from what they had been before. Even the number of subscribers,
which is now a fully optional program, had more than doubled. I guess
without revealing any more numbers without being blessed by my
corporate overlords, I will say that we continue to be very happy with
how we are performing.

That’s an amazing success story in of itself, talking about 5
times or 10 times the number practically overnight

Yeah, it really happened fast. That was one of the cool things to see
was how quickly folks jumped in and how many former players and former
subscribers came right back and were totally excited about the model
and the influx of people. We had so many people tell us,
“Thank you! I wanted to keep playing this game, but I
wasn’t sure if I could keep paying $15 a month.”
That’s been very gratifying to us as well.

I think overnight is the right keyword there. I don’t think
that we slept that much since it happened.

What we have discovered is that offering a free-to-play game to
someone, they are more likely to try it and by trying it, more likely
to stick around if the game is quality. What we have here is a quality
game that said, “We’re
style="font-style: italic; font-weight: bold;">DDO style="font-weight: bold;">. Give us a
try.” It’s been a success. I’ve said
countless times, there are two problems in the MMOG gaming world.
Free-to-play has a stigma, where everybody thinks because it is
free-to-play, then it’s crap. Also, people have these high
expectations. “We have this monthly fee, so I’m
going to try it out because you know it’s quality,”
but as we all know, a lot of these games suck. What I love about this
is that style="font-style: italic; font-weight: bold;">DDO style="font-weight: bold;"> said give us a try for
free, and it’s an awesome game. You’re really
flipping things around.

Thank you for saying all that. To add to that, something that adds to
the secret sauce here is that we’re very generous with the
implementation with the free-to-play model in terms of the number of
hours of gameplay and content that we give away for free and in terms
of how we reward players. The track record shows that it’s
worthwhile to support the free players as well as the subscription and
premium players. We’re very excited by the results and look
forward to continuing on.

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What’s the difference between going subscription and going

Well, the subscription model we liken to the all you can eat plan at
the buffet as opposed to ordering off the ala-carte menu. If
you’re a player who’s going to play many hours per
week and you’re a hardcore gamer who’s going to get
into a game and get the max out of it for a few months or longer, then
the subscription model is probably right for you. It gives you access
to all of the game’s content, races and classes. With the
free plan, however, you get to start the game and play it at your own
pace. If you’re a gamer that has a family or you like to play
with your game group who only gets together once a week or month, then
you’ll want the free-to-play model. You come in, you play the
game at your own pace, and you get to a point where you say,
“I’m ready to buy this convenience item.
I’m ready to buy this content. My group is ready to play this
area.” So you spend $5 that night on the content pack.

What’s cool with the features and content when you buy them
in our free-to-play model, you now essentially own those for the life
of the service. So if you buy Tangleroot Gorge, then if you continue to
play DDO
and are a hardcore character, you can roll up ten more characters or
play on multiple servers, and you’ll have access to that
content pack on all of them. It’s really about what fits your
play style. Again, we were very careful to keep the value in the
subscription model because we didn’t want to alienate that
existing fan base who was very happy with the game or force them to
turn around and purchase the content they were enjoying already. That
was one of the blessings of converting the live game was that it forced
us to invent this hybrid model rather than just building a free model
from the ground up where maybe we would be tempted not to have a
subscription tier. Looking back in retrospect, it’s been a
success story keeping the subscription model there.

Update 5 recently launched. What kind of cool things is in it?

Aside from some great content, we have some really great mini-stories
going on with a carnival and devil invasion type of theme, we
introduced a guild leveling system which starts out as you’ll
be getting little boosts and boons for your guild as you guys increase
the rank of your guild. We have a guild xp called renown, which is how
infamous you become in your world. As your renown grows,
you’ll eventually be able to purchase which is our solution
to guild housing, which is flying airships that you can set up your
guild camp on. You can use it for travel, which makes it a little more
unique than your typical housing, as well as setting it up with several
amenities like rest areas. You can have your tavern there. You can have
a practice dummy where you can test your DPS on, and it’s
also a good time killer when you’re waiting for your guild to
get together to run a raid. There’s all sorts of buff
stations, and as you level up, you can upgrade your airship. This is
another area where we offer a coin solution for in-game purchases,
where you can get this sort of luxury line where the Toyota is the game
version and the Lexus is the store version. You can purchase coins from
the store to purchase a shinier, larger airship. You can upgrade the
ship getting larger spaces. You can get crafting systems on board. It
just keeps expanding, and we’re having a lot of fun building
this thing out.

We’ve also put up some leader boards to get a little bit of
shard competition going. You can go online and see your
guild’s ranking versus others. You can also look across
worlds to see who the top guild in the game is. That’s really
been taking off. It’s gotten people playing very hard, and we
encourage people to just play the regular game, and your renown and
celebrity status will just come with it. For some of our hardcore
players, that is the game and they work hard to get to the next level
and stay on top of the leader boards.

To add to that, we also added a lot if little improvements to the
existing classes. For example, the rogue class got a new trap making
ability, which is their own dedicated crafting system. Now when they
disable traps, which is a common part of style="font-style: italic;">DDO
for those players who do not know that there is a real use of rogues
and traps in our game that isn’t common to other MMOGs,
they’ll scavenge some trap parts. They can take those to a
crafting station and create their own traps. They have their own hand
grenades and land mines that they can place in a quest or sell to their
friends or in the auction house. Likewise, we made some improvements to
the cleric, who have a prestige enhancement called the Radiant Servant.
This is a really cool healing ability for the cleric that distinguishes
them from the favored souls, who have been the new kid on the block
healers. There’s also some improvements to a wizard line and
some enhancements to a monk’s prestige enhancement as well.

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What’s in store for
style="font-style: italic; font-weight: bold;">DDO style="font-weight: bold;"> in the future? Have you
guys planned update 6 already? What can players look forward to?

Answer: Yes, absolutely on the update 6 question. In fact, update 6 is
largely done and ready to be released to players. I guess
I’ll give you guys first dibs and tell you that it will be
coming in August. That update features a whole new adventure pack for
level 9 players as well as epic mode, which is level 20 mode so that
our capped characters can go in and play and get all their treasure
upgraded to epic. The new adventure pack takes place in a new swamp
wilderness area. It’s our first wilderness for quite a while
and a needed one for level 9, where there currently isn’t
one. It includes a Sahuagin city that is located underwater, and
eventually the players will get to play the capstone adventure of that
adventure pack fully underwater, which is really great. Our artists and
content guys did a really great job with it.

Is there anything else you want to say about
style="font-style: italic; font-weight: bold;">DDO style="font-weight: bold;">?

Half-Orc smash! We are going to be releasing a new race this fall, I
believe, so it’s part of this year’s release plan.
A new race of half-orcs. They are going to be the biggest, toothiest
thing that we’ve ever had in-game. They’re a little
larger than the warforged, and those are in development here.
We’re getting stuff back from the art department: nice
looking models and some really cool dance moves for those who want to
do the emotes. They have some really cool abilities. They start with
enhanced strength so they’ll be great barbarians in the game.
That’s one that we’re definitely excited about.
It’s been on every player’s question list for the
last four years – when are we doing half-orcs?
We’re finally delivering on that.

To add some more on what’s coming out later in the year in
update 7 and 8, the other thing that I’m excited about is an
overhaul to the user interface in the game. This is another thing that
we’ve gotten a lot of player press on, and the players will
be very excited to see a face lift UI as well as some much requested,
and justifiably griped about, fixes to auctions. Players can be happy
to know that we’ll be doing string searches in auctions,
proper sorting of the search results, and other improvements to the UI
that they’ll really enjoy. As a player, I’m so
excited to be able to be able to properly search the auction and see
the UI get a little bit of a refresh.

Question: You guys really seem to enjoy the interaction you have with
the players. Is there anything that the players give you that is most
helpful with the new content that comes out?

Answer: We always love to see the players who really clearly know the
game, clearly know their character, they know how they expect things to
work, and they come in and play the new content when it goes live, or
even better, they venture into one our test servers, and give us
dispassionate feedback. I know the forums can be a hard place to pick
out the great suggestions from the rants and complaints that get into
the mix. Though we do read it all. We appreciate the players who come
in with a clear idea of what they don’t like, what they do
like, what they want to see in the future, and their suggestions on how
to change what’s there now.

We also love seeing the community get excited over some new feature,
like the guild stuff. We see them talking about it and posting about
it. It’s very satisfying after spending six months working on
something and it finally sees the light of day and the players really
enjoy it.

target="_blank">Listen to the interview with Fernando
Paiz and Erik Boyer.

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