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.
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.

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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.

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

Answer: 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.

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

Answer: I’ll answer that in two parts. For people who may not know, one of the cool things about 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.

Dungeons and Dragons Online

Question: 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?

Answer: 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.

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

Answer: 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.

Question: 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 DDO. 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 DDO said give us a try for free, and it’s an awesome game. You’re really flipping things around.

Answer: 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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Question: What’s the difference between going subscription and going free-to-play?

Answer: 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.

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

Answer: 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 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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Question: What’s in store for DDO 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.

Question: Is there anything else you want to say about DDO?

Answer: 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.

Listen to the interview with Fernando Paiz and Erik Boyer.

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