DDO Unlimited Interview with Turbine Developers - Unlocking the New F2P Model
Few massively multiplayer online games have been as scrutinized as Dungeons and Dragons Online.
Based off a legendary intellectual property, many gamers were surprised
when features of the game were different than normal MMOs and included
highly instanced areas, small servers, and a number of additional
quirks that simply weren’t the norm. Fast forward three
years, and DDO has come light years from its beginnings. In a recent
announcement, the developers at Turbine revealed that DDO would be
going free to play, and Ten Ton Hammer quickly got on the phone with
the developers – Adam
Mersky, Fernando Paiz and Kate Paiz - to get the details.
Ten Ton Hammer: Why go free to play? What drove you to make this decision? Why do it now? Why not three months earlier or later?
Adam Mersky: We were just as E3, and there were all these free to play games on the show floor this year. We’ve been in Asia for awhile now with our product, and we’ve seen the power of this model. As leaders in this space, we needed to do something with the free to play model.
After examining things, we realized that DDO was actually a pretty good fit for it. If you look, you can go back and examine how the original D&D IP was marketed: As you went through your adventures and wanted more options with your group, you just hopped down to the hobby store and picked up another book, better dice, or better miniatures.
The joke is that Wizards of the Coast and TSR actually pioneered micro-transactions. They always made you want to go back and buy more.
That right there fit in with the game, but the way DDO is set up also was a…
Kate Paiz: A natural fit.
Adam: I think it’s important to note that this isn’t a bolted on solution. We didn’t just want to toss an item mall into the game and see what happens. We’ve put well over a years worth of work into this to sort of “re-engineer” the game and fit this model.
We didn’t want people’s worse nightmares to happen, i.e. “I have a bigger wallet, therefore I’m going to be the best player in the game.” We’re going to have distinct types of players – VIPs, casual purchasers, and free players – all be able to interact together in the same world in a balanced and entertaining way.
That was really the fit. We would have done a free to play game no matter what the circumstance, but the best part was that DDO was a perfect fit.
Ten Ton Hammer: Rather than simply opting for an item mall, you’re using a sort of hybrid subscription model / freemium / micro-transaction system. What drew you to this monetization method rather than just having an item mall or just unlocking features with a subscription?
Fernando Paiz: One of the things we started to see as we took a look at how we might monetize a free to play scheme with DDO was a natural inclination to want to charge for the content somehow. We wanted to give enough of the content away that you could play for free and enjoy the game, but ultimately we wanted to find a way to charge for content.
There’s a large number of players that are still subscribed to the game and enjoying it every day, and we didn’t want to lock them into a new model. We didn’t want them feeling like they were going to need to spend a hundred or two hundred bucks to get everything that they were enjoying previously with Turbine. So we gravitated towards, what in some ways is a risky move, this hybrid model. We think that once you look at it and how it works, you’ll see that’s it’s kind of the ala carte menu rather than the all you can eat menu.
And I think it works very well. If you’re someone that was hardcore and played DDO all the time - ten plus hours a week and running characters to level cap all the time – you’re definitely going to want the subscription VIP model. On top of that, it also comes with a few additional benefits for our VIP customers.
On the other hand, if you’re somebody that wants to take some time to make your way through the game and you play more casually, yet you don’t want to be pressured to get $15 worth of value out of the game every month, you have the option to go at your own pace and pay as you go.
It’s all about giving players that sort of flexibility and choice.
Ten Ton Hammer: There’s definitely going to be some chatter about this on the official forums, good and bad, but in particular what can you tell the players that are going to be upset about this decision? What can you tell them to assuage their fears?
Adam: I think the only gamers that are really disappointed over this whole announcement are those folks that aren’t getting their free content today, which is what they were hoping to find waiting for them. Most of them are also disappointed that they’ll have to wait until beta is over to access the new content we’ve got in the game.
While we don’t want any of our players to be upset, that’s about as good a response to this sort of announcement that you can have.
Kate: One of the things that’s nice about the way we’re making this change is that our current players are basically getting the same sort of content and payment style that they had before. The experience for them doesn’t materially change with the exception of an item store that allows them some conveniences for easier moment to moment gameplay if they choose to accept it. Part of our VIP program is giving our players 500 points that they can spend a month in our store, so they get a lot of value.
Now obviously this is a change and that makes people nervous and that causes anxiety – and we’ll see that in the forums – but we’re keeping an eye on it so that we can better our services and ensure that people that had been enjoying our game continue to see that value.
What we hope people will see out of this is a better DDO. The current subscribers shouldn’t see a change in their status, and now the other folks can choose to pay and play at their own pace.
Fernando: Just to restate and emphasize some of what Kate just said there, I think the tact that we take with some of those skeptics out there is that we haven’t changed the core of what’s great about DDO today. On the contrary, we’ve worked to make the game better, and everything that we did to the game is optional.
We urge people to give it a try. We were very conscious of the idea to not “sell the endgame.” We’re not selling the loot that you’re questing for. We’re not selling a quick route to level 20. That’s not what’s there.
These are small conveniences, small XP boosts. Those players that are the hardcore players can continue being experts in the game and kicking ass in the dungeons like they always have.
Ten Ton Hammer: As a subscriber, I recently received my VIP newsletter discussing all the new features. Are current subscribers going to any sort of additional goodies to kind of ease them into this transition? Or will they just receive the same VIP benefits as the average Joe?
Fernando: Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to be giving our subscribers some sort of additional liquidity. I don’t know if we want to divulge all the details, but we’ll certainly be doing everything that we can to make our players feel very welcome and to encourage them to try out the store. We don’t want them necessarily reaching for their wallets in the first little bit, so along with the VIP benefits, we’re going to be doing some additional introductory things as the service rolls out.
Adam: And if you haven’t seen them already, make sure you check out all the VIP benefits here. (http://www.ddo.com/vip)
Ten Ton Hammer: We’ve talked a lot about what the VIP folks are getting, but what does a free player have access to?
Kate: Free players are going to be able to access the bulk of the content in Stormreach and nearby environments. The far flung environments are going to be available in our content packs, which are going to be in the store, but many of the “common” zones players experience in the early levels of the game will just be there available for them to access.
We have a new leveling mechanic where you need to find the leveling sigil, which you can quest for, but if you’re impatient and don’t want to quest for it, you can buy them in the store. We want to make sure that free players have the option to either spend a little more time leveling up, or can just use the convenience that the store offers.
But there’s just a tremendous amount of content already there, for free, that players can come in, enjoy, and have a good time with.
Additionally, anyone that owns one of the adventure packs can purchase a guest pass, and they can invite players it that may not have purchased the content. Those players that use the guest pass should be able to have fun in that area for an entire night, and I think that’s going to be a great way for subscribers or ala carte purchasers to pull in people that are a little more casual.
Ten Ton Hammer: Looking forward, what kind of change will this new system have on the content updates that you have in DDO? I imagine we’ll still see some free additions, but are we going to begin to see more additions to the game that are VIP only or purchase only or something along those lines?
Fernando: I think you’ll see use experiment a little bit with the model and how best to optimize it for our players. But as far as things in our immediate plans, I think you’ll see us continuing to release a lot of content and if you’re a VIP you’ll have access to it first. It won’t necessarily go on sale the very first day the content is live, so players won’t be able to buy it from the store the first day. Eventually, everyone will be able to buy it from there even if they’re not a VIP.
As far as features go, we don’t have anything in mind that’s going to be VIP only, but we certainly reserve the right to add thing to the VIP offering as well as add things that are going to be free for all players. We’ll do whatever is appropriate for what the service needs at the time.
Ten Ton Hammer: Now that DDO has hit the level cap, the next things that you’re going to be working on in the D&D core rules are things like the rest of the races, classes, and the epic levels. Could we see those come in as items that you’d need to purchase from the store?
Fernando: Yeah, I think you’ll definitely be seeing some things like that, and there will be some available even at the beginning of the service. You’ll certainly see some new things going in there, and maybe some content that VIP players will have to pay for – even though that hasn’t been finalized. There’s also content that can be unlockable through the game, but if you don’t want to spend the time to unlock those characters, you can purchase them from the store.
Ten Ton Hammer: Obviously you’re switching to a F2P game because you believe that you can make more money in this sort of business model than you could with a straight subscription plan. Why did you think that was the case?
Fernando: Absolutely this is a learning experience for Turbine for the future. This doesn’t necessarily mean anything for LOTRO or Asheron’s Call. But as a company, absolutely we’re learning from what we do in this project and how to apply it in the future.
Even at launch, we heard rumblings that this wasn’t exactly what people were expecting out of a subscription model game, and the subscription was a barrier of entry for the number of people that we’d like to see play in the game, even though the game’s been doing well for three years.
We saw the potential to use this big brand of D&D Online and relaunch it to a wider audience. We then wouldn’t be tied down by a subscription.
Ten Ton Hammer: Were you just waiting for the free to play model to mature before releasing DDO in this sort of scheme?
Adam: It’s really a combination of things. The West had to learn this buyer behavior thing. Would you have ever purchased just one song five years ago? You had to watch the Sopranos when the Sopranos was actually on five years ago. Now you can watch it whenever the hell you want.
I think that this is coming isn’t purely because we want to make more money. We have a much broader audience today than we did three years ago when DDO launched. If we go back ten years ago, MMOs were an elite club for the super hardcore. We have people in LOTRO that had never touched an MMO in their lives.
We’re seeing a big diversification. WoW is sponsoring the halftime show in the NBA playoffs. The games are becoming more mainstream. At the end of the day, this isn’t about business models, this is about player choice. The debate in the free-to-play versus the subscription has always been just that, the black and white choice. Now Turbine is coming out with a model that gives you a broader proposition. You need to give players a choice on how they’re going to play their games, and then you’ll attract a different audience.
By bringing this model to bear, we’ve effectively eliminated the number one barrier to MMOs: the subscription. On the other hand, the main reason why people play MMOs is because their friends do. And what’s exciting about this is that if Fernando and Kate are VIPs and I go in to try it out, you can purchase a guest pass to invite me in to a specific adventure that I don’t have access to. Then I have that option to check out the content and really see if this is up my alley or not before I go out and buy it.
Ten Ton Hammer: Thanks for your time, and good luck with the new version of DDO!