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: 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.


Few massively multiplayer online games have been as scrutinized as style="font-style: italic;">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.


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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?
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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.

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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?
style="font-weight: bold;" />


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?
style="font-weight: bold;" />

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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?
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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?
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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?
style="font-weight: bold;" />


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?
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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.

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In terms of DDO in particular, we did start by taking a look at DDO and
LOTRO and what we might be able to do with this type of model. The
reason DDO rose to be the top candidate was because it is already our
non-traditional MMO. It isn’t the traditional open world,
work your way up through level cap in the EQ, AC, WoW style.
It’s already a little bit different, and it’s a
different type of game. It’s not full of those open world
shared spaces, it’s highly instanced, and a variety of
different sorts of play styles are involved in the game.

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!


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