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Interview: Why Dungeons & Dragons Online Went Free-To-Play

Turbine tells Gamasutra that Dungeons & Dragons Online's transition to free-to-play was long-planned for many reasons -- among them, "getting a better sense of how microtransactions work in a persistent online world."
Yesterday, Turbine made the surprising announcement that its next upgrade to Dungeons & Dragons Online will do more than raise the level cap and add new quests -- it'll change the game's business model entirely. DDO is going free-to-play, though it'll still offer the option of the same monthly subscription model in the form of a "VIP" user program. Existing subscribers get access to premium content, while free users will be able to shelve the $14.95 per month subscription fee in favor of paying for content and items -- although Turbine director of communications Adam Mersky says no one will be able to "buy their way to the level cap." "We wanted to make it so that the guy with the biggest wallet doesn’t have an unfair advantage," says Mersky. "All the best loot is still in the game, and the hardcore can play their way from level one to 20 totally free." Such a transition lends itself to speculation that perhaps the game was not continuing to succeed on a subscription model, but Mersky says that’s not the case. "If that were the case, we wouldn’t have kept rolling out two, three, four updates a year. We were doing fine as a business." As it turns out, the company’s been seeing a lot of diversity in the audiences coming in to Lord of the Rings Online thanks to the mainstream appeal of Tolkien’s universe, and has been learning from the variety in play style among newer consumers. At the same time, Turbine is focused on global expansion, recently launching LOTRO in South Korea and is preparing for a rollout in China, and believes the alternative business models that are the dominant paradigm in Asia will continue making their way to North America and Europe. Thanks to the proliferation of digital delivery and the success of pay-for-content services like Apple’s iTunes, the Western consumer is coming to expect the ability to pay for content on their own scale, rather than paying a flat fee. "It’s no longer an all-or-nothing thing," says Mersky. And he says DDO was a "perfect fit" for Turbine to start working with alternative business models, and it made much more sense to the company to try a new business model with an existing, successful title than to import and adapt an Asian game or build an entirely new one. "Looking at DDO having moderate success, but definitely a niche game, it was definitely well-suited," he says. Just the nature of Dungeons & Dragons as a property lends itself well, Mersky adds -- players of the pen-and-paper game know what it’s like to visit the hobby store regularly for new dice, miniatures and modules to add onto their existing play set. "We’re always trying to lead and do things interesting in the market as it evolves, and it made sense for this product," he says. And far from a last-ditch decision in response to subscriber levels, Mersky stresses the transition for DDO has been carefully planned for over a year, from both a roll-out and a game design perspective. "The important thing that we first did was we knew we couldn’t just bolt a store onto this game and call it free-to-play," he explains. "So we re-engineered the game, improved the front-end experience, player experience and social tools. We looked at the way loot was awarded and started to engineer with this in mind." Mersky says it makes sense for MMO companies to reconsider the "either or" approach to free-to-play versus subscription. "This is all about player choice," he says. "You can be the subscriber and play your 20, 40 hours a week, and we’re going to make sure you have what you want. But how are we going to open up for older guys who used to play D&D, for example, or who have kids now?" What was formerly thought of as the hardcore audience has reached adulthood, says Mersky, and those players are looking for more scaleable ways to access game experiences as their quantity of free time decreases thanks to work and family. For one example, Mersky says it’s a benefit to these limited-time users to be able to individually purchase update modules that have traditionally launched regularly to DDO subscribers. "There’s no reason to keep paying $16 a month for us to keep adding content that you can’t catch up to because you don’t have the time," he notes. "All we're doing is expanding the market," he says. "What we’re not doing is what a lot of other games have done -- just taking off the [subscription] price and throwing ads or some kind of microtransactions model in the game. We've been working on this for over a year, and we're completely reinvesting in the franchise. We think it's a great fit." And Turbine hopes to be able to use the lessons from DDO’s transition for other projects. "LOTRO is not designed for this," he says. "And we’re not talking about our console projects, but clearly, getting a better sense of how microtransactions work in a persistent online world is going to help our console project down the line."

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