No major North American studio has tried to switch a game's business model years after launch. Turbine, recently,moved Dungeons and Dragons Online in that direction, pioneering a movement that, if successful, could have a lasting impact on an MMO industry that has already shown more openness to the item shop model.
Time and time again industry experts have said that in order for an item shop game to be successful, it has to be applied in the right way, to the right game. Is Turbine the right company? Is the system well implemented? Does the item shop unbalance the game? Is DDO, a game conceived as a subscription MMO, the right game to make this transition? Is now the time to be making the move? These and other questions need to be answered before anyone can judge such a controversial change.
Is it the right time?
Trends in the industry indicate that this is indeed the right time for Turbine to make this move. Recently, one of the biggest complaints heard about any MMO, especially the more recently released ones, is that populations are simply too low. Newly launched games are losing large numbers of subscribers in their formative days, which can make their worlds seem quite barren..
The free-to-play model allows companies to maintain a strong population base for players. Non-paying members populate the world, which makes the game more fun for everyone and thus encourages more item shop use. It's a simple formula and given some of the problems faced by recently launched games; it's a formula that has to be considered.
Is it the right game?
One of the biggest complaints about Dungeons and Dragons Online right from launch was the fact that it felt too isolated to be a proper subscription-based MMORPG. Nearly everything in the game was done in small group instances with the exception of a few open common areas. This reminded many players of Guild Wars, which requires no monthly fee.
Of course, over the last few years, Turbine has responded to these concerns and improved the game significantly by adding more explorable areas, more common areas, the ability to solo and much more. Still though, that core design persists, it is after all Dungeons and Dragons Online. It was designed to be an online equivalent to the pen and paper game where every adventure is based around a small, group in a private instance.
These facts alone, and that design decision made all the way back when the game was still in the pre-planning stages are what make DDO a perfect fit for an item shop based revenue model. The developers have said in interview after interview that the new system is set up to mirror the module and book based revenue model employed by pen and paper DnD. While there are certainly some differences in the execution, the idea is the same: You've got your base game and then you have various add-ons, adventures and the like that can be purchased if desired.
Is it well implemented?
This is the biggest issue that Turbine is going to have to contend with when players begin to evaluate the game en masse when it launches on August 4th. Due to the exposure that the change has received, combined with the IP's name recognition and overall quality of things like graphics and gameplay for a F2P game, Turbine could have a lot of people waiting to give this a try. Whether or not they stick around, and whether or not they choose to spend any of their money on the game is going to rely heavily upon how well Turbine has implements the cash shop. So, how exactly has Turbine integrated this new system?
Turbine has made the item shop window easy to access (a simple icon on the menu bar). Navigation of the cash shop system itself is straightforward. On top of the eight available categories (Premium Items, XP & Loot Boosts, Hirelings, Spells and Potions, Healing, Level and Stat Boosts, Cosmetics and Convenience), a ninth category exists called Featured, which allows players to see a number of popular items. You can also see what's on sale on any given day, what the best selling items are and what you've bought (recently). It's an easy, un-obtrusive system.
To alleviate some player fears, Turbine isn't forcing players to move to a cash shop model. Many players are concerned that a game that once cost them $15 a month would end up costing them much more when it came time to pony up for items, adventure packs or character classes that they wanted. As has been stated previously, but could use repeating again, DDO Unlimited will offer a VIP membership that will give players access to all of the content as well as an allowance of Turbine coins. And, for those who don't want to subscribe, there is always the ability to earn Turbine coin in-game. It's a slower process, but it isn't impossible.
Does the Item Shop unbalance the game?
There are those who feel that any kind of RMT shop in a game will horribly upset the balance, no matter how subtly that cash shop is introduced. Players who feel that way are unlikely to enjoy this new version of DDO. Generally, item shops come in two styles. Some rely on cosmetic supplements to the gameplay experience. Others can act as gates, and essentially force players to buy items in order to advance or do anything in the game. DDO's cash shop runs somewhere in the middle. They don't make the best items in the game exclusive to the shop, but they also don't just limit themselves to cosmetics.
In DDO, you won't be able to run out and buy the coolest magical item, +5 Sword of Flaming. What Turbine does allow you to do is to purchase low-end magical items in the form of weapons and armor. You can also buy potions of healing and other similar brews. If you want, you can even buy a rest shrine; that is if you're too tired to find one of the ones in-game, which are all still be in place. The design will not require players to buy these in order to survive. If you want to advance through the levels a little bit more quickly, you can do that too via temporary XP potions or maybe to get past that one tough quest, you want to make use of a paid hireling. You can do that too.
The developers believe that the item shop has been designed so that savvy players will be able to do with a minimum of the "extras" like additional ammo, heal potions and the like.
It's easy to say that any title that offers in-game items beyond the cosmetic becomes more about who has the money then about who has exhibited skill at the game, but the more difficult point to see is that the more skilled a player is, the less money the game is likely to cost. And, after all, Turbine isn't running a charity.
Dungeons and Dragons Online: Unlimited is going to be a unique experience, and it never hurts to try something out, especially when it's free. The worst case scenario is that you won't like it. The best case scenario is that you'll find a new MMO that you can pay as much or as little for as you like.