Earlier this month, MMORPG.com's editors named Turbine's Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited the recipient of its Best F2P MMO of 2009 award. This seemed rather fitting for a game that started out subscription-based; its shift represented something of a parallel to the changing balance of revenue models in the major western markets as a whole.
The decision to make the switch surprised a lot of people. It also immediately brought out the naysayers who apparently couldn't wait it out to expound their view, sometimes quite passionately, that it was an act of desperation. We may never know if there was any truth to this. However, the indications from the first few months are certainly that the transition has been successful.
According to Executive Producer Fernando Paiz, the conversion definitely involved a learning process that's still ongoing. A key challenge that arose early was figuring out what and how much to provide at no cost while incorporating ways to bring in enough revenue for DDO to be economically viable. "Give away the farm, and we wouldn't be able to sustain the business," he says looking back. "Charge for too much, and we wouldn't get enough players. We had to find the right mix of free and paid elements to make it work right."
The approach chosen involves allowing players to invest either time or money to pay for the premium content and features sold in the game's store. Free players can acquire points to spend there by completing quests, which are repeatable with multiple characters to obtain more. Bundles may also be purchased for cash, and anyone who prefers a flat fee can choose the $15 per month VIP option. In addition, it's possible to sign up and to download the game without having to use a credit card, something that might not be obvious to everyone with a subscription mindset.
Paiz and his team made all the starter quests and the standalone adventures in the city of Stormreach through level 11 free. This may not sound like very much until he points out that these are D&D levels, which he compares to about 44 in a typical MMOG. He continues by saying that "By then, players will have earned enough points to buy some of the other content we sell in premium adventure packs in the store."
Not surprisingly, giving away too much became a concern since attracting more players, many of whom wouldn't pay, would mean higher operating costs - for bandwidth at least, and possibly for more servers. This led to a second lesson, "It can't be too free, and we can always add more free later." Paiz admits the latter portion of this though may have contributed to erring on the conservative side. For instance, he cites the implementation of sigils that non-VIPs must collect as quest rewards in order to advance every fourth level. Players found them confusing, even irritating, and they've been slated for removal in an approaching update.
According to Paiz, this is also an example of learning to react as quickly as possible to feedback from players so as to make the game as free as possible. In a similar vein, he states that the same update will add the first free high-level dungeons, thereby addressing another common gripe.
Even before this, he expresses pleasure that "we have seen unprecedented response to the game. We've attracted tons of players to DDO, and been able to achieve and surpass all of our internal projections." He believes the principle of giving players the option to invest time or money has paid off, and he plans to continue expanding and improving the game on this basis.
Of course, a few months, even with a decidedly positive balance of indicators including multiple F2P game of the year awards, doesn't guarantee staying long-term power, especially considering the space's increasingly competitive nature. It's also intriguing to wonder whether other publishers will learn from DDO's example and attempt to emulate its success by converting some of their titles over from subscription. My guess is that although we won't see a tidal wave, it won't bee too long before we see some movement.
Beyond that lies an even more interesting question. How long is it likely to be before Turbine launches a title that's F2P right from day one? By all indications, the company has at least a couple of unannounced projects percolating away. Is it possible at least one isn't intended to be subscription, not just to tap into the growing sector here in North America and Western Europe, but also to stand a better chance of penetrating other regions by removing an obstacle to entry?