PAX East 2011: Turbine makes the case for the free-to-play model

"Pioneers get the gold!" Turbine's Fernando Paiz is fond of saying. "And they get the arrows too..."

Instead of the wild, wild west, Paiz was referring to the frontier of MMORPG business models, companies that have diverged from traditional subscriptions over the past 10 years. In a presentation at PAX East titled "The Game Monetization Revolution," he shared how this movement has come about, ways that it can fail, and how pioneers have grabbed the gold by getting it right.

Of course, Paiz has a great perspective on this revolution, having helmed Dungeons & Dragons Online as it made the transition from a pure subscription game to a hybrid free-to-play/subscription title. Both DDO and Lord of the Rings Online have done tremendously well since moving to this business model, proving that AAA titles can thrive outside of the subscription-only checkout lane.

Hit the jump as Fernando Paiz takes us down memory lane and addresses the biggest fear players have with F2P.

Pay pay revolution

Paiz began his talk by identifying a distinct if quiet revolution among both developers and gamers -- a dislike of the traditional payment model that's been the status quo in the industry for the past decade. Instead, developers are frustrated by an inability to make good money with subscriptions while players dislike feeling locked in to just one game when they want to sow their pixelated oats.

This revolution's been brewing in the past 10 years as "free" has become the key word to drawing in the crowds while helping studios make and retain a profit. While Paiz gave the subscription model its due by saying that it appeals greatly to monogamous players who dump a lot of time into one game, he feels that F2P has the potential to be attractive on a larger scale.

Taking us through several F2P pioneers of the 2000s, Paiz showed us how this revolution's been brewing, from RuneScape to Guild Wars to the invasion of Asian imports. It was a mistake, he thinks, for MMO companies to have ignored the success of the microtransaction model overseas for as long as they did.

Paiz noted that free-to-play is distinctly different from a demo, since F2P does not end, does allow players to continue their experiences, and does provide opportunities for players to unlock more content and goodies in-game. Adding microtransactions on top of that allows players to proceed at their own pace as they pay for virtual goods and services to enhance their game experience.

Turbine's five Cs

When planning the transitions to the F2P model for both DDO and LotRO, Turbine's staff sat down and identified five varieties of microtransactions it would pursue. Paiz calls them the five Cs: content (such as new zones), convenience (letting you pay to resurrect), consumables (potions), cosmetic (outfits), and concierge services (character transfers). Ultimately, Turbine's goal was to give players a choice to play -- and pay -- the way they wanted.

Prior to DDO's F2P switch, the game suffered by not meeting players expectations of what a subscription-based game would be. As a result, it was perceived as hardcore niche which kept its audience small. After the transition, revenue shot through the roof and subscriptions actually doubled as more players poured in to check it out without the weight of a subscription price hanging over their heads.

How did the company do this? During strategy sessions, the team decided that it was important not to do this switch half-way -- to make it truly possible to play free, to preserve the subscription plan for those who preferred it, and to not sell endgame loot.

Trials and errors

However, the company certainly wanted to avoid some of the pitfalls it identified. The largest fear among MMO players, Paiz said, was that a F2P/microtransaction model would lead to unfairness as the rich player would buy the best toys and dominate the poorer players.

Paiz said it was vital to keep the subscription and F2P community together, as it not only helped the community managers (who would rather manage one group than two) but strengthened the playerbase as a whole.

Turbine found even greater success by folding LotRO into this hybrid model. This was an additional challenge to work out how the model would work within an open landscape versus DDO's hub-and-dungeon format.

Paiz concluded by stating what he considered to be the obvious: Free-to-play gives players choices, and that's almost always good -- although it's not a magic bullet for all struggling MMOs. Quality gameplay and engagement are the ways to suck in gamers and keep them playing your title long after they've lost interest in the others.

Massively's on the ground in Boston during the weekend of March 11-13, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2011. Whether you're dying to know more about SWTOR or Guild Wars 2 or any MMO in between, you can bet we'll have it covered!

This article was originally published on Massively.