DDO goes F2P: An interview with Turbine

As the news hit yesterday concerning Dungeons and Dragons Online going free-to-play, many MMO gamers collectively rejoiced, while others didn't. The idea of this hybrid business model is wonderful for those who have yet to experience DDO, as it now gives them a chance to play the game as long as they'd like, with no level cap restrictions for absolutely no cost. This means no credit card info changing hands, no commitments to a monthly fee and the implied need to "get your money's worth" and no real need to quit the game if you can't afford it. But it can't be that easy, can it? Well, there's a slight catch.

Current subscribers will see no real change in the game, as what they're paying for now is what's included in the new VIP model. The F2P players will not exactly have access to the same features for free, yet they can purchase as little or as much as they'd like in the Turbine store with Turbine points. This allows more casual players the chance to play the game and only pay for those features they know they'll use. To help explain this new system, and answer some questions we had, we had a chance to sit down with Adam Mersky, Turbine's Director of Communication, Kate Paiz, Senior Producer for DDO and Fernando Paiz, Executive Producer for DDO. Keep reading after the jump to find out what they had to say.%Gallery-65663%

Massively: Could you give us a general run-down of the differences between the VIP and the free side of this business model?

Kate Paiz: One of the major things about the VIP experience is that it's really meant to be consistent with the subscription offering that we've had. So players who have been subscribers are only going to see additional benefits to their experience. They're not going to find that something has been changed from under them in a negative way. So they can log in as much or as little as they want. They'll have access to everything they had access to before, and they'll also have some additional new benefits. We will give them a monthly stipend of 500 Turbine points that they can spend however they'd like in the store. And then they also have a few other additional small benefits like a shared account bank which allows them to consolidate items and transfer them between characters in a very easy way.

The free players are coming into a new mechanic. So they're going to be able to experience the core game with a significant number of dungeons and adventures that they can participate in. Almost all of Stormreach will be there for their exploration and enjoyment, but they're going to have a couple of decision points where they'll have the choice to pay for something or to play for it. So they can either invest time or a small amount of cash to proceed. There's a new leveling mechanic where an NPC will need a new type of trinket about every four levels, from four to five and eight to nine and so on, and they can quest for that and it will drop at the end of major storylines. So they'll have plenty of opportunity to play for that if they want, or if they're getting impatient and want to proceed, then they can drop a very small amount of money into the store and get one that way.

Fernando Paiz: The metaphor that we always use as the simplifying thing here is that the free players have an a la carte menu of options and they can take it at their pace if they want, and the VIPs are on the all-you-can-eat plan. So they know they're going to make that buffet experience count and they're going to get the most out of it, and the other guys are maybe taking a little more time, playing a little more casually, and so they want to do it a different way.

Will the VIP pricing be the same as the current subscription rate?

Fernando: Yes it is, and in fact, everyone who has promotional subscriptions -- either from way back at launch or ones they got along the way -- those subscriptions stay in tact with the current pricing they have today. All players will have the chance to join the VIP program at $14.99 a month.

Will the frequency of updates stay consistent?

Fernando: Well actually, that's one of the things players have been concerned about lately, that we haven't had an update in awhile and it's because we've been working on this big announcement. But yeah, with this release we're going to go back into a regular cadence of updates every couple of months. You'll see the first update, which will now be called Update 1, coming very shortly after we officially launch from the beta. Again, probably less than two months after beta, or around that time frame.

So are you getting away from the Module updates?

Fernando: No, the Modules are still coming. They really are the content packs, and what we're doing is drawing a differentiation between the update that comes to the service with new features for all of our players, and the actual adventure packs, which are what we call the Modules, which will be what's for sale in the store. So going forward, a new content pack will be for sale in the store, and that's a new Module.

Kate: Just to clarify, VIPs will get all of those adventure packs as part of their subscription and membership experience. There are certainly going to be opportunities for us to add new dungeons and experiences to the core free game, but we're looking at making sure that those big epic storylines are part of the store for the free players and part of the normal experience for the VIPs.

This is only available in North America through Turbine, right? It's not available through Codemasters in Europe just yet?

Adam Mersky: That's correct. Like we always do with all our games, our beta programs happen first in North America, and as we get closer to launch we'll start to unveil our plans to launch here and then our plans to launch both in Europe and over in Asia.

Ok, but it is coming, right?

Adam: That's the plan. This is clearly a big change, not just to DDO, but for the industry. For Codemasters players, the game is still operating as it always has. They'll continue to get all the new content we're putting in for DDO Unlimited and it will be available to their subscribers in the traditional DDO sense, the way things have run up till now.

As far as this new content coming, there was mention of a new class. Can you tell us anything about this new class?

Fernando: Unfortunately, we can't announce that just yet. What I can say about the new class is that those players that have gotten into the beta and have looked around the build have already sniffed out some pretty strong clues as to what this new class will be. But those players are under NDA, so all I can say is get into beta, and you can find out for yourself what that class might be.

There's also mention of the expanded level cap coming. Will it be expanded past 20 at any point?

Fernando: As you know how D&D works, after 20 things get a little funky and you can go into epic levels and that sort of thing, so I guess what is safe to say is that we have no immediate plans to move beyond 20, and when we do move beyond 20, it will be a very different kind of structure that takes you there. We still have awhile to go to make level 20 all it can be, adding new content for the high level and giving folks interesting stuff to do in the end game. That's all coming in the updates that are coming soon.

Adam: It's probably important to note, as I'm sure you're well aware, that 20 levels in D&D is really like 80 traditional levels in an MMO, right? There's still a wealth of content in there, like ranks for each level. This is something I always like to point out.

Are there any plans to implement this business model for LotRO or Asheron's Call?

Adam: Not really. In bringing LotRO and DDO over to Asia over the past few years, the games we were competing against over there were free-to-play games. So we saw the power of this model, knowing that we needed to lead in this space, and we wondered how we could do that. Do we port an existing game? Do we make a new game? Then we looked at DDO and thought this game is pretty perfect for this model. The style of gameplay, with small group instanced experiences, makes it easy for us to lock off and allow players to purchase access as they need it. Where as LotRO is a much different, open world with a traditional experience that doesn't lend itself to this type of model.

And if you really go back to it, the way D&D was marketed in the 70s and 80s and even today, it was very much a microtransaction business, if you can do that in an offline business. But you had adventures that you played with your buddies and when you were ready for more, you headed down to the hobby store and bought more books, or you enhanced your experience with something like new dice or minis or stuff like that. Little did we know when we started down this path awhile ago that right under our nose we had this game that was perfect to start migrating. We've been working on this for well over a year, and we had to really go back and re-engineer the game to work under this model, but to answer your question, we have no plans to do this to LotRO because it's a different kind of game. Quite frankly, LotRO's doing really well in its current situation.

Despite that, do you think the free-to-play, or even this hybrid model is the future of MMOs?

Adam: Yeah, I think there are a lot of things in the future of MMOs. With Turbine, we've been pretty public about this, but even a year ago we raised a round of funding and we laid out what our strategic vision was for our company and in our opinion, for the industry. It was really all about accessibility. With this model coming to DDO, and experimenting with alternative business models, it allows us to broaden the exposure of our games.

Another example is going to console and expanding the platforms in which we serve, which we've certainly not kept a secret but we're not talking about just yet, is all part of that. As well as going global and making sure these games are available to people around the planet; these are all things that are the future of the MMO industry. While some companies are choosing one or two of these to focus on, we're moving forward on a bunch of fronts because we've been doing this for a long time. We're celebrating our 15th anniversary this year, and with one of the bigger players with three games in operation, we have the wherewithal to be able to do that.

I think you actually just answered my last question about DDO going to console. So you're not talking about that just yet?

Adam: Yeah we're not talking about that, but it's like I've told other people who have asked that question: Never say never.

Thank you for your time!

Turbine has just announced that Dungeons and Dragons Online will be moving to a free-to-play business model, and we have the inside scoop. Be sure to read our complete coverage of the changeover, and look for more info as DDO Unlimited approaches launch.