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GDC10: Massively's interview with Dungeons and Dragons Online, part 1

Rubi Bayer, @@rubi_

Nine short months ago, Dungeons and Dragons Online was "the forgotten MMO": "a game that really doesn't jump to the forefront of the MMO market, but stays quietly in the background, chugging away with a loyal fanbase and consistent content updates." The timing of that story on Massively was uncanny, because ten days later Turbine dropped the news on the gaming community that Dungeons and Dragons Online was going free-to-play. Opinion on the decision was sharply divided, with many players saying they'd take a look at the game and a small but vocal minority declaring this to be the death knell of DDO.

Today, the numbers speak for themselves. Their revenue is up 500%, they've had over one million new players, and you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who would refer to the game as "forgotten." Turbine has arguably set the standard for a hybrid free-to-play business model, and it's paid off very well. However, it wasn't always a sure thing and it certainly wasn't a snap decision. Follow along after the jump for our interview with Executive Producer Fernando Paiz at GDC as he explores the thoughts behind the business model and where it's taken Turbine.

We talked first about Turbine's decision to introduce this hybrid model, something that was pretty ground-breaking at the time: "In a subscription model, you're leaving money on the table on two sides: those people that are not willing to pay [...] your minimum price, they don't sign up. Then those people who would maybe be willing to pay you more can't. That's the basics of why free-to-play with microtransactions is good.

This is obviously the marketing message, letting players sample at their own pace and not be constrained by a seven day or fourteen day trial, whatever it may be. Let them feel like they can come back without the pressure of having to come back a lot to justify their subscription.

This leads to the question [...] why do you still have subscriptions? It's for a different audience. Let's say you are a hardcore player [...], you don't want to be buying all the content and feel like you have to spend $200 today just to keep playing the content you've had access to before. So this lets us target two people: the hardcore player can pay one low monthly fee and get unlimited access.
The casual player that's consuming content at a different rate can pay as they go.

So how does it work? Dungeons and Dragons Online truly is a free-to-play game, following a "time versus money" pattern. You can use the store as a shortcut, purchasing Turbine points with real world cash, but investing time can earn Turbine points as well via favor with the different houses, and it all spends the same in the DDO store.

Turbine didn't jump into their new business model headfirst, though: "Be cautious at the beginning. Build in more roadblocks and toll gates if you're nervous about 'will they pay?'" That was a serious concern for Turbine at the beginning, wondering if players would only take advantage of the free part of the game, thus creating a business model that wasn't sustainable. The temporary addition of things like leveling sigils served as a small safeguard while Turbine watched to see how things played out. While a primarily digital download format was the hope and expectation, the model was designed to support a physical box should it become necessary.

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