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Exploring Eberron: Can you really play free?

Rubi Bayer, @@rubi_

When Dungeons and Dragons Online went free-to-play last summer, the change attracted an amazing amount of attention, and brought this quiet little game to the forefront of the MMO world. Nearly a full year later, that hasn't changed. Dungeons and Dragons Online is one of the most continually popular games in the fantasy genre as well as in the free-to-play arena.

Before we go any farther, let's clear the room of elephants: Turbine is not a non-profit organization. They are a business created to make a profit, and at the end of the day, yes: they want you to spend money. They are going to make that item shop as attractive as they possibly can in order to draw you -- and your credit card -- in to purchase some Turbine Points. In that respect, they are no different than every other MMO developer out there. They want to provide entertainment in exchange for some of your cash. So what makes them stand out? It's the fact that Turbine managed to hit on that perfect combination and truly offer something for everyone: those who want to simply pay a sub fee and be done with it, those who prefer to pick and choose via microtransactions, and those who want to play completely free.

It's that last thing that we're going to look at today. That's the big question for many people: is it really possible, or is Turbine just paying lip service to draw people in? Follow along after the jump and we'll take a look.

You can definitely play for free, and you can access all of the content for free, but it's a trade off. Instead of money, you get the premium content, classes, and extra items by spending your time. A little over six months ago, a dedicated DDO player did some serious legwork and put together some of the most valuable pieces of information in the DDO community. Robi 3.0 created (among other things): a list of all free-to-play quests and favor rewards, a list of Turbine Points rewarded for favor, and total amount of favor available from each patron.

While those lists are still valid as a starting point -- and an excellent resource that any free-to-play DDO player should have bookmarked -- DDO has come a very long way in the six months since then. Recently, Executive Producer Fernando Paiz said that the goal was "even more free" and "even more accessible". Turbine backed that statement by adding a generous amount of free content with Update 3. Free content becomes more scarce as you move into the higher levels, so the four new quests, ranging from levels 13 to 18, were a very welcome addition. Turbine has committed to six updates in 2010 and we can expect new content every two months -- hopefully continuing with the "more free" and "more accessible" theme. Of the three choices available to DDO players, there isn't one that stands out as universally superior to the others. It's all about what sort of gameplay you prefer, and what you are willing to spend: time or money?

The VIP option is great for those who are anxious to just pay the sub fee, get into the game and move on. The $14.99 monthly fee is a standard and familiar cost for those used to sub-based games and guarantees access to all content in the game as well as a monthly allotment of 500 Turbine Points as "pocket money." The a la carte option is for those who want to pick and choose their content. Turbine Points get cheaper as you purchase larger packages, and there is a wide range of point packages available.

If you want to spend time and want to play completely free, it's certainly doable. What's more, the ongoing new content means it's getting easier all the time. You can get the most out of available favor rewards by earning them on each server, as well as rerolling as often as you are willing to. Obtaining the premium content that way is a fairly simple matter if you don't mind repetition. If there's a quest chain that you particularly enjoy, it could easily be seen as a benefit. Being able to try the quests with different stats, builds, races, and classes is a great way to experience the game from many different angles and learn more about DDO overall.

As you proceed this way and earn Turbine points, you'll be very surprised at how quickly they add up. Before you know it, you'll find that you've got enough to purchase one or two of the smaller Adventure Packs, and that's when it begins to snowball. Once you've unlocked an Adventure Pack or two, it's yours forever, for every character, on every server. This means more content with which to earn favor and Turbine Points, enabling you to save quickly and purchase more expensive Adventure Packs, and so on.

Smart players will also keep an eye on the DDO site for store sales and promotions. Turbine nearly always carries discounts on a wide variety of items in their store, knocking 20-50% off of a nice selection of items including Adventure Packs. If you are a completely free-to-play player, you want to spend your points wisely, getting the most value via sales. Alternatively, if you want to give yourself a little jump start and don't mind spending a few dollars, the beginner/low level Adventure Packs are very reasonably priced, with four different packs available at different levels for 150-250 Turbine Points. 420 Turbine Points can be had for $6.50 via the DDO Store and will provide you with a nice boost to content, favor, and XP. Of course, that's a completely optional shortcut, as you'll find yourself with 420 Turbine Points before you know it just playing through the current free content as described above.

In the end, you really are able to play Dungeons and Dragons Online without paying a penny. Granted, the guys offering up a credit card number are going to access content and items much more quickly than you, but that's kind of the point -- paying for shortcuts. Playing for free is taking the long way around, but that's not a negative - you're getting a fantastic game at no cost whatsoever, and you're getting the opportunity to take your time and look around. DDO has been around much longer than many people have been aware of it, and Turbine has had the time to create an extensive and beautiful world. Take your time and explore it fully!

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