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PAX 10: LOTRO/DDO make free-to-play actually work

7:00 PM on 09.11.2010 // Sean Carey

When talking about MMOs in the US, free has become a dirty word. Despite the fact that microtransaction driven business models have achieved a large degree of success in Korea and other Asian markets, the “F” word here continues to denote a failed game in the eyes of many. This is not a fickle perception -- for most western MMOs in recent years, the conversion to free-to-play has been a signpost clearly indicating that the end is near.

However, the fine folks over at Turbine feel that with Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online, they’ve found a way to break the cycle. What’s been under-publicized here is that the evidence so far bears them out. DDO has not only increased the number of active players since adopting a modified free-to-play model, but has also generated much more revenue in the process. They’ve got great hopes that LOTRO (which adopted the same model effective yesterday) will see similar success.

I talked to a few members of the Turbine team during PAX and got some solid insight into what it takes to make the “F” word attractive to western gamers, along with a few glimpses at what’s in store for LOTRO.

In terms of a business model, Turbine recognizes that "free" often translates to "bad" in many gamers’ eyes. So they were quick to state that the point of their model is not to make the game free, but to offer players more choice in how they invest in their games. If someone wants to play through either game without paying a dime, they can, but microtransactions or subscriptions are also available for those who want to accelerate parts of the process.

Aside from lack of flexibility in the payment model, Turbine determined that another one of the big turn-offs for potential players is the inclusion of artificial gates. When players are forced to pay to access an area or advance past a level cap, they’re much more likely to rage-quit. No one likes being treated like the Balrog (i.e. “You shall not pass!”). As such, LOTRO and DDO both remove all of these barriers, and new players are responding very favorably.

You can reach any level or area from the get-go. There is unique content that can be unlocked in each of these areas, but it is easily accessed no matter what payment approach you’re taking. Subscribers get it from the get go, whereas microtransactors or totally free players must use Turbine points. Unlocking all the content in a new area runs in the area of 500 to 1000 points on average. This would cost roughly $5 to $10 to purchase the requisite points, but a totally free player could still acquire the needed points by completing between 80-100 quests.

The final ingredient that makes this model work for Turbine is the make-up of their community. While there is still a vocal minority of players who have been opposed to the changes, the vast majority of current subscribers have been welcoming to newer players, choosing to view them as a positive influx that keeps their game alive rather than as a bunch of carpetbaggers. The developers credit the source material here -- long time fans of D&D and LOTR tend to be older and more mature, and as such more welcoming both in and out of the games.

It’s easy to turn a skeptical eye towards all of this, but the proof is in the porridge you eat at elevensies. DDO has not only jumped from the 7th to 3rd most played MMO since their conversion to this model, but more impressively, they have also doubled their number of paying subscribers despite making all the content in the game free to access. That speaks volumes to me, and I’m very curious to see if LOTRO can duplicate that success and join the fellowship of the cha-ching.

 



Sean Carey,
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