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PAX East 2010: Turbine on renting vs. owning in the MMO market

Blizzard's presence at PAX East 2010 was even smaller than I was expecting, with two or so Community reps there to oversee the StarCraft II tournaments going on. Boston-based Lord of the Rings Online developer Turbine, though, had a very large demo area which saw a lot of traffic over the course of the three-day event. Con-goers could stop by and demo LotRO, as well as Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited, and hobnob with the Community reps and developers present.

With the WoW-specific news at the event registering somewhere between "literally nothing" and "nearly nothing" on the newsy scale, I decided to stop by Turbine and ask them a few questions about their MMOs. I ended up speaking with their Design Director, Ian Currie.

"I'm from WoW.com," I said, "so obviously I don't normally do a lot of reporting on your games. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever even played DDO, and I've only played a little bit of LotRO."

Currie smiled and said "You really don't know what you're missing, then, do you!"

"Apparently not," I acquiesced, "but maybe you can help fill in the blanks."


I asked Currie how DDO and LotRO differ from WoW in design philosophy, though we didn't stay on the topic for long.

"Well, DDO differs a lot more from WoW on fundamental levels than LotRO does," he said, "so I'll be talking about DDO in this case."

He brought up a number of points that made DDO different from WoW -- its combat is more action- and skill-based, letting you move to dodge attacks and missile spells, for example, offering a different fighting experience than WoW's more "turn-based" combat. He went on to praise WoW for its sheer amount of content but pointed out that a lot of the quests were what are termed "Fedex" quests early on -- the kind that send you off to distant areas with a package for someone, or a note, or a particular item. "We wanted to avoid that kind of thing, so from the beginning, quests were tailored to be very different from one another, to keep the experience fresh."

Probably anticipating that I'd bring up the upcoming Cataclysm expansion that'll retool most of WoW's early content, including quests Blizzard considered clunky, antiquated, or just not fun, Currie quickly noted that DDO didn't necessarily do everything right at launch either and that, like Blizzard, they've learned a lot since their respective games launched. The biggest change to the game since its launch in 2006, though, had nothing to do with gameplay.

"DDO went free-to-play late last year," I said. "Can you tell me a little about how that's going, for you and for the players?"

Currie seemed excited to talk about it, which surprised me. When I hear that an MMO that was originally subscription-based is going free-to-play, I tend to consider it banshee keening. For Turbine, though, DDO's new payment model has been an enormous success, both in terms of subscriber growth and financial gain. Currie stated that they had gained over a million new subscribers (effectively doubling their player base), and revenues from the game had increased by an astounding 500% since going free-to-play.

"You'll have to forgive me," I said, "but that almost doesn't make sense to me."

He laughed. "I know, it sounds crazy. How can you make money on a free game? We wondered that, too. We debated long and hard over the change to the payment model, but it's paid off big-time for us. And for the fans, too." Then he gave me a quick primer on how the system works: anyone can download and play the game for absolutely nothing. Everyone has access to basic content, but those who choose to pay a monthly fee get perks, such as VIP titles. Additionally, the game is supported by the DDO Store, which allows you to buy content packs, vanity items, potions, and other non-essential items.

Currie said that the store was intended to be mainly for convenience. The free-to-play genre is notorious for games that are nearly impossible to enjoy without pumping money into them -- many Korean import games fall into this trap. Yes, you can play for nothing, but you can't have fun or compete. "We wanted to make sure that the play experience wasn't cheapened by the store being there. Nothing you can buy gives players a concrete advantage over others in terms of progression." I pointed out that not many free-to-play games follow this model and he agreed that Turbine was in a rather unique position in the genre.

"Everyone can play through the content without ever getting anything from the store, and they'll have a fine time of it. What we're pretty proud of with the whole system is the fact that the player owns any content they buy."

I pressed for a bit of clarification. He obliged by likening most subscription-based games, like WoW, to renting something. When you buy an expansion pack for WoW, you only have access to that content, or any content, while your subscription is active. If your subscription lapses, you can't play what you bought anymore. "If you buy a content pack from the DDO store, on the other hand, it's yours forever, regardless of whether you're currently subscribed or not. If you're normally a VIP and have a rough month financially, you can go back to the free-play model and still play what you purchased in the store," Currie said.

It's unlikely that Blizzard will ever go for a free-to-play payment model for WoW -- they make billions on subscription fees -- but the effects of the switch for Turbine have been undeniable, and my interest was piqued when the renting-vs.-owning comparison was made. Save for social connections, players have very little they can take away from WoW when their subscription lapses. They've left no real permanent mark on Azeroth, they have no free pass back in when they want to come back, and their content purchases mean nothing when they have to pinch pennies for a while. It occurred to me that perhaps Blizzard could make the 1-60 game free-to-play, with Outland and Northrend being subscriber-only, but with Cataclysm hitting shortly, that's looking less and less likely.

I've understood for a long time -- since before I worked at Blizzard explaining this kind of information regularly -- that WoW is conditionally licensed to you (the condition being that you pay the fee and follow the rules). This is the same for many MMOs, of course, but Turbine appears to be trying to buck that trend by at least giving players a permanent foothold in the world of Eberron. You'll always have a home there no matter how much money you're making. You can't really say the same for Azeroth. Maybe Turbine is on to something.

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