In Bold Move Toward Free Online Fantasy Gaming, Turbine Prepares to Throw Open the Gates to Dungeons & Dragons

Few major media markets are as lopsided as the online swords-and-sorcery game genre. World of Warcraft, owned by the Activision Blizzard division of Vivendi SA, has a population of 12 million players, each paying at least $12.99 per month to go on group quests for virtual treasure and glory. Westwood, MA-based Turbine, the maker of the next most popular subscription-based online fantasy games, The Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online, doesn’t release membership numbers—but the data I’ve seen puts it in a very distant second place. In a recent Boston Globe article, Brett Close, the CEO of Maynard, MA-based 38 Studios, which is developing its own online fantasy game, tellingly called fantasy-based MMORPGs—that’s gamer lingo for massively multiple online role playing games—a market “where there is a Coke and no Pepsi.”

Well, if you had a new cola and you wanted to compete with Coke, one strategy you might consider would be giving away your drink for free. And that’s exactly what Turbine plans to try. Starting on September 9, Dungeons & Dragons Online will join the ranks of free-to-play online games. In the new hybrid version of its game world, called “Eberron Unlimited,” most regions and adventures will be free and open to everyone, while a few premium areas will be reserved for “VIPs” who continue to pay a subscription.

It’s a strategy that game developers in other countries have been pursuing with notable success for years—the free UK-based MMORPG Runescape, for example, is reported to have more than a million players, and South Korea-born Maple Story has an astonishing 15 million. But American game companies have shied away from the free-to-play model, in part because their game systems weren’t built to allow alternative forms of revenue generation, such as microtransactions, in which players fork over small amounts of cash for virtual goods such as costumes or weapons for their avatars.

Turbine LogoBut one of the central elements in the free version of Dungeons & Dragons Online—which will replace the current “Stormreach” version—is a new Amazon-like interface where players can shop to their heart’s content, using “Turbine Points” that they can buy with real cash or earn by spending time online. And that’s not all that’s changing inside Eberron, as the mythical land that is the game’s setting is called. The overhaul, which has been in gestation for 18 months, includes so much new content and so many new features that the company recently delayed the relaunch by more than a month to allow for more testing and preparation.

(In a story later this month, I’ll write more about the games themselves, which senior producers Fernando Paiz, Kate Paiz, and Aaron Campbell demonstrated for me at length during a recent visit. This story focuses on Turbine’s business model.)

The risk Turbine is taking is that a massive influx of new free players might increase the burden on the company’s servers, and that nobody will buy anything. But it’s making an informed wager—based in part on observations of the company’s legion of beta testers—that players won’t be able to resist buying an extra sword here and a spell there, and that the revenue from microtransactions will more than make up for any loss of subscription revenue.

“Eberron Unlimited is an extraordinary event for us as a company, and industry-wide,” Jim Crowley, Turbine’s CEO, told me. “Nobody else is taking what we’d call a true premium online world into this free-to-play model, and removed those barriers to entry like we’re doing. We think it’s a great way not just to grow our business but to expand the overall pie.”

This isn’t quite a bet-the-company moment for Turbine, since it is not altering the $14.99-per-month subscription price at its premiere property, The Lord of the Rings Online. (The company says that game world, which is based on the famous J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, doesn’t lend itself as naturally to a microtransaction-based model.) But it does reflect … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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