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

8/4/09Follow @wroush

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 »

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

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  • Alex Fairy

    love me love you we!!!!!!

  • Miramon

    The game has very few subscribers anyway. Since DDO was not profitable as it was, the change is not all that bold, not much of a gamble: it’s just an attempt to recoup losses with a different revenue model.

    It’s very rare for any MMO to recover from a bad launch. Anarchy Online is perhaps the only such game to do so, and its recovery was very modest — the fact you’ve probably never heard of it attests to that….

    As an aside, LOTRO and DDO are not the next-most-popular MMOs after World of Warcraft, though this assertion is difficult to prove or disprove, as Turbine never releases subscription figures. However, you can make some rough estimates based on named game world deployment. LOTRO might possibly be one of the higher ranked American-owned-and-operated MMOs after WoW, but I would be surprised if it had 250,000 active subscribers, and there are many other MMOs worldwide with more subscribers than that.

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  • Gelmir

    Whoa!

    What about Guild Wars?

    It has been free online since 2005

    http://www.guildwars.com

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guild_Wars

    The games in the Guild Wars series were critically well received[4][5][6][7] and won many editor’s choice awards, as well as awards such as Best Value, Best Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG), and Best Game.[8] Guild Wars was noted for being one of the few commercially developed games in the MMORPG genre to offer online play without subscription fees,[9] its instanced approach to MMORPG play,[10] and the quality of the graphics and play for computers with low specifications.[11] In April 2009, NCSoft announced that 6 million units of games in the Guild Wars series had been sold.[12]

  • Sthims

    It’s amazing to see how many similarities there are in Turbine’s new positioning to the statements and stories around Jeff Anderson’s new venture at Quick Hit. Seems like Anderson had the right vision all along..

    will be interesting to see what comes of this model in the MMORPG world…

  • Kalanth

    It is not just that it is free to play, like Guild Wars. Instead it is that you don’t even have to buy the game itself and simply download the game and play without every paying a cent. That is something no game has done, not even Guild Wars which cost $50 at time of release.

    DDO is a very solid MMO with an outstanding playstyle that is unmatched in other MMO’s. Only recently are some of these things being copied, and even then there is no equal. Anyone that has given DDO a chance would tell you that.

  • igrat

    (quote)Miramon 8/4/09 1:05 pm
    It’s very rare for any MMO to recover from a bad launch. Anarchy Online is perhaps the only such game to do so, and its recovery was very modest — the fact you’ve probably never heard of it attests to that….

    (above is a quote)

    EVE Online had a dismal first year or two. There’s a reason why CCP is often referenced in relation to success and that’s ‘cs of a focus upon their product. Did you know they were unable to pay their staff at one point in time?

  • Miramn

    @igrat:

    Good point, Eve Online is another example. I’m not sure how successful they really are at this late date, but they certainly improved after launch, and I’m sure they have more users than DDO, if not LOTRO. I see they claim around 300K, which may perhaps be more than any American MMO except WoW.

    Did CCP suffer from the Icelandic economic collapse?

    Edit: Bah, typoed my handle.

  • Alex

    So does that mean the 3.5 year old Europe DDO characters will all be deleted like their Japanese counterparts were?

    Would be nice if Turbine could clear up that tiny little issue for us.

    P.S. Eve had its money spread about the globe and didn’t loose a ton of it to the collapse of its local banks. They made a press release to tell their players not to worry, they weren’t going to suddenly vanish. Nice how some companies can take the time out to relieve their customers fears.

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