Lord of the Rings Online is going free-to-play. In what is becoming increasingly common in the MMO genre, subscription-based titles just can't compete with the mighty World of Warcraft, and are having to find other ways to gain popularity. We spoke with Turbine's director of public relations, Adam Mersky, to get the lowdown on why free-to-play works and what the experience is going to be like for gamers.
Q: So why the sudden move to a free-to-play model then?
Adam Mersky: It started, believe it or not, with DDO (Dungeons & Dragons Online. DDO launched in 2006 in North America and Europe, and about a year and a half later we took it to Asia where the games we were competing against weren't Western subscription-based games. They were free to play games and they were making tons of money. And we had to look at this, these guys were making millions of dollars not charging for their game. So we tried to look at a bunch of options. Do we import these games? Do we build a new game from the ground up? That's a huge investment. So we looked at DDO. You know, as a game, it was a very authentic version of D&D, and all the dungeons are instanced, so what that means from a developer standpoint is that we can charge for them. You look at the D&D license, they pioneered micro-transactions. You got the book, you went to the store, you got the dice, you crafted your own experience. Lo and behold, we have something that we can play about with for this free to play thing. We launched it last year in the states and it's been an enormous success.
We're not even a year since we launched and we have over 2 million new players. About 20 to 25% of our subscribers came back and our subscriber pool more than doubled despite the fact that we no longer require a subscription. The NPD did a report where DDO, despite being over four years old is the number three most played MMO in north America.
It happened so quickly, within the first thirty or forty days, that we saw this huge change and we thought we should be thinking of doing this for LOTRO. It's a new way to reduce barriers. The number one reason people don't play MMOs is because of the subscription. So we think we've solved that with this hybrid model that Turbine has created where there is a free to play option and there's a subscription option and then there's an in-game store that anyone can use.
Q: So it's become a legitimate business model for you?
AM: As you know or may not know I get to wear a nice new Warner Brothers badge because we're now part of the empire. That's been very good for us. And I think they see that the embedded commerce engine in our game is something they can use for their entire portfolio of games. Not exactly like this but you could reasonably believe that a Batman game in the future could have an in-game store. We've also taken DDO back from Codemasters and we're in the process of localising it to launch it across Europe. We're developing our French and German services and Turbine is going to expand to Europe.
Players today have two ways to invest. One way is to invest time, the other way is to invest money. Rarely do they have a lot of both, so there's a whole generation of players, myself included, I'm forty years old, I've been a gamer since there was gaming, I had Pong in my house, but now I have very little time for gaming.
Q: Is the game experience restricted in any way as a Free Player?
AM: If you come in as a Free Player you get one character slot, we might bump it to 2, there is a gold cap, there's a maximum of two gold [enough to get you a mount, while any excess money you earn goes into an Escrow account that is accessed when your account is upgraded]. You have some restrictions on your communication with players. You can only send tells to other players if they're a friend, or if they messaged you first. You'll start off with 800 possible quests. As free players enter into areas where the content isn't yet unlockable you can go to the in-game store and unlock the content of that region through the store, finish that, come back, then keep playing.