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.
Q: Is that related to Turbine Points?
AM: Yes, you can go into the store and buy Turbine Points with real money and then with the Turbine Points, you can use that in the store. The epic story goes all the way up to level fifty, you can earn Points without paying for them by accomplishing deeds (special tasks which reward the character). The forum economists have already done the maths and realised that you could actually get everything by just investing time. This isn't like a game trial because you could play this entire game for free just by investing the time.
Q: What kind of game content can be unlocked?
AM: You start with one of three zones and all of their content free: Bree, Ered Luin, or The Shire. Then when you get to level twenty, the Lone-Lands, while you can still follow the epic story and you can still run all over the place, you'll see the side-quests, the ones where you go to the forsaken inn for example, there are side-quests that aren't related to the epic story. Those aren't available to you. But for anywhere from five to ten dollars you can then unlock those. If I have more quests that makes it easier to level up, because it offers more XP. But I could also keep doing the epic quests, kill monsters on the landscape, finish off Deeds, and rack up enough XP to keep moving up the chain. The point is, why should I pay for a subscription? It would mean I'm almost renting time in this. But once I buy that quest pack, I have that forever.
[In other games] if I'm a subscriber and I unsubscribe, I lose it. But if I buy this and I take two months off, and then I come back, well everything I purchased is still there for me. It's a rent versus own type thing. And likewise, why should I pay for time with some content that I'm not going to be spending time on. So the idea is I'm not choosing when I want to play, and therefore I won't subscribe because it's not a good value. On the other side people who play twenty or thirty hours a week, subscription is still the best value and in addition to your subscription you get 500 Turbine Points a month as part of your subscription.
Q: Do you think the in-game store could create a gulf between those who subscribe and gain items in-game and those who simply buy things in-store?
AM: In the low to mid level those changes are almost non-existent. They don't really have an impact on the gameplay and almost everything in the store can be acquired by gameplay. So you can find many of these items there. The intention is for the store to be a convenience. The store to be a place where you can get that quick help, you can get that last recipe you needed, or that outfit you wanted. But it's balanced, you can't be a level 2 character and kill everything.
The five Cs of the Turbine stores are: content, consumables, cosmetic items, convenience items that make your deeds accelerate - so for every one spider you kill for example you'll get credit for two - and concierge services like character transfers, new character slots, and so on. Those are the types of things we put in the in-game store. But the best gear is still found through questing in the game. I can't tell the future but looking back at DDO, I've had players who played all up to the level cap without spending a dime. I've had players who've spent thousands of dollars in-store.
Obviously free-to-play opens the door for more kinds of players, the interesting thing is that apparently there was a whole group of players who were happy to subscribe to the game and we were forcing them to only spend 15 dollars a month because they were spending money on top up of that to enhance their experience to enhance their experience, to get a better horse, to say "you know what, it's 3am, I want to go to bed, but I've got to finish this, I'm just going to buy this craft ingredient".
The core word for our game isn't "free", it's "choice". You can choose how you play. If you want to play for free then yeah, technically that makes this an endless free trial. But we are in the business to make money and we've done it in a way that balances all types of play styles. And there's millions of RPG players out there who love playing Dragon Age and Mass Effect but won't touch a kick ass RPG experience like an MMO because the subscription is there.
Q: Do you see this model as something that will become more prevalent in the future then?
AM: I think so. I mean our model is unique and it's certainly not like other MMOs. But I think you see in other games that they're trying different ways to open up their accessibility. There are free servers, like Everquest is going to try, some games are selling mounts for $25 a pop. Everyone is trying to figure out how to stretch out the long term relationship with their customer and find different ways to monetise. We're very happy with what we've done but the results with DDO are just undeniable. Coupled with the fact that we're coming out of the gate with a European and North American launch, and China soon after, we think this is going to be huge.