One Subscription Model To Rule Them All

A few days ago, Turbine (and Warner Bros) announced that their popular MMORPG, “Lord of the Rings Online,” will be moving to a Free-To-Play subscription model beginning in Fall of 2010.  This announcement was made less than two months after Warner Bros. purchased Turbine Entertainment which, up until then, was the largest privately-held online game studio in North America.

We (and many, many others) speculate that this subscription model shift is being fueled by the apparent success from Turbine’s other MMORPG title, “Dungeons & Dragons Online.”  Reports from early 2010 indicate that this title’s shift to a F2P model resulted in a 500% increase in profits as well as bringing in an estimated 1 million new customers.

Yes, you heard that right — making the game “free” has resulted in a huge financial windfall for the title, and a resurrection the likes of which we rarely see in this industry.  Because, let’s face it: DDO was dying, slowly.  It had a small troupe of hardcore followers (primarily D&D buffs from the old pen-and-paper days – myself included) but it was not even given the consideration of a fart in the wind, compared to MMO juggernauts like WoW, EVE, Lineage2 or EQ2.  When DDO’s subscription change was announced, most viewed it as the last gasp before the death rattle would sound.  But Turbine’s skillful use of an in-game item store, coupled with optional subscription levels and restricted in-game content, proved us all wrong.

In fact, the unexpected success of DDO’s F2P subscription model is creating ripples across the entire industry, and we believe that the announcement of LOTRO’s impending shift is only the first in a long line of MMOs that will take the plunge to a similar model.  We foresee Cryptic Studios/Atari traveling down a similar road with both “Champions Online” and “Star Trek Online” as they already have an in-game item store established.  Sony’s “Free Realms” already follows an approximation of this model.  And there are likely other publishers on the horizon, already greedily eyeballing the great gobs of cash that can be made by enticing gamers with a free product that includes purchasable perks.

But all of this is not sunshine and daisies.  After all, the use of an in-game store is a slippery slope that can easily fall to the Dark Side of greed and avarice.  If my voice carried enough weight, I would urge publishers and developers to consider the primary strengths that exist in DDO’s current subscription model, and not step beyond them in pursuit of higher profits:

  1. Monthly Subscription option that includes 100% of the features the game offers, PLUS free ‘currency’ for use in the in-game store (for temporary xp boosts, etc).
  2. Friend Passes that can be traded.  This is one of the primary selling points of DDO’s store, as it allows VIP subscribers to bring F2P accounts into content they could not otherwise experience.
  3. Nothing that allows advancement in trade for real-life money, unless the same advancement can be earned in-game.  Do not encourage an atmosphere where those with real-world financial superiority can translate that directly into in-game superiority.  The playing field must remain somewhat even.
  4. PvP MUST NOT be impacted.  This plays off of #3 above, but is important enough to be listed separately.  The most simple solution would be to allow PvP for subscribers/VIP only.
  5. Offer the ability to earn store currency via in-game actions.

It should be noted that many Asian market MMORPGs already offer variations on the F2P subscription model, and have for years, with varying levels of success.  It is still a relatively new concept in European and North American markets, as gamers in these regions are frequently considered exceedingly difficult to please when it comes to how they spend their money.  There is a very well-earned preconception that these markets feel ‘entitled’ to a certain type of gameplay experience, when they pay for something.

That said, the success of DDO has proven that there is enough wiggle room here to take a chance that will pay off.  It is up to Turbine, as they lead the charge into this new market, to take this model along a route that will not be strewn with the corpses of the shattered trust of their subscribers.  As a trailblazer, they must remember that with that great power, comes great responsibility.


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