What happens when a subscriber-based massively multiplayer online (MMO) game suddenly switches to the free-to-play formula? Ask Turbine. The company saw a 500% increase in revenue after it made Dungeons & Dragons Online a free-to-play game. Turbine’s other massively multiplayer project, Lord of the Rings Online, likewise switched to a free-to-play model in September, and its revenue has tripled since.
“We are super-pleased with how so many of our [Lord of the Rings Online] players have responded fantastically,” said Turbine’s Executive Producer, Kate Paiz, in a podcast interview with TenTonHammer. “We’re getting so many new players in and the world feels alive and vibrant.
“This really echoes a lot of what we’ve seen throughout the entertainment industry in general. It’s really about letting players make their choices about how they play. People are like ‘I own my choices. You give me the power and I’ll decide if you’re cool enough for me.’”
In other words, “Free-to-play! Wave of the future!”
The free-to-play model was once associated exclusively with piddly web-based games, not the least of which includes, God forbid, FarmVille. The idea is to get people immersed in the world and give them access to certain basics, then get them to purchase special quests, games, and products through the magic of micro-transactions. Obviously, the model has worked tremendously well for Zynga and other social game publishers, but what about those big fancy MMORPGs that actually draw from your computer resources? Has Turbine adopted a necessary change, or are their recent successes flukes that will eventually send all MMORPGs slinking back to a subscriber-only formula?
For now, MMORPG players seem to enjoy choosing how to spend their money. Turbine allows players of Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online to buy quests and items a la carte. Otherwise, the games are free to play, and certain portions are open to everyone. From the outset, this provides an environment that’s fun and pressure free: There’s no obligation to park in front of your computer and suck up every last second of a free trial. You can come and go as you please. If a particular quest sounds interesting, you can buy it for a small price. If the quest involves cleaning up after a pen of red dragons, you can keep your money. Turbine can add and take away quests according to popularity and feedback. Everybody wins, including Turbine, if their numbers are accurate.
Think of a monthly MMORPG subscription fee in terms of a gym membership, or another leisure activity that charges per month. Some people really get into the experience and want to try everything. Others just pick at the equipment here and there, and don’t have time to stick around more than two times a week. Still others dislike the experience right from the outset, but hang on grimly in hopes everything will get better. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t.
With free-to-play, people pay for as much or as little content as they want. There’s no pressure to go through the motions simply because you’ve already dished up your fee for that month and want to get your money’s worth. The game in question feels more like, well, a game.
That’s not to say there’s no merit left in monthly MMORPG subscriptions. World of Warcraft is still king, and nothing is going to budge it for a long time. But it’s also enjoyed by a pretty dedicated fanbase who have established themselves in the universe, and would understandably resent being locked out of any corner of Azeroth. New publishers in the MMORPG genre, however, should immediately put away the notion that people are going to want to dish up monthly fees in a market that’s rapidly changing to let players determine how they’re going to pay for a game’s content.