Results From Dungeons & Dragons Online Going Free: Revenue Up 500%

from the but-free-can't-work!!!! dept

Last year, we wrote about the decision by Turbine to turn its formerly fee-based Dungeons & Dragons Online MMO into a free offering, that had reasons to buy built into the game. At the time, we noted that the early results looked good, but over time they're looking even better. Reader Murdock alerts us to the news that DDO was able to get 1 million more users and boost revenue 500%... all by going free.

There are some important fine details, of course, which make this story even more notable. With content in the game that you can buy, the fear is always that this gives the game developers incentive to make the free part annoying or very limited to try to drive more people to the paid part. But that's the wrong approach. That focuses on putting up barriers and limiting usage to try to encourage buying, rather than demonstrating value and offering positive reasons to buy. DDO took the smarter route:
Currie said that the store was intended to be mainly for convenience. The free-to-play genre is notorious for games that are nearly impossible to enjoy without pumping money into them -- many Korean import games fall into this trap. Yes, you can play for nothing, but you can't have fun or compete. "We wanted to make sure that the play experience wasn't cheapened by the store being there. Nothing you can buy gives players a concrete advantage over others in terms of progression." I pointed out that not many free-to-play games follow this model and he agreed that Turbine was in a rather unique position in the genre.

"Everyone can play through the content without ever getting anything from the store, and they'll have a fine time of it. What we're pretty proud of with the whole system is the fact that the player owns any content they buy."

I pressed for a bit of clarification. He obliged by likening most subscription-based games, like WoW, to renting something. When you buy an expansion pack for WoW, you only have access to that content, or any content, while your subscription is active. If your subscription lapses, you can't play what you bought anymore. "If you buy a content pack from the DDO store, on the other hand, it's yours forever, regardless of whether you're currently subscribed or not. If you're normally a VIP and have a rough month financially, you can go back to the free-play model and still play what you purchased in the store," Currie said.
And, it appears to be working. What a concept. Using free to your advantage, giving people a reason to buy, and seeing your user base and revenues shoot upwards. Who would have thought it was possible?


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Wesha (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 7:10am

    Wow... somebody finally got it right!

    Too sad I'm nowhere near fan of D&D, or I would go play =^.^=

     

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    Dan (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 7:34am

    Free with a catch

    I tried it when it first went free. I discovered some background process that ran even when the game didn't, that put me off. I don't believe it was malicious, but I don't run games that bog the system down when not playing. I don't know if it still does that or not.

     

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    Robert Ring (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 7:35am

    That's awesome. I was actually wondering about this the other day. When the game went free, I tried it out for a night and quickly became bored (I don't think fantasy MMORPGs are my thing). Recently, I was thinking about it for some random reason, and I figured that there was certainly a user spike when they hit free, and I'm sure plenty of people picked it up and quickly dropped it like I did. I was curious as to how many people stayed with the game.

    Apparently the answer is "a lot."

     

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    Esahc (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 7:45am

    I think I may try this out, it's free.

     

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    Dark Helmet (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 7:47am

    Re:

    Given that it's free to play, wouldn't at least be worth a fifteen minute twirl?

     

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    Designerfx (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 7:47am

    Re: Free with a catch

    hmm. never heard of that. I didn't play when it first hit F2P, but have been playing recently and didn't see it.

    I've actually never heard of a single game that has done that, and I'm including the invasive korean mmo's in that.

    All turbine runs is a thing in your system tray that you can turn off, it's their "launcher", not unlike steam. So if that's what you meant, then I think you went way overboard, especially since it's something you can turn off.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 7:50am

    Interesting. I'm a fan of D&D and I've seen some ads for DDO, but I saw the pricetag and thought, "oh, it's just another one of those lame free-to-play MMOs." Maybe I'll actually go out and give it a try.

     

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    Dudchucker, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 7:53am

    I'm Exhibit A

    There's no better example for this story than me. I'd have never in a million years paid $50 up front and $15 a month to play an mmorpg. But I saw an article a few months back about DDO going free and I thought it might be fun to at least try. It turned out that my wife loved it so much, we each bought $20 bucks worth of DDO store points, then later I bought $20 more for my son, then my wife decided to pony up for a VIP account at $15 per month. That's a darn good chunk of loot out of my bank account that they never would have gotten if they hadn't changed to their current business model.

     

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    Logo, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 7:55am

    I just wanted to point out that games like DDO always have a rtb inherently. When you pay a subscription to a game like WoW or DDO you're not paying for the game itself but rather the privilege of accessing the server. Since bandwidth, server capacity, and data backup aren't infinite goods (yet) a subscription model is still a solid business model.

    The big ripoff with the WoW model is paying for the boxed game and expansions. At that point you're essentially paying for absolutely nothing. It's an infinite good AND one that you can't even use without paying more. I'm a big fan of EVE's subscription model as they don't charge for expansions. To be fair they're in a unique position where their expansions don't require large amounts of content like a fantasy MMO.

    That said I'm glad to see some games use F2P in a way that's not a total scam on the player. It's really nice to see Turbine have so much success by turning DDO into a F2P model. Quite a few games attempt this with disastrous results. At lest now we have a shining example that game companies can use as a reference when considering a F2P business model.

     

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  10.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 7:59am

    Re:

    "but I saw the pricetag and thought, "oh, it's just another one of those lame free-to-play MMOs.""

    I think that's a key point that needs not be glossed over. One thing that is going to be difficult as more and more people, particularly those on the lower rungs of the quality/professionalism ladder, get on board with the FREE! business model, companies had better be extremely serious about differentiating the psychological value of their product from the common free price of the slush pile.

    I can think of several ways of doing this, partly of course relying on some word of mouth mention of quality of the game, but also actually highlighting some of the benefits or RtB of the paid aspects of the game in advertising.

    That's so counterintuitive though, to have to actually compete with others by making sure folks know that there IS something to pay for....

     

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  11.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:00am

    Re: Re:

    My roommate gave it a try. He was peeved that he couldn't play a monk (that's one of the things you have to pay for), but he said it was about as close to DnD as he would expect anyone to get.

    I would have given it a try, but I prefer to only have one huge time waster at a time and I was playing WoW then (if I'm paying for it, I'm going to use it).

     

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  12.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:04am

    Re:

    You know what pissed me off about WoW, I had all the software and all the expansions installed from when a friend of mine played it on my computer, but I had to pay for the game, both expansions and the subscription. I didn't even get CDs. Damn, now I want to play it again. I may have to reactivate my account.

     

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    eternal, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:06am

    I played the beta for quite a while and this was not a good game. If they didn't go to this model the game would have crashed and burned but I guess free will make people stick around.
    I love the majority of the DnD materials so I am glad this worked. Maybe it will inspire them to make a better game in the future.
    Ironically the only game to give me that DnD multiplayer feel was Neverwinter Nights.

     

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    Marcus Carab (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:07am

    Re:

    Whether you're a fan of D&D or not, you have to remember that it was integral in developing the game mechanics that form the foundation of pretty much all RPGs and a lot of non-RPG games too.

    In other words, there's a good chance that this is an awesome game, nerdiness factor notwithstanding.

     

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    Andy, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:15am

    No Bail-out

    But wait - they did this all without help from the government - say it isn't so! C'mon they must just be greedy - they must use embedded digital signals to mind-control users. Or maybe they offer a superior product at a competitive price that is adjustable for real life market conditions. Hmmm.

    Netflix uses similar features - like account suspension. If someone is goingg on vacation, experieincing difficulty, etc they can suspend their account. They don't get any rentals but their rankings, queue, etc. all remain intact until such time as they decide to resume their subscription. They can even make adjustments - they just don't get dvd's or the ability to view streaming.

     

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  16.  
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    Any Mouse, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:16am

    Re: Re: Free with a catch

    I play, and have since it went free, and it is a launcher. I just set it to not load, and never saw it, again.

     

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  17.  
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    drkkgt (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:17am

    Re: I'm Exhibit A

    exactly. A buddy of mine introduced me to it and I played for months without buying anything and had a grand time of it. Recently they ran some sales on the points so I bought them to unlock some of the other quests and was glad to pay them.

     

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  18.  
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    Logo, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:19am

    Re: Re:

    Stay strong! Resist the temptation, it can only end poorly for you.




    Or at least wait until the new expansion is out.

     

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  19.  
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    R. Miles (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:19am

    A question gets asked!

    "Who would have thought it was possible?"
    *raises hand.

    With revenues up 500% (damn, that's a good number), I wonder if others will jump on this bandwagon to provide customer value rather than short-sighted attempts at extor, er, forcing gamers to buy in order to enjoy the game.

     

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  20.  
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    Logo, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:21am

    Re: No Bail-out

    Most MMOs allow for this as well. Generally an MMO will NEVER delete your data so they can entice you to come back later.

    The difference with DDO is that you never lose access to your paid for content. There's no 'suspended' (except maybe the VIP stuff?) because there's no subscription. If you buy something in the store you can always access it whenever you want.

     

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  21.  
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    Ted, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:32am

    No Catch

    Just a comment on Dan's mention or a background process: it's Turbine's "Download Manager" which is designed to allow you to start playing while the game continues to download in the background. This program is easily disabled and can even be uninstalled after you have the entire ~5GB game downloaded. IIRC, this is all mentioned in the download instructions.

    I was a D&D geek back in the '80s. I started playing DDO as a free player (F2P) back in September and decided to go fully paid (VIP) after only 2 weeks. In my short time playing, Turbine has already expanded the content available to free players and removed some annoying restrictions originally levied on F2P players. Turbine has committed to introducing new content to the game on a regular schedule - they plan to release 6 new "modules" in 2010 alone!

    Some players join up thinking that DDO is like many of the other online fantasy MMOs. Once they see that there is no "phat lootz" in the starting content, they quit the game without ever seeing some of the fantastic content available even at the lower levels.

    Expect to die - a lot - particularly when you're just starting out. DDO is "real" D&D, accept no imitations. Try playing with a perma-death guild if you really want the full "classic" D&D experience.

     

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  22.  
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    JB, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:32am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Chronno,

    If he were to create a bunch of different characters and only get them through the starter level and a few beginning quests, he receives free points for use in the store. These points can quickly add up and he could then 'buy' the Monk class without ever spending a dime. You keep those earned points even after deleting a character.

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:42am

    runes of magic is another good free mmo.

     

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  24.  
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    chris (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:43am

    Re: No Catch

    Turbine has committed to introducing new content to the game on a regular schedule - they plan to release 6 new "modules" in 2010 alone!

    turbine does this with a lot of it's MMO's. I played Asheron's Call years ago and new content, items, story arcs, and the like came out every month. the same holds for LOTRO.

     

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  25.  
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    Modplan (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:49am

    More ideas to add to the pile

    I recently made a post summarising some things free/open source games could do. Most of them were things already in place for proprietary games, or were ideas taken from Techdirt.

    http://somethingmild.blogspot.com/2010/03/ideas-to-fund-foss-games.html

    This seems like one that should be added. I originally forgot to add a micropayments section. Methinks it'd be good if Techdirt did a CwF + RtB game edition, as many assume that there aren't many (if any) viable alternatives to selling games upfront.

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:51am

    Revenues are up 500%, but what about costs? Running a MMORPG can be expensive. I'm sure profits are still up a considerable amount, but it'd be nice to see the numbers.

     

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  27.  
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    Patty, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 9:04am

    And...

    I just sent this to some friends, ex and present editors. Yesterday there was an article in the NYT about missing book covers on e-readers. I was thinking that publishers could, with some books anyway, put their cover design costs into tShirt designs and then sell the tShirts accompanied by a free download of the text. People on the subway would still know you were slogging through Dostoevsky even though they couldn't see the cover.

    I bet this would work well with books like the Twilight series.

     

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  28.  
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    Xanius, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 9:12am

    Re: Re:

    One game that is going to have to fight to get over this is Black Prophecy. It's a new space based MMO that's coming out. It was designed originally as a pay to play but they couldn't get a publisher and finally one picked them up but it's now a free to play model.

    It looks amazing though and will definitely be worth a try.

     

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  29.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 9:32am

    Re:

    Whatever the costs are, I'm sure they're more than manageable. Take a look at Guild Wars, which has been running for several years on a no-subscription business strategy, and was apparently profitable enough that they're making the sequel using the same business model.

    MMOs are obviously costly to maintain, but once the initial infrastructure has been setup, I don't think costs rise at a monumental rate as the player base increases.

     

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  30.  
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    foobar, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 9:45am

    Re: Free with a catch

    That's just a content updater torrent client. You can set it to only run with the game.

     

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  31.  
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    foobar, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 9:49am

    Not really free to play

    I gave this a try when they first went free to play, but it's really more free to demo. You can't really advance without paying past level 5.

     

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  32.  
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    Bonifer, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 9:57am

    Re: Re:

    DH, you got it. The 'free' element of it actually triggers a quality product, a differentiated experience. The producer, in this case Turbine, actually puts themselves in a position where they MUST EXCEED EXPECTATIONS in order for the model to succeed.

    Brilliant observation. Thank you.

    m.

     

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  33.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 10:21am

    Re: Re:

    It's a touchy subject -- because on the one hand you have all those "lame free-to-play MMOs" and on the other hand you have the free MMOs that Mike describes, which are annoying or pointless unless you give them money (and so calling it "free" almost feels like being lied to). You're right that you need to differentiate yourself somehow and prove that your free-to-play MMO isn't just another lame "me too" thing, but you also have to be careful not to over-sell your "and you can give us money!" side, either.

     

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  34.  
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    Anon123, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 10:27am

    Guild Wars

    Guild Wars has been doing this the entire time. No subscription fee at all. DDO is not in a "unique place in the genre". They just jumped on the band-wagon.

     

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  35.  
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    DarkGecko777, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 10:30am

    Take a look into League Of Legends business model. It stems from a custom Warcraft 3 map which was free to play if you owned Warcraft 3. LoL is free to download and the store offers items you can unlock with a reasonable amount of game time. In fact the only "cash" only items are unique skins for various characters and boosts to your in game points (this does not offer player A a competitive edge over player B but simply gives you more options for customizing). So far they seem to be doing very well for themselves.

     

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  36.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 10:52am

    its the good old free sample concept. dnd is just doing what has happened for years where one guy owned the basic books and everyone played off it. the true fans or idiots would buy all sorts of upsell gear even without owning the books. it isnt a unique place in the market.

     

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  37.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 11:12am

    Re: No Bail-out

    Interesting that you mention Netflix. I originally signed up for a free trial, figuring I'd copy some DVDs, send them back, and that would be it. However, after discovering their streaming, I've been paying for their service for over a year, and I think I've had them send me like 2 DVDs in that time. Why bother copying something when you can watch what you want whenever you want?

    Of course, the greedy @#$%& at the RIAA want to stop this, but Netflix has made a nice bit of change offering a free trial and "free" streaming service, AND solved the issue of DVD "piracy" at the same time.

    Once businesses that produce infinite goods figure out that there are some people who're never going to pay for anything, and stop worrying about them, and concentrate on how to get those that will pay to willingly part with their money, we'll all be better off.

     

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  38.  
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    Dan Gray, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 11:20am

    Re: Re:

    I came here to say the same thing. Guild Wars is a much better example of a 'F2P' MMO done right.

     

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  39.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 12:05pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    came here for the GW

    leaving happy.



    by the way, they are still doing the cool little touches in GW such as today being april 1st, when you log in, the miniature pets you can collect are all normal sized (the pets are mini versions of things normally found in the game) and you are the size of a mini pet while walking around in towns.
    and this weekend they have chocolate rabbit and golden eggs as drops.

     

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  40.  
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    harbingerofdoom (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 12:06pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    i hate it when i dont notice that im not currently logged in

     

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  41.  
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    harbingerofdoom (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 12:18pm

    Re: Re:

    oh and just a side note so that we dont all get on the "OMG GW RULES" bandwagon toooo fast.

    keep in mind that ArenaNet also has several other MMORPG games (such as city of heros) which ARE a monthly fee. those games sort of subsidize GW in a way since Anet has pretty much been touting GW as their flagship product.

    Also, there are things in GW that you do have to pay for such as extra storage, special costumes, extra character slots & changing the sex of your character from one gender to another (yes, you have to pay for that, just like in real life...)
    it does not affect the game play value at all. the extra storage makes it much much easier at times, but there is not a single thing you just cant do in the game because you have to spend extra cash on it.

     

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  42.  
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    longtimelurker, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 1:14pm

    Re: Not really free to play

    Wrong. Even when they did (as in, do not have any longer), you were not stuck at level 5. By doing quests, you earn favor points. If you did enough quests to get you to level 4 (not 5), you would have earned enough favor points to boost your cap to 8. By the time you get to 8, you would have had enough to boost to 12. Not to mention, at that time, you could get the 'leveling sigil' in a random drop. If you would rather invest time than money, there isn't ANYTHING that you can not get by simply playing the game.

    I refuse to play ANY MMORPG that uses a subscription model. By giving me the option to purchase or play, without FORCING me to pay, they've gotten a loyal customer who, oddly enough, doesn't mind paying. If they had not offered it as F2P, they never would have gotten a dime from me (or the other 6 people I introduced to the game, who also won't pay a subscription). The F2P accounts actually give you MORE incentive to play, because you get into the whole 'gotta get favor points so I can get my drow/monk/favored soul/etc' goals, and then you don't want to just BUY it, you want to EARN it.

     

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  43.  
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    The Infamous Joe (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 1:50pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Thanks for that, I signed up for the beta.

    Free is a business model that will get their foot in the door for me. Let's hope it doesn't suck.

     

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  44.  
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    Anon, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 2:03pm

    Opinion

    While i do like the whole free to play sort of thing, I enjoy more of a subscription model like world of warcraft (although the expansion packs suck in terms of pricing)

     

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  45.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2010 @ 2:57pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Er, ArenaNet only has GW.

    NCSoft, the parent company, is the one that has all of the other MMO games (through other subsidiary companies).

    In other words, GW really is the sole profit source for ArenaNet.

     

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    Dan (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 5:50pm

    Re: Re: Free with a catch

    I do know of some games that run Punkbuster as a service. I used to go to the trouble of writing batch files to start the service, start the game, and kill the services after I was done playing.

     

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    Dan (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 5:52pm

    Re: Re: Free with a catch

    Maybe I will try it again then.

     

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  48.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 5:52pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Thank you, he may try this. Eh, I know him, he'll get into it and pay anyways.

     

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  49.  
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    vivaelamor (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 5:58pm

    Re:

    "Ironically the only game to give me that DnD multiplayer feel was Neverwinter Nights."

    I had a good run with NWN playing on a persistent world, but eventually I got fed up of the inevitable curse of closed source - perpetual bugs. As soon as a game is released it seems developers only get paid to fix game breaking bugs and the rest is done in their free time. Supreme Commander suffered the same fate. Such a promising community abandoned because no one is getting paid to code and the code isn't available for them to fix stuff themselves.

     

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  50.  
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    redwall_hp (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:30pm

    Re: Re: Free with a catch

    Note that it will stay open after you quit the game, so you will have to right-click the tray icon and close it. But you can set it to not run on startup.

     

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  51.  
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    redwall_hp (profile), Apr 1st, 2010 @ 8:42pm

    I play DDO a little bit, but WoW has it's strengths too. I wouldn't want to pay $12-$15 a month for it, but I think it has more polish overall (and a larger, more open world to explore). DDO has better quests, though.

    Blizzard offers, for WoW, a pre-pay option for people who don't want to have a subscription. This gave me a great idea for something midway between a subscription and paid add-on content: the AOL model. I'm not about to play 4 hours of WarCraft every day, so a prepaid option makes more sense than a subscription for me. The only problem is you pay for a certain number of days your account will remain active.

    Picture this: you pre-pay for a certain number of days or hours, and your balance decreases as you pay. If you don't actively play the game, the balance just sits there unused. It seems like a nice midway point between a subscription model and the freemium model.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  52.  
    identicon
    JP, Apr 2nd, 2010 @ 8:05am

    Link?

    Where is the link to the game?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  53.  
    identicon
    bo, May 2nd, 2010 @ 2:49pm

    d a d is crap warhamer is far better

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  54.  
    icon
    TechNoFear (profile), Oct 11th, 2010 @ 11:56pm

    Re: Free with a catch

    That is the 'Pando Media Booster'. It is used to download the game faster using P2P.

    Uninstall it using Windows 'Add and Remove Programs'.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  55.  
    icon
    Jay (profile), Oct 13th, 2010 @ 10:57am

    Re: Re: No Bail-out

    Just a slight nitpick...

    The RIAA wants to stop copyright infringement of music through IPs and three strikes.

    The MPAA wants only the DVD model to succeed in the US. No streaming, no analog holes, nothing. Also, keep in mind, Netflix's ability for a streaming service came about through a loophole in the law that allowed them to rent movies through someone such as OnStar (IIRC). The movie industry didn't even want Netflix to do streaming because they wholeheartedly tried to stop them.

    Funny how that revenue source shut them up for the time being.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  56.  
    identicon
    vedhz, Feb 5th, 2011 @ 10:27am

    This is definitely an interesting development. http://rd3.ca

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  57.  
    icon
    vedhz (profile), Feb 5th, 2011 @ 10:30am

    This is definitely an interesting development. http://rd3.ca

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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