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?

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Comments on “Results From Dungeons & Dragons Online Going Free: Revenue Up 500%”

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Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: 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).

JB says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:


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.

Designerfx (profile) says:

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.

Robert Ring (profile) says:

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.”

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: 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….

Xanius says:

Re: 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.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 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.

Dudchucker says:

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.

Logo says:

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.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: 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.

eternal (user link) says:

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.

vivaelamor (profile) says:

Re: 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.

Andy (profile) says:

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.

Logo says:

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.

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

Jay (profile) says:

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.

Ted says:

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.

Modplan (profile) says:

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.

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.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 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.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 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.

harbingerofdoom (profile) says:

Re: 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.

Patty (profile) says:


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.

longtimelurker says:

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.

DarkGecko777 says:

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.

redwall_hp (profile) says:

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.

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