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?