The Game Archaeologist: The day Dungeons and Dragons Online dropped the free-to-play bomb


By 2009, the MMORPG genre had firmly established a norm for its business model. For over a decade, a monthly subscription — usually $15 per month — was the only way the players could access a title outside of the initial month of play that came with box sales and various trial programs. This model encouraged players to make one or two titles their “home” and kept communities in place.

That same year, Turbine’s Dungeons and Dragons Online had greatly fallen out of favor due to increasing competition. Sales were down, subscriptions were down, and the odd yet full-featured MMO seemed destined for obscurity. With nothing to lose, the studio employed a gambit that had rarely been seen outside of the east and announced that it would be changing DDO from a subscription-only title to a phrase that hadn’t crossed most gamers’ lips at that point: “Free-to-play.”

The announcement exploded and sent shockwaves across the community. The MMORPG genre would never again be the same.

Free-to-play, free to stay

With less than 100,000 players as of 2008, DDO wasn’t exactly the MMO of choice for most players. World of Warcraft was still on its way to peak subscribership, and newer titles like Age of Conan and Warhammer Online captured the excitement of the “what’s next?” crowd. In light of that, it’s not hard to understand why Turbine would take what was then seen as a great gamble with a product that had lost favor with players.

The change wasn’t chosen randomly, either. Turbine had done some research into trends and predictions, and it accurately saw that new business models were the wave of the future of MMOs. “With this model coming to DDO, and experimenting with alternative business models, it allows us to broaden the exposure of our games,” said Adam Mersky in a summer 2009 interview.

Previously, free-to-play wasn’t unknown, but it either only showed up in limited ways or for shoddy titles that nobody was playing anyway. Pairing the business model up with a full-featured, well-designed, and fairly well-known MMO was the actual pioneering move here.

The official announcement came on June 9th, 2009. Turbine sent out a press release stating that it would soon be converting DDO into a free-to-play title — or, more accurately, a hybrid business model that allowed for both free and subscribed players. It was a stunning change to how the industry had done things, and while it was risky, it also delighted players to have an MMO gaming option that wouldn’t demand an initial investment or regular gaming hours to justify a sub, especially to an MMO like DDO that handled online gaming a bit differently than the rest of the field.

“Nowadays it’s actually the subscription model itself that acts as a barrier to entry,” said Adam Mersky to Gamasutra. “It’s the classic ‘gym membership’ problem. Paying a monthly fee starts a clock in people’s heads where they feel like they’re locked into playing a certain amount of time every month or they’re throwing their money away.”

Success a million strong

Subscribers — now termed “VIP members” — were promised all missions unlocked and a monthly stipend of store currency to enjoy. Over on the other side, Turbine promised that it would give free players the opportunity to earn premium currency in-game that could be used to unlock content that would otherwise be denied to the F2P crowd.

Virtually overnight this game popped back on everyone’s lips. The F2P beta started up that summer with an anticipated fall release, and attention turned back on this title that everyone had seemingly forgotten. Turbine put in a great deal of effort to restructure the game around F2P, including creating a store and divvying up its content into adventure packs.

Eberron Unlimited, the relaunch of the game for North American audiences, went live on September 1st, 2009. There was no going back after this moment. Ars Technica reported that by October, massive crowds were pouring into DDO. There were at least double the number of people trying it out than Turbine had anticipated, and even better, subscription numbers were up an amazing 40%. It was an instant success story.

DDO Executive Producer Fernando Paiz said at the time, “We’re hitting and exceeding our internal targets, so far we’re very happy. All aspects of our business are growing. Hundreds of thousands of new players in the world are playing for free, with a very high percentage using the store.

By February 2010 and the game’s fourth birthday, over a million people had sampled DDO’s free-to-play wares. Subscriber counts had doubled since the F2P launch and store sales were allegedly 500% the industry standard (whatever that may be). Turbine was invited to speak on the phenomenon at various industry panels.

The tsunami of model switcharoos

Even though Turbine itself claimed that a free-to-play model wouldn’t work for some of its other titles, it quickly reversed that stance once it saw the revenue potential that F2P created. In June 2010, the studio announced that its Lord of the Rings Online would follow suit and also become a hybrid free-to-play MMO.

Turbine wasn’t alone in sitting up and noticing the great fortune and success that came with Dungeons and Dragons Online’s transition. Several other studios scrambled to capitalize on the new business model, with titles such as EverQuest II (2010), Champions Online (2011), City of Heroes (2011), Fallen Earth (2011), DCUO (2011), Star Trek Online (2012), EverQuest (2012), Aion (2012), TERA (2013), and RIFT (2013) quickly following suit.

It still took the industry a while to shift course on business models, with many titles in development sticking to a “subscription only” plan even as free-to-play took root in gamers’ lives. Star Wars: The Old Republic launched in December of 2011 and less than a year later made the move to F2P. Some titles, like Warhammer Online, refused or couldn’t afford the resources to work up a F2P version, and suffered because of it.

However, it wasn’t long before everyone realized that the “new normal” of free-to-play wasn’t a guarantee of a game’s success. Vanguard and WildStar both made the switch — and both ended up closing up shop. With so many F2P MMOs on the market, players were flooded with choices and stopped giving the formerly few titles with this business model all their attention.

And yes, that included Dungeons and Dragons Online, which went from being a popular darling in 2009 and 2010 to just another solid if somewhat niche MMO that toiled away in the background. There’s a segment of the community that has come to curse the F2P model that it helped to make popular, but if we’re being honest here, it was going to happen sooner or later anyway. Turbine’s moment of prescience in identifying and predicting the rise of alternative business models for online gaming is one of its greatest victories, even if it didn’t end up retaining the dominance it so briefly held from making the great switch.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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