Dungeons & Dragons Online, like the lion’s share of MMOs out there, has undergone countless changes since it launched, but never something this huge. Previously a subscription-based game, DDO is just about to engage the landing gear on its brand new free-to-play option, which brings with it new features of all shapes and sizes. We spoke with senior producer Kate Paiz about DDO’s latest makeover, chatting about topics including the DDO Store’s effects on game balance, the when’s and why’s of DDO’s new free-to-play model, the recent sale of id Software, and much, much more.
Seriously, grab a sandwich or something. This one’s a doozy.
What prompted the decision to go free-to-play? Why move away from a subscription focus?
Ever since we’ve launched, we’ve gotten feedback from players that we’re just a different kind of MMO; we don’t have the same kind of basic gameplay mechanics as a lot of other, more traditional MMOs do. We have a lot of private, party-based instances. We give XP based on the completion of an adventure, of conquering a goal. So you saved the girl, right? You know, destroyed the weapon – completed something that was a little more epic than just killing monsters. It’s a bigger task. And because we’re based so faithfully on the [D&D] 3.5 rule set, there are also just some basic mechanics that differed [from other MMOs].
So one of the things that we hear all the time is that because we’re not that traditional MMO, and because research has shown that one of the barriers to joining an MMO is the subscription price, we felt like it made more sense to pull from D&D’s roots and go back to sort of a more module-based purchasing option, where players get a certain amount of content, like the players’ handbook, right up front, and then they can use that as much as they want and then purchase additional content when they want, the way they want – rather than being locked into a subscription fee.
How are longtime DDO players taking the news that their MMO of choice is changing so drastically?
So far, the feedback on the forums is very positive. We’ve gotten a lot of [reactions like] “Yes! I can finally get my one non-playing friend to join us! And this is going to bring the party back together from college!” This is going to give players the opportunity to expand that social network that’s so critical in playing both MMOs in general and D&D as well. I’m so pleased at how much they’re into it.
Do you think subscription-based MMOs are a dying breed? Recently, both Tabula Rasa and The Matrix Online were forced to shut down. How do you see the business model faring going forward?
I’ve been working in MMOs for nine years now, and I’ll say that it’s a very difficult space, very competitive. I think that there are some great subscription-based games, and it’s just one of those markets where, to succeed, you have to be doing a lot of things right. And again, our decision to broaden [DDO] was more about making sure that we were addressing the market that we thought the game was right for than our concerns that monolithic subscription games were a thing of the past. You know, Lord of the Rings Online, for instance, has great success with its subscription fee, and I don’t see us changing that plan for the game. For us, it’s really more about aligning what our goals are around what our business model is.
What audience is DDO aiming for? Free Realms, for instance, is obviously aiming for a more casual userbase, and has recently seen its player numbers shoot up to over 3 million. Are you targeting a similar audience?
We’re definitely going to continue to appeal to the D&D crowd, and we’re expecting to broaden that with the change to a free-to-play model. We’re looking to pull in more of the young crowd who are MMO-focused or action game-focused, so teens and 20-somethings. We especially expect a lot of kids who are in college or in high school, who don’t necessarily have the monthly spending allowance that people in the workforce have to use the opportunity to unlock points in-game to earn premium content. Again, though, that’s not going to work for everyone; for instance, the guy who has to balance his job with his family and friends won’t necessarily be able to take that path, but it’s there for them if they want.
Speaking of premium content, what’s the upward limit of game balance-altering items you’re willing to sell in the DDO Store? I thought I saw an experience boosting potion…
What we have right now are heal and spell point potions – you know, mana potions and things like that. That’s pretty much it. We don’t see a reason to sell base-XP stuff. I mean, we have small XP boosts, but they’re really constrained in their impact because we want to make sure that the loot-based game and playing with your friends continues to be a reward mechanic. We don’t want to water that down just to make a few bucks on the side.
So, say some people hate the DDO store and other Eberron Unlimited features. Would you consider adding retro servers to DDO, in order to let these players go back to the game’s pre-Unlimited “good old days”?
Some players have asked for that, but I would say that right now, that’s not in our plans. We’re certainly interested in understanding how many people would want to do that. You know, the DDO Store is completely optional, so anyone who doesn’t want to participate in it can find access to pretty much everything through non-store means. Again, you quest for the best loot and armor – that hasn’t changed. You can unlock at least two of the premium classes and races through gameplay alone, and if you really want the other ones, I recommend you subscribe if you’d rather not buy them through the store. Right now, we’re encouraging more purist players to play without the Store, and then we’re keeping an eye on the balance of that.
What are your thoughts on raiding in MMOs? The whole concept, at least to me, seems counterintuitive. I mean, you’ve gone through the whole game playing solo and running short instances in small groups, and then you dive right into the deep end with huge groups and big time commitments. Casual players, especially, seem like they get the short end of the stick here.
Throughout the whole game, we teach you to know your character and know the role you play in the party. But in general, it’s finding the right group of people to complete the raid with. So in general, we make a real effort to not break the basic game mechanics when we put players into raid content, though certainly we understand that some players are going to find certain raids not to their pallet. We do in general try to make them very accessible.
Seeing as Turbine’s an independent developer, you must have some thoughts on the recent sale of id Software, which was once thought to be a beacon of hope for large, independent development studios. Do you think large-scale independent developers have no choice but to eventually sell to a major publisher?
Well, across lots of industries, you see that sort of trend of independence coming up, then there’s a period of consolidation, and then more independents spring up. That’s certainly been true for a lot of things, and it’s not surprising to me that MMOs in particular and game companies in general are going down that road. We’re very proud to be a strong independent company with amazing franchises that have legs.
I wish id Software the best of luck, though. I love to see vibrant companies grow and continue to make great games.
So, what’s in the works for DDO beyond the Eberron Unlimited update?
Well, this release is really big for us, so that’s 99% of what we’re talking about these days, because it’s still in beta, so we’re still tuning and balancing. Once we go live with this, we do expect to release an update not too long after that will take players to another high-level adventure pack – not related to Shavarath; we’ve had a lot of Shavarath-related content recently and we wanted to give players a break from that. We have some really nice, nightmarish dreamscapes to walk players through. Right now, though, we’re focusing a lot of time and attention on beta feedback.
Final and most important question: What’s your favorite music to listen to when running through a dungeon?
Umm... [Singing] ‘Everybody was kung-fu fighting!’ [Laughs].
Really though, I like to listen to rock with DDO. I feel like it’s just sort of an applicable vibe to the action. But whenever I’m playing my monk, I do have the ‘Kung-fu fighting’ song in my head.
All right, thanks for talking with us!
If you’d like to know more about DDO: Eberron Unlimited, look for our preview of the game, which is going live tomorrow.