Giving Away Games for Fun and Profit

DDO Unlimited

Since 2008, over 20 Eastern-developed, free-to-play MMO titles have launched in the US, and more will be released before this year is out. The list includes Atlantica Online, Deco Online, Florensia, LaTale, Runes of Magic, and many more. With these titles comes a new way of thinking: free-to-play.

While the Western MMO market has stuck largely with the monthly subscription model, Eastern MMO companies have been successfully giving their games away for years. Instead of relying on every user for payment, they offer in-game perks and items for a small fee (aka: microtransaction) and let users decide how much to spend.

The downside, obviously, is that the revenue stream is somewhat unpredictable. In an interview with Gamasutra, Daniel James of Three Rings revealed that only 10% of Puzzle Pirates players spend money on microtransactions. The upside? Users who do spend money spend an average of $50 per month, significantly more than the average monthly subscription fee. Combine that with reduced development costs, zero packaging costs, and lower barrier to entry for new players, and you have some serious potential.

Considering the number of F2P games that currently coexist in the Asian market, it’s hardly surprising that the microtransaction model can be profitable… but can it truly be competitive in North America?

Cryptic Studios, the veteran developer of City of Heroes, doesn’t seem to think so. Their newest title, Champions Online, launched yesterday with the tried-and-true subscription model, albeit one with a slight twist. As a pre-order bonus, Cryptic offered players a $200 lifetime subscription package that completely nullified all future monthly payments. The package also provided players with exclusive access to the upcoming Star Trek Online beta, making it sound like a heck of a deal.

And it was, all things considered. Cryptic got more money up front and drastically increased the chance that early adopting players would be evangelists for the game. After all, how many people can justify spending that kind of money, enough to buy a new DSi or three Xbox 360 titles, and switching to another MMO a month after launch?

So, Cryptic came up with a novel way to beef up the standard subscription model. The twist? It had been done before. Even better, it was originally tried by Turbine, the makers of Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach … a company who has decided to reformat DDO into the first major, US-developed F2P MMORPG.

The freshly-titled Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited will be opening its doors to the general public next week, on September 9th. It’s a bold move, and one that has caused something of a kerfuffle since there are quite a few players already paying for DDO in its subscription form. To keep things fair, those players will be handed VIP status, valued at a familiar $14.99 a month. Non-VIP’s will be given basic, somewhat limited access and the opportunity to buy advanced races, classes, items, and visitation rights to VIP areas of Eberron.

Despite the fact that there’s very little difference between an old “subscriber” and a new “VIP,” taking a cue from the flood of freshly translated Eastern titles that are finding a foothold in North America could be an inspired move by Turbine. The reasonably friendly reception to older, ported titles like LaTale and Mabinogi implies that the barrier to entry is significantly lowered when there’s no price tag to speak of. Hook your players once they’re in game, and they just might be willing to cough up some cash for a limited-edition outfit or kick-ass new sword. By all reports, DDO was heading down a dark road, but this may completely revitalize the title.

Of course, the potential success of DDO as a free-to-play title doesn’t mean that Turbine has the right idea and Cryptic is sticking with an outdated model. They’re both veteran MMO developers, and you can be sure they’ve done their homework.

In other words, the success or failure of these two games will say quite a bit about where the industry is heading. There are still a few big question marks left, most notably the announcement of which payment system EA/Bioware/Mythic’s Star Wars: The Old Republic will use, but don’t be too surprised if that decision isn’t made until after the results are in.

Is free-to-play gaming the Next Big Thing? The fates of Champions Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited might just provide the answer.