Learning from Dungeons and Dragons Online Part 3: Financial Model

Dungeons and Dragons Online, as I’ve said before, is my favorite MMORPG, and there’s several things I like about its business plan that really help me as a player who isn’t willing to subscribe but is willing to buy content on occasion (though that might change; I’m not planning on subscribing forever but I might pick up VIP for the months when I’m off school next summer).

For one thing, it’s non-invasive. I don’t have to see ads for stuff I don’t own (at least, not invasive ones, like some Korean F2P MMO’s). Now, DDO’s still a little bit pushy about this, but it’s more in the “Oh, you died. Want to buy your way out?” rather than the “Here’s the shop that you can pay to win at!”.

Currently there are two “premium currencies”, or things that you’re more likely to find with money; Astral Shards and the traditional Turbine Points. Neither of these actually require a cash purchase-you can earn Turbine Points by gaining Favor (which has other benefits), and Astral Shards can be won with a daily log-in bonus or bought using Turbine Points (and the Astral Shard auction house allows the savvy player to earn others’ Astral Shards).

Let’s look at the Turbine Point rate. There’s just over a 1000 Favor, gained by completing quests, available to free-to-play players (I’m being realistic here; free-to-play players may choose not to do the maximum difficulty, which gives the most favor, for every quest). Should they be on their first character, this would total 500 Turbine Points worth of Favor, as well as a few rewards such as the Drow race and Veteran Status for that single server only, a value roughly equal to $6 in Turbine Points, plus the 995 Turbine Point Drow race and the 995 Turbine Point Champion status. Now, why does this model work for turbine? 2500 points is sold for $29, so they’ve given away what could’ve been $29 in sales by this point.

The answer is that they have a lot of stuff to buy. They don’t give away an adventure pack for free (though they’re typically pretty reasonably priced), and they have sales often enough to cause the weak-willed such as myself keep their Turbine Points on hand pretty low (I have about 350 right now from favor and leftovers from Menace of the Underdark). They price the game in part based on investment. Not in the deceptive “Now everything’s expensive!” way, but rather by making sure that the content that you’re likely to see early on and twitch-purchase is cheaper, and the high-end content is priced at what a dedicated player would spend-I’ve played enough that I’m seriously considering putting down cash for VIP or for a new adventure pack, and I know people who’ve done likewise. In fact, were I to have paid full store price, off-sale and without my stipends, I’d be looking at having spent $80 on DDO, while I’ve spent about $30, unless you count the benefits I got from MOTU as separate, in which case you could say I’d have spent $120 or so (perhaps more). The benefit for Turbine is that I’ve spent $30, and not only do I play a lot but I tend to tell my friends about DDO, and at least one of them became a very devoted (and well-paying) player.

Looking at the model, there are several things that created this:

  • Low entry cost. For me, this would be none, since I only started playing in the free-to-play beta back in high-school before I was really spending money on MMORPG’s (I spend very little, maybe $30 a year between all of the ones I play), but it’s still true for everyone-I entered significantly ahead of a modern free-to-play user because I got beta rewards, but nonetheless there’s plenty of content (35 hours per character, much more if you hop to an alt, spend all your favor rewards on adventure packs, or do daily challenges) and a really good experience.
  • Relatively low pricing. Because I had a few Turbine Points already, when I first spent on DDO I got a relatively expensive adventure pack as well as a class. Some of this was thanks to a sale (I got Monk at what I believe to be half price), but nonetheless I put in $10 and got out several hours of play. This was before I was really willing to spend money on it, so I wouldn’t have paid $20.
  • Value. DDO sells the things that I want; more content. And they’re not skimpy with the free content, but I craved more and got more. They do offer microtransactions, but not for things that you can’t get through the game (especially now that there are the daily login rewards) or don’t need. For instance, nothing you can buy in the DDO store is necessary to win the game. It can help, or replace the need for other players to do other things, but you can play through the whole game alone for free, and only worry about buying new adventures.

Let’s look at another free-to-play game I’m also a huge fan of; Warframe. I’m not the hugest fan of Digital Extremes-they’re very active in their community, which is a good thing, but they also come across as rather pretentious to me. It’s a great game nonetheless, but I sometimes question their game decisions, especially with some of the stuff that’s happened in Update 8.

  • Low entry cost. Warframe is free. I typically play solo, and I enjoy it most for that. I collect a ton of stuff at my own pace, and don’t have to worry too much about it. However, I don’t get all the content without a ton of grind. It used to be a pretty common policy that anything you could buy for Platinum, the premium currency, could be bought with credits, or could have their blueprints bought through the market for credits. Now that’s not so much the case. Not all of this is a problem-they moved some items that would have been rare to the Platinum only store, but they’re more for alternate playstyles or cosmetics, but now it’s becoming prevalent enough to be an issue.
  • Iffy pricing. I recognize that there’s such a thing as balancing prices so that people who pay don’t automatically win. However, prices in Warframe are steep-I put in $5 or $10 a while back, and my Platinum has gone almost exclusively to expanding my inventory (which it does very well), in part because everything’s so expensive. An expensive Warframe (the Rhino, in specific, was the one I had my eye on), the equivalent of a class, costs a whopping 375 Platinum, while $10 will get you 170 Platinum. In order to buy the Rhino, in the increments that Platinum is sold, you would have to pay $30! You’d have some leftovers, but you’d still be in a ton of cash. There’s a “What Stalker?” pack, named after an unique enemy in the game, that gives you significantly more powerful weapons for 800 platinum. That’s a minimum of $50! Admittedly, I’m not looking at the Founder’s packs, which have a better platinum to cash ratio, but it’s still somewhat absurd. I paid for inventory space, and that’s basically all I’m going to wind up buying, because I can’t afford anything else.
  • Value. This is the part where I’m going to get a lot of flame, but there’s not much value in these. Rather, not much real value; there’s a lot of artificial value. I love Warframe, I’ve put in almost a hundred hours because it was a great way to release stress, and I’ve recommended it to many of my friends. But, to be honest, there’s a line between the “pay-to-win” and the “overpriced” thing. I’m stuck with 130 or so Platinum I can’t do anything with. I got several color packs when they were on a 1 credit sale, so I don’t need more cosmetics, and I’ve got enough inventory space for well over a dozen more hours of collecting and building. But the truth is that I’m sort of burnt out on Warframe; I’d have to put in hours of play to get any of the upgrades that I’m looking at, and building the dojo for my guild will require me to either whip out my credit card or do several hours of work in addition to the work I’m doing for materials. The complete lack of progression at this point (to be fair, Warframe is more of a cooperative shooter than an RPG) means that I can sit back with my Hek and kill basically any challengers, but I still get beaten by those who’ve put in more time than I have or put in more money to get a new warframe. I got into the beta off of my brother’s Founder’s package, and he’s bought warframes that are thrice as powerful as my starting Volt will ever be, even with a booster (20 plat, though the blueprints are a common enough alert drop), and I’ll have to grind bosses several times to get the parts and materials to craft a Frost.

In short, by looking at Warframe and DDO, we can see exactly what a good free-to-play model does and how a bad one works (mind you, Warframe is a great game, its Platinum system is just abysmal). DDO made it so that when I first bought, I paid very little and got a lot between the sale (Warframe does have those too) and the Favor rewards I had. Warframe, on the other hand, made it so that when I bought I quickly found myself at the point where I couldn’t spend my money on anything I didn’t already have, because I didn’t want to spend until I was about ~35 hours in, and by that point I already had a massive arsenal (I bought Platinum to keep my inventory from getting too full).

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