Whilst we were down in the RPS dungeon, thrashing kobolds for copper pieces, we stumbled upon a group of MMO developers coming the other way through the Underdark. Sitting down by the light of our magic auras, we made a nice cup of elf-leaf and talked to Fernando Paiz, Executive Producer on Dungeons & Dragons Online (married to Kate Paiz, the executive producer on Lord Of The Rings Online) and Adam Mersky, Communications Director of Turbine. These bold adventurers in online gaming had much to report about about DDO’s history, the first DDO expansion, and the mysterious emanations coming from upcoming releases.
RPS: So, Fernando, you’re married to Kate? Who’s the tank?
Paiz: It started out with me being the tank and Kate being the traditional healer role, but we’ve branched out to a certain extent in our play style.
RPS: Do you still play together?
Paiz: We don’t have quite as much time but when we go to play a new game, like the Old Republic, we will check out the first few levels together.
RPS: Sorry about the personal questions, it just seemed unusual.
Mersky: We like to joke we’ve got the world’s best husband and wife team of MMO developers, period. We don’t think there are any others, but we hold the title.
Paiz: It’s been great working with Kate and DDO, and Free2Play in particular, was something we did together. I came onto the DDO project right before we did Free2Play, we were leading the team together at that point, and Kate moved on to lead Lord of the Rings Online after that.
RPS: So, tell me about the state of play and the expansion.
Mersky: In 2006, we launched. In 2009, we introduced Free2Play, the first game to do that. We only did it over here in North America, Codemasters elected not to do it in Europe. It was a huge success. Last year we brought out localised versions in French and German. DDO went from being off the radar to being the number 2 or 3 most played MMO in North America in 2010. The game was just fine as a service but Free2Play changed everything, it went to being right up there with World of Warcraft and LOTRO.
RPS: So you’ve had a true double-blind test there, comparing the European subs-based model and the American Free2Play model. How did they differ?
Paiz: We had more than a five-fold increase in both concurrencies, meaning concurrent players, and revenues. I think leading the charge probably helped, because I don’t know if every game gets that result. We also doubled our subscriber base at the same time and we signed up millions of new players. For DDO, it was a game-changer.
RPS: For Codemasters’ DDO though, because the marketing spend isn’t kept up and the media don’t generally cover released games well, I imagine their userbase must have declined substantially over the same period? They must have been looking over at you, thinking “why didn’t we do that?”
Mersky: I can’t comment on Codemaster’s numbers, as frankly I just don’t know them. We certainly saw a lot of players from around the world coming to play on the service here, in English. Brazil was a big pot, and we don’t operate in Portuguese even today! I’ve gone to GamesCom every summer and now I’m meeting press from Turkey and Eastern Europe… these areas that traditionally game developers didn’t focus on. It may be part of our American standpoint, where we just looked at Europe as a country, rather than territories that have lots of nuances to them. I think a lot of players who don’t have English as their native language, even if we offer it in their language, prefer to play in English.
Paiz: I’m sure in hindsight after we launched, Codemasters wanted to be there. But remember this was not a surefire thing; we were taking this game that had been on the market for several years, invest several million dollars, and relaunch it as a free2play service. Part of our mantra was ‘we’re not doing it halfway. If we’re doing it for real, then it’s a real relaunch not just a babystep or extended demo. We’re really going to say what does Free2Play mean to us and what should it mean to the North American player?’ That’s really our challenge and one of the things we’re most of proud is that we got to define it. We got to define what Free2Play means in North America and now everyone follows suit, players even talk about the Turbine model. The other comment I love to hear is “Free2Play? Oh, I hate those games. Unless they do it like Turbine.” Because we’re sensitive to what the North American was pay to win or not good value, and because we kept value in the subscription plan, that we made this hybrid plan.
RPS: Yeah, your example allowed games like Allods to be funded and developed, AAA games designed from the ground up for free2play.
Paiz: Yeah, part of me is sad that The Old Republic didn’t take the brave step and launch that way. I mean, it’s a very cool game they’ve made and they’ve made it very well, but I’m sure they flirted with it internally and decided not to take this step, which is interesting.
RPS: Possibly they needed the boxed copy sales to pay for the marketing.
Mersky: What we realised is that there were a whole load of players out there, who love RPGs but never previously touched an MMO because of the subscription. I’m one of them. Before I came here I never played an MMO, because a subscription was not going to fit my lifestyle, my gameplay style… I think we’ve unlocked these guys. Most interesting about our transition, because we were subscription already, was that we had to maintain the experience that our existing customers were already paying for. So I think you see a lot of companies go completely free2play and ignore that there are people out there who choose to spend their money, because it’s their hobby. By giving them that choice, that’s the secret sauce.
RPS: It’s not free2play that was your innovation; it was allowing people to spend whatever they wanted to, so that the free players could pay nothing, the normal players could pay a sub, and the biggest fans could spend as much as they wanted.
Mersky: It’s kinda a joke; those poor guys, we were forcing them to only spend $15 a month. Now we’ve freed them.
Paiz: It’s pay as much as you want, when you want, at the rate you want… all of that. People have heebie-jeebies about recurring subscriptions sometimes. At the same time, the subscription plan is great value. If you’re playing 10, 20, 40 hours a week, then subscribe. If you play twice a month, then you can pay us when it makes sense for you and your party.
RPS: Did you see Bigpoint was selling drones in its Free2Play game Dark Orbit for €1000 each, and in four days they sold 2000 drones?
Paiz: Yeah, I think we’ve seen some stories like that. Yeah, you can go whale-fishing.
Mersky: The argument there is, if they’d charged €500, would they have sold twice as many? Or four times as many?
Paiz: It’s not something we’ve spent a lot of time on. We may spend more time on premium items in the future – I don’t know about $1000 items though.
RPS: It would make the biz-dev people in the building salivate, but everyone else just wants to make a nice game.
Paiz: Gameplay has to come first. I heard you asking Kate about the Facebook games and the fundamental difference is that because those games are cheaply developed and because they’re so aggressive about getting your friends in and monetize, they’re more consumable. They might only keep your attention for three months. We’re trying to keep your attention for three years here, we’re trying to make you keep coming back. We’re focused on the long term.
RPS: Also the social game users were uneducated, and after a few Facebook games, they’ve had enough and don’t want to play those things any more. I think that’s why we’re seeing Zynga’s share price plummeting. They’ve been driven off by the game model that drew them in.
Paiz: At some point you need depth to retain people’s interest. Those games are very cool little sandboxes, but they don’t quite get to that depth that holds attention month to month.
RPS: I interrupted you before had a chance to talk about the expansion. Tell me what you’re doing?
Paiz: Oh, yeah! We shouldn’t have skipped that.
Mersky: Yeah, we’re six years old and we’re about to launch our first expansion. If I’d told you that four years ago, you would have been “I don’t believe that.” It’s all a result of the success that Free2Play unlocked.
Paiz: It’s a testament to what Free2Play has done for us that, this far in, we’ve got approval from Wizards of the Coast to do this expansion and from Warner Brothers to grow the team significantly and, once again, reinvest millions of dollars in this franchise to do another big launch. The big news. I don’t know how much of a D&D fan you are, how much you know of the ruleset and the lore of D&D? The big news is that we’re going to go to Forgotten Realms for the first time. You may recall we launched with Eberron just after Wizards of the Coast launched the ruleset for it; Eberron’s been great, it’s a world full of magic and technology, we’ve gotten to shape that world, it has its own flavour in the fantasy space. But since the day we launched DDO, we’ve had players saying “can’t we got to Forgotten Realms, PLEASE?” It’s the fan favourite, from the fiction and so many of the games, like Baldur’s Gate, have taken place there, so many of the stories and locales, that players long for. The establishment of what a fantasy game or setting meant to them, for so many players, was Forgotten Realms. This is a really big exciting change. Our expansion is called Menace of the Underdark.
RPS: Oh, like Hordes of the Underdark (the best Neverwinter Nights)?
Paiz: So our expansion deals with Lloth, the Drow being the main evil faction in the Forgotten Realms setting and their deity is Lloth, and they’re up to a nefarious plot for world domination that’s going to end up creating a link between the two universes. So that the heroes of Eberron will be able to get pulled into what’s going on and ultimately help save the world.
RPS: Is the Underdark under the whole of the Forgotten Realms?
Paiz: The Underdark is a huge expanse, it’s a whole realm in itself, an underworld beneath the overworld of Faerun, so we’re not going to Neverwinter, as you may know there’s another MMO in development. We’re going to a few other locales in Forgotten Realms. We’re going to land at a town called Eveningstar in Cormyr. Our players will be able to travel from our world, all the way to Eveningstar, venture into the Underdark and eventually see one of the Drow cities in there and face Lloth and her followers. It’s a pretty epic story for us. It kicks off with Update 13, our next major update that comes before the expansion. It has a series of quests, a free adventure pack, that kicks off the storyline that sets up the expansion.
RPS: I think I’m going to have to find my log-in again.
Paiz: Menace of the Underdark comes this summer, so players won’t wait long.
RPS: You’re not updating the ruleset from D&D 3.5 are you?
Paiz: No, but we are introducing the most demanded class; the Druid class. It’s the last core class that we haven’t implemented in DDO and it’ll be part of the release of Menace of the Underdark.
RPS: What era of the Forgotten Realms is this all set in? Is it current or is it more historical stuff?
Paiz: Well… I’d rather not touch too much on the details of that right now, we’re still working out some of the details with Wizards of the Coast. Our forgotten realms storylines are going to be very resonant with the fiction and storylines that Wizards of the Coast will be releasing for Forgotten Realms next year. At least in terms of the stakes and the backdrop to our stories, they’ll be very much current with the latest stuff that Wizards are doing.
The last major point of the expansion is that there’s a level cap increase, we’re extending the level cap to 25, into epic levels. Which, of course in DDO, is more than five levels worth of content, as we divide the levels up into five advancement moments and all that of the ranks. Quite a bit of character customisation, it’s going to work a bit different past level 20, give players more cool ways to customise their characters.
RPS: You’ve not introduced any psionic classes yet have you?
Paiz: No, we never did do full psionics in Eberron, it was something we came close to and flirted with, but never did. We did introduce the artificer class, they have a special offhand weapon, so they’re a dual-wielding ranged class for DDO, and also our first pet class. You get to advance a pet companion, level them and customise them as your character grows. That was laying the groundwork for stuff that’ll be in the druid as well. The druid’s main things are the animal companion and the animal form.
RPS: Would you ever consider doing anything other than a Free2Play game again?
Paiz: From my perspective, on the product development team, never say never. We’d do the right thing for the right game BUT it would not be correct to say we’re not huge believers in this model and we don’t think that we could do very interesting things launching a Free2Play game.
RPS: Last question; you have D&D, you have Lord of the Rings; are there any other universes that you want to work on?
Paiz: Would a one word answer do? Yes.
Mersky: Further than yes, I can say; yes we do and yes we are. We’re not going to talk about anything we haven’t announced yet. One of the biggest things in our history was getting acquired by Warner Bros, we’re certainly working with a lot of studios that are our siblings, helping them out with community and hosting. We’re part of a very big cool family of companies and I think you’ll be hearing a lot of cool stuff coming out of Turbine in the years ahead.
RPS: Ooh, interesting. Thanks for your time.