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How one MMO developer went from paid to free-to-play and back again

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Rift’s Starfall Prophecy expansion will be its first piece of fully paid content since going free-to-play in 2013

Rift: Starfall Prophecy screenshot

A few weeks ago, developer Trion Worlds announced the third expansion for its massively multiplayer role-playing game, Rift. Titled Starfall Prophecy, it brings with it all the stuff you’d expect from an MMO expansion: a higher level cap, a bunch of new zones to quest through, lots of powerful loot and more. But it also brings a somewhat surprising business shift.

Starfall Prophecy will be the first "premium" paid expansion since Rift went free-to-play in 2013. According to Trion Worlds CEO Scott Hartsman, this shift is a result of the company listening to its fans.

"The first expansion that we did was Storm Legion," Hartsman explained to Polygon. "Storm Legion [released in 2012, prior to the game’s shift to free-to-play] was a buy-the-box-get-the-expansion thing. When we went to Nightmare Tide, Rift’s second expansion, we were trying to figure out how is the best way to do an expansion in a free-to-play game. The two concepts don’t necessarily fit. You still have all the investment of a development team spending a year-and-a-half on content."

In trying to figure out this conundrum, Trion Worlds came up with a solution that Hartsman described as "a little bit clever and more accessible." Essentially, players were given access to all of the new zones, dungeons and questing content of Nightmare Tide for no cost, and the price they would have paid for a full expansion was instead spread out across a handful of microtransactions.

So for example, if you wanted to use the new earring equipment slot added in Nightmare Tide, you would need to pay a small fee for it. If you wanted to equip powerful loot from end-game raids and dungeons, that would be another small fee. It was a unique approach to the problem of full expansions in a free-to-play game. But as it turns out, Rift players by and large hated it.

"What we found is that our attempts to be very generous and more convenient were strongly not perceived that way," said Hartsman. "Obviously, it’s one of those things where hindsight is 20/20. Of course if I come in and my friend joins me, and we both do a dungeon, we both get loot from the dungeon, but I bought everything right off the bat, so I can equip it and my friend can’t. That doesn’t exactly feel good. Of course, that doesn’t feel great. So yes, we are very happy to say that because of a lot of the feedback that we got in the last expansion cycle, we are in fact returning to the most palatable way that people are interested in paying for expansions."

Rift: Starfall Prophecy screenshot

That means that once again for Starfall Prophecy, players will pay a single fee — $39.99 for the regular edition, $59.99 for a deluxe edition that comes with some cosmetic bonuses — to gain access to all of the expansion’s new content at once. Despite still being a largely free-to-play game, the aspect of paying for expansions will be the same as it’s always been.

"You pay once, and everybody is on the same, fair, even playing field," Hartsman said. "You don’t have to worry about picking up new slices of functionality. Everybody can go everywhere, everyone can do everything, and it’s just a vastly more equitable way. We heard our users loud and clear."

And what about the free-to-play audience? According to Hartsman, most of Rift’s core audience bought all of the microtransaction unlocks in Nightmare Tide. After all, they had to if they wanted to fully enjoy the content available.

"The core audience actually did buy all of that stuff anyway," said Hartsman. "They were just irritated in how it was presented, so instead we’re putting it up front in what we hope is a vastly less irritating way. We spend over a year, in this case about a year-and-a-half working on a big piece of content. The challenge for us is to figure out what is the way that people will be excited about acquiring this, not be annoyed with what they perceive as a negative experience."

Rift: Starfall Prophecy is planned to launch this fall and can currently be pre-ordered directly from Trion Worlds. Hartsman promised that in addition to all of the content in the expansion itself, the Rift team is hard at work on content patches that will hit in a schedule of every two to three months following Starfall Prophecy’s launch.

"As we look down the full catalog of everything that comes through here with this expansion, yes, this is very much deserving of the premium expansion label," Hartsman said.