Despite my misgivings about parts of the payment model, there's no questioning that the PAX weekend deal (an extra $19 worth of points on top of the usual "bonus" for spending $50) was as good as it was likely to get in the near future. As such, it was off to Eberron to try and figure out whether the game was worth playing.
Rather than give a superficial rundown of the early gameplay, let's just say that I was reasonably convinced that I would eventually extract $50 worth of entertainment from the game. I did, however, observe some interesting quirks to the game's free to play system.
Intentional Community Scatter
If you're a chronic alt-o-holic, DDO is probably the first game I've ever seen that will actually PAY you to re-roll.
Each of the game's seven servers is treated as a separate community for the purposes of unlocking stuff. The bad news is that, if you do unlock a race or feature on your main server without paying in the item shop, you won't have access to the feature on any other servers you choose to visit. The good news is that you qualify for new player Turbine Point (the cash shop currency) awards once on every new server.
Within roughly 30-40 minutes, you can complete a handful of quests and walk away with 50 TP for the earliest reward. I went through half a dozen characters anyway, just auditioning playstyles, and ended up with 300 TP for my trouble. Of course, that's only $3 worth at the best exchange rate, but it's a nice little bonus gift. Your first 100 favor (think reputation, earned by completing quests) on each server is worth 150 TP, so that's actually a non-trivial boost if you repeat it seven times (which, again, many of us would have ended up doing anyway).
On the downside, I suspect that this system is why I've never before seen a game where it was so hard to find a character name that wasn't taken. Between the game being free to play and actively encouraging free players to go forth to multiple servers, I've really had to scrounge around to find available names. Also, obviously, rolling on multiple servers means being cut off from any friends and guildmates. You even have to physically close the game client and relaunch it if you want to switch.
What Do You Value?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of having a currency wallet and all kinds of options in the store is that it really does come down to what the player wants to spend money on.
For example, one of the pricier items in the shop is the option to make 32-point character builds instead of 28-point builds, a perk that is priced at just shy of $15 worth of Turbine points (more at worse exchange rates). Though there's some debate in the community as to how useful this feature is, I personally value it pretty highly. One of the things I really enjoy about the Dungeons and Dragons character system is the ability to pair levels of literally any two classes in the game to create unique multi-class combinations. For example, my hypothetical dual-wielding Kensai(Fighter)/Warchanter(Bard) would want very high numbers for Dex and Cha, but neglecting Str would leave me doing relatively low amounts of damage per hit.
By contrast, just about every form of equipment or consumable item in the game can be purchased with Turbine points, but I can't help but wonder why anyone would choose to buy them. For the price of a stack of consumable potions, I can permanently unlock a new subzone that would be available to every future character I create. I suppose these sorts of perks are for people who are really pressed for real world time and therefore spending relatively larger amounts of money in the store.
The only thing I've bought so far is access to the Monk class, which is on sale this week. I expect that I'll pick up the 32-point builds, the drow race, and the Favored Soul class at some point, though I might as well sit and see if they go on sale since I've got other games I'm working on at the moment anyway. Even if I do ultimately pay sticker price for all of the above, I'd still be working with
The Something For Everyone Challenge
All that aside, the big challenge Turbine will face is continuing to add content. There is a certain amount of room for new races and classes - apparently the half-orc race is slated for later this year - but there are limits to how many races/classes players can be convinced that they need. Likewise, there is the question of content. Dungeons and Dragons isn't really designed for increasing the level cap, but at some point Turbine may run into difficulty if players have already unlocked enough of the game for free to play status to reach the cap.
We've seen a bit of a hint of that in their current efforts. All dungeons are available on multiple difficulty settings, often including a solo-only version and a raid version. Sure enough, the next major patch is slated to contain a leveling dungeon that has an end-game raiding version (similar to how Blizzard reuses leveling content as Heroic endgame stuff in WoW). But how long will this model hold up? I guess Turbine is going to find out.