Q&A: Debysue Wolfcale on Ultima X: Odyssey

Origin Systems' marketing chief talks about the company's new pricing scheme for two unique, persistent-world titles.


Persistent-world MMORPGs such as EverQuest, Ultima Online, and Asheron's Call are based on challenging environments filled with lengthy quests and lurking danger. The rules of supply and demand interact with intricate economies, and the potential for death and extinction are always a possibility. Well, the world that supports such titles--the real world of game design, server maintenance, pricing, customer support, live team competence, and customer churn--is the manifestation of an equally complex system.

That point was made today when Origin Systems, the division of Electronic Arts responsible for supporting the now six-year-old MMORPG Ultima Online and the upcoming MMORPG title, Ultima X: Odyssey, presented an atypical pricing schedule designed to entice new gamers while rewarding ongoing Ultima Online subscribers.

The company said that gamers can choose one of three subscription levels that would give them access to both games: a $19.98 per month fee (instead of the usual combined fee of $25.98 if the games are subscribed to separately), as well as $54.98 every three months and $99.98 every six months. Subscriptions to individual games remain $12.99 for a single month, $34.99 for three, and $59.99 for six.

While the games carry the same Ultima brand, they are far from similar. The upcoming UXO is built on the Unreal engine and offers gamers a faster-paced environment for their questing. And, for the record, the two MMORPGs' environments do not overlap.

GameSpot sought out Debysue Wolfcale, Director of Marketing for Origin Systems to find out what was behind the new pricing model, why it was implemented, and if it heralds a major change in the traditional month-by-month subscription model most MMO titles are supported by.

GameSpot: First of all, what level of research goes into a pricing decision as the one just revealed for Ultima Online and Ultima X: Odyssey?

Debysue Wolfcale: Actually, quite a bit of research and internal debate goes into the pricing decisions for the games. Our number one goal with our games is to have the magical combination of the right game at the right price at the right time. That is very hard to do and that is where research and experience come into play. Also, since our games are marketed worldwide we try to balance our thinking with that of our marketing partners in the territories. So, many different components go into these decisions.

GS: What led OSI/EA to the conclusion that linking the subs was the right thing to do?

DW: We try to base our decisions on market demand--that is usually the starting place. We have seen over the months since our announcement that our current community of Ultima Online players has a significant interest in the Ultima X: Odyssey game. We have seen many questions from them on our boards. Although, we have mentioned that we believe the games to be quite different in terms of gameplay they both are based on the vibrant Ultima universe which has appeal to a wide community of Ultima fans. For this reason, we felt like we should definitely offer our Ultima Online players some type of special pricing opportunity if they choose to play both games. We hope the Ultima premium pricing package is the answer.

GS: Actually, given that the two games are so different, it actually strikes me as counterintuitive to link the games via discounted subscriptions. Can you tell why you see it differently?

DW: Again, we felt much like you do, that the games are really positioned to have appeal to two different segments of the MMO market. We believe that Ultima Online is still a thriving community and is continuing to grow, evidenced by the fact that earlier this year Ultima Online hit its all time high of subscribers at 250,000! However, we spend a great deal of time listening to our players and trying to stay close to their needs. Ever since we announced that Ultima X: Odyssey was in development, we have been besieged by players asking if we will offer some type of special pricing along these lines. So, this program is really in response to player's requests.

GS: Is a quarterly and 1/2 yearly subscription model the next inevitable step for PSW publishers (in terms of a remunerative revenue model)? Do you see that model changing further? Are you testing alternatives to such models?

DW: So, you are actually asking a fairly complicated question here. There is the question of subscription pricing models now and in the future and there is the question of simply revenue models for these types of games in the future. As far as subscription models go, depending on the demographics of a subscriber base, there are a variety of pricing models and package options that can be created. So far for our base, which still mainly pays by credit card, a model that reduces the inconvenience of monthly payments and also offers a discount is rated very highly. As far as subscription models beyond the next 12 months, I think we are already looking at alternative models that will allow us to broaden our subscriber base and attract more new users. Also, we are beginning to research the appeal of a variety of unique revenue models that eliminate the traditional concept of subscription based service. All these different strategies are currently going through research and business case modeling. But, stay tuned as I believe over the next 18-24 months with the plethora of games on the horizon we will also see a lot of innovative pricing strategies introduced.

GS: What's the average length of a gamers commitment (as a subscriber) to Ultima Online, and what is the single most common reason a subscriber drops his/her subscription?

DW: Actually, although I do not feel comfortable revealing the exact length of the life of a Ultima Online player, I will say that there has been research published showing that among the top MMO games, Ultima Online has one of the most loyal customer bases. The issue of retention is probably the number one most important aspect of the service that we continue to focus on. Keeping players, and continuing to meet or exceed their expectations, is the number one job at our studio. We put a high value on our subscribers and our goal this year was to get closer to our customers both through traditional means like surveys and polls but also through in-game and real life events which give us a chance to hear their concerns and requests first-hand. Our Dev team offered to go in-game and initiate conversations with players about how they felt about the game.

GS: When they do drop, however, why do they opt out?

DW: With Ultima Online, most of our cancels come from players who are still new to the game. Our game, like many in this category, has a very steep learning curve. We find that one of the key reasons new players leave the game is that they are frustrated with their ability to advance their character. The goal of a role-playing game is to build a character and if you feel that you cannot move ahead as quickly as you would like to. Particularly as a new player, that can be quite frustrating and cause you to leave the game. To that end, we have spent the last 2-years focused on improving our new player experience and the ability to get a fast start on developing and advancing a character in the game. We created new character templates that mirrored the most popular character types in the game, we created a fun new player quest that leaves players off with a couple thousand gold pieces in their pocket, and we began sending a series of new player hints and tips via email to players in their first 3 weeks in the game. Since then we had several focus groups with new players on all aspects of the game including our web site. And, the challenge is still ongoing. We look at all our player feedback and plow a lot of our learning right back into the game in the form of content publishes which happen about every six weeks or so. But, the secret is to realize that you can never stop remembering that customers are a gift and not a given and imbue that mentality into each employee supporting the service.

GS: How does OSI move beyond the apparent 250K subscriber cap that Ultima Online seems to stay firm at, or is that number perceived as an adequate number for the title?

DW: That is a really good question. To continue to advance the growth of Ultima Online there is one main strategy: new content! Players really enjoy the world of Ultima Online, the deep level of character customization and the incredible amount of professions and skills to pursue not to mention our customized personal housing. But, as players spend increasingly longer amounts of time in the game they are looking for new challenges and opportunities. At the same time, we could grow our base significantly if our new player experience was even further enhanced. So, to that end we are looking at some very aggressive plans for the future to bring all of these opportunities together in a manner that will satisfy both ends of the subscriber spectrum. All I can say right now is, stay tuned!

GS: Thanks, Debysue.

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