Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

6 June, 2010

LotRO changing business models
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:39 PM

The big news the past week has been Turbine’s announcement that The Lord of the Rings Online is going free-to-play. Since it’s one of the MMOs I’m currently playing, and since I’m a fan of the free-to-play business model as a developer, this was of obvious interest to me.

So, what does it all mean as a developer looking at this?

If you want to see the varied reactions from different bloggers, BioBreak links to a lot of posts. (Also check out Syp’s humorous predictions for the LotRO store.) Overall, reaction seems to be mixed, with some people fearing anything relating to free-to-play and others thinking that not much is really going to change for them.

Dungeon delving for free…ish

I have an interesting perspective on this, since I’ve been enjoying Dungeons & Dragons Online with the Massively organized group. (It’s a fun way to spend a Wednesday night, look for me as the Dwarven Cleric Rainlin.) I started playing with them because I had installed DDO to check out the prices for my work at the time. I didn’t start playing the game, but left it installed in case some of my friends who had played before decided to get back into it. When Syp announced on BioBreak that there would be a once-a-week outing, I decided to give it a go.

So far, I’ve spent $50 on the game. I picked up a few free points by attending a talk about the DDO transition at the LOGIN conference last month. I’ve taken advantage of sales and gotten a lot out of the store. Of course, $50 would get me just over 3 months of subscription in most games, so in that regard I’m a bit behind. But, I expect that I’ll be playing DDO longer than that. I might chip in another $50 to buy most of the rest of the adventure packs; I might also get my GF playing since we’ve hit a bit of a lull in our LotRO adventures currently, so that’s more money for Turbine.

One important thing here: buying some points and becoming a “premium” member gets you some nice bonuses. 2 more character slots per server, the ability to post more than one item on the auction hall at a time, and a few other perks. So, you get a lot more than some points to spend in the game for your first purchase.

What’s interesting here is that it is possible (if not advisable) to play DDO completely for free. As you earn favor for completing quests, you get some free Turbine points. There are strategy guides out there for how to maximize experience running the free quests (Elite three times, then Normal, then Hard), how to earn the maximum number of free Turbine Points with the least effort, etc. Personally, I detest grinding so I want some variety in my game; I enjoy going into a new module and doing new quests.

It’s also important to note that Turbine has changed unpopular policies. At one point you had to get some relatively uncommon “level sigils” to advance your level… or buy them in the store; they did away with this system when it became apparent that it was getting in the way of the fun. It’s also important that Turbine has made it clear in DDO that you will never have something deleted. If you’re a VIP (subscriber) and you downgrade, you don’t lose characters over the per-server limit or made with classes you haven’t purchased; these characters will be unavailable. in the case of characters over the per-server limit, you will get to choose which characters you will be able to access. Re-subscribing or buying the appropriate upgrades in the store will get you access to your characters again.

Anyway, DDO provides a template of what to expect in the upcoming changes to LotRO.

Some slight differences

The first thing I notice was that despite being called “Turbine Points” in both games, they’re not transferrable. On one hand, that seems a bit silly. On the other hand, given the fact that lifetime subscribers get free points, it could mean a loss of income in one game as people just let points accumulate to spend in another game.

Looking over the details for account levels, I don’t expect things to be exactly the same, though. This chart shows the differences that each account level will enjoy. One thing that strikes me is that Premium seems a bit more limited in LotRO than it does in DDO.

For example, in DDO my premium account has no limit on the money a character can hold; not so in LotRO. LotRO’s limit is also really restrictive. I’ve been relatively successful in posting auctions for profit, so none of my characters have “only” 5 gold pieces; one character I started on a new server had 20+ gold at level 20 from selling items he looted and harvested in the AH.. The chart indicates that you can purchase a removal on the cap on money, but the question is at what cost. Also, will it be a one time purchase or will it be something like X points to hold Y more gold pieces?

The gold cap has the potential to radically change the economy in the game. People may be less likely to try to post items on the AH to get more income than selling it to a vendor, and prices might drop in order to widen the market. People have also expressed concerns that items purchased with points might make crafting moot; why buy potions from a scholar with your limited in-game funds when it’s likely going to be really easy to buy potions from the store?

I also have to wonder if buying quests in an area will work quite as well in LotRO as it does in DDO. In DDO, the quests are repeatable and usually segregated into their own area. Buying a module allows you access to a bunch of content as measured in time. Assuming they sell quest access in LotRO, I have to wonder if the price will be “worth it” as much as buying a module in DDO seems to be. Especially in some areas where the quests, frankly, aren’t as interesting.

Overall, it appears that LotRO’s transition is going to end up being more like an extended free trial rather than giving players a serious option to play the game for free while chipping in a bit of cash here and there. As I mentioned above, however, Turbine at least has the fortitude to go back on what ends up being a bad decision. We’ll see how things work out in this case.

The fate of lifetime subscriptions

My GF and I have been playing LotRO for 18 months. We’ve signed up for multi-month deals so we’ve spent about $180 on LotRO each so far, not including box sales and expansions. We had talked about buying lifetime subscriptions since we’ve been enjoying the game so much.

It was hard to justify the price tag, especially given the fact that lifetime subscribers had to pony up extra money for the “Shadows of Mirkwood” (SoM) expansion whereas we got it for free. I wondered what Turbine was going to do: would we see a new SoM “mini-expansion” come out every few months to generate more revenue? I had also wondered if they would go free-to-play and screw over the lifetime subscribers. Added to this that Codemasters, the European licensee of LotRO, was offering half-priced lifetime subscriptions repeatedly, I was kind of hoping Turbine would do the same.

But, it was a gamble I possibly lost. Lifetime subscribers get the equivalent of a free subscription, including free Turbine Points to spend in the store. So, while some people seem to be complaining about lifetime subscribers feeling ripped off, it seems like a pretty good deal to me. At any rate, it’s nice to see Turbine respecting the deal they made, even if it’s possibly less profitable now than it was int he past as some people speculate.

Why did Turbine do it?

There’s been a lot of speculation about why LotRO went free-to-play. Many people seem to think its a sign that the game isn’t doing too well. They think Turbine was “forced” to do it by declining subscription numbers or some other cause. Not having any insider information, I think it was a pure business decision.

Turbine probably looked at the rousing success of DDO’s transition, so they’re betting the farm that lighting will strike twice for them. A 500% increase in revenues is nothing to sneeze at.

I think Unsub over at Vicarious Existence shows it best: look at the popularity of various games with former WoW subscribers. As pointed out, the ones that are most popular are also the ones with a free-to-play option. Notice how much more popular DDO is on that chart compared to LotRO, despite LotRO being much more similar in gameplay style.

So, I don’t think the transition to free-to-play is some dire sign. I think it’s Turbine looking to capture that increase in revenue again. If they can turn around a struggling game, will the transition give a big boost to an otherwise stable game like LotRO? It’ll be nice to have a second data point.

Oh, and I don’t think this signals the end of the pure subscription-based game. I think WoW’s Sparklepony did that quite well enough. Obviously people are willing to fork over money in addition to paying a subscription. At least DDO (and LotRO to some extent) allow people the option to play the game for free.

My plans

So, what am I going to do given that I’m enjoying DDO “for free” but am a current LotRO subscriber? As I said above, my GF’s and my LotRO adventuring has hit a bit of a lull because there’s not much going on in the game currently. Members of our Kinship seem to be taking a break, and we’ve already worked our second group of characters up to max level.

If the transition works out the way I see, I’m going to keep subscribing as long as I want to actively play LotRO. I don’t think it’ll be worth the hassle to try to play the game seriously as a Premium player. There seems to be a lot more restrictions than in DDO, and fighting those just don’t seem to be fun. I’ll probably use my Turbine Point allotment to buy some shared storage since I didn’t get the adventure pack previously.

The one advantage the conversion will have for me is that I won’t have to maintain my subscription now just to keep my player house. If I decide to take a break from LotRO, I can at least log on a character and throw some cash into my house payments, whereas I ran the risk of losing my house if I didn’t pay the rent for a while. Probably not what Turbine wants to hear, that they’re going to make it easier for me to not give them money. ;)

What do you think? Are you tempted to try out LotRO when the conversion happens? Why or why not?

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  1. I’ll probably try it out just because I’ve been curious about it for some time but I doubt I’ll really start to play. Just like DDO that I tried a bit, had some fun but I’m way too unreliable when it comes to fixed play time for a group so I end up being alone and eh…

    One game I wish would have gone F2P is SWG. Back when I still had my big houses with plenty of rare stuff left from players that quit the game :) Before leaving for good I was enjoying getting in from time to time to hunt a jedi or two even though I wasn’t really playing anymore. If SWG would have gone F2P I’d probably still be playing while not being very active.

    So in my case LoTR going F2P is not really an incentive to start playing but if I was currently playing that would probably be a good way to make sure I hang around for much longer than with paid subscription. I’d probably be throwing some money in as well as it would somehow replace my sudden need from time to time to get a new game on Steam. There are times I can put $20 on a new game I play for 2-3 days because I really feel like playing something and then I never return back. That’d probably would be the same if I was playing a F2P MMO. Throw $10, play for a day or two and forget about it for a month or two. Rinse and repeat.

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 6 June, 2010 @ 6:38 PM

  2. I’m actually wondering if Turbine has made things too easy to go Premium. I already own a Horse and a (medium-speed) goat, and I’m at the current crafting caps. What exactly do I need more than 5G for? My 50 silver in twice monthly rent? Repair bills? Moreover, if I don’t uncap my gold supply, there’s no need to buy the missing bagspace either, because I won’t be able to sell the drops. The limit on trait slots is the only thing I’d feel a strong need to remedy.

    Comment by Green Armadillo — 6 June, 2010 @ 7:31 PM

  3. I’ve noted that it means LOTRO has a better chance to get money from me than under a pure sub model. As in, greater than zero.

    I think it’s a good move, and yes, it does mean I’ll probably go check it out again. It’s not a high priority, but just getting me back at all is a triumph of sorts, so chalk one up for Turbine on this one.

    Comment by Tesh — 6 June, 2010 @ 9:27 PM

  4. I’ve been playing LOTRO off and on ever since the first closed beta. I periodically stop and restart my sub based on my playing habits: if I didn’t play for three months, I’d cancel, cause I know when I re-upped my sub, my characters would still be there. I do regret never buying a lifetime sub, and even more so under the new model. And to be perfectly honest, the new F2P wouldn’t affect my decision one way or another, and might actually goad me to even play more often than I have been.

    I’ve also played DDO since _their_ closed betas; oh geez, that must have been 2005 or 2006, and was even a subscriber to their monthly sub. That particular game never really grabbed me, for some undefinable reason, so their decision to go F2P didn’t affect me one way or another.

    Comment by azog — 7 June, 2010 @ 2:19 AM

  5. I’ll be playing once it goes free and so, I expect will Mrs Bhagpuss. LotRO is a game that we both enjoyed, but didn’t enjoy enough to pay for after a few months.

    Interestingly, given your comments about “grinding” above, it was the unrelenting grind of LotRO’s quest system that finally led us to drop the game. We were both in the low 40s and we just could not stomach ANOTHER quest hub full of whining NPCs with make-work tasks just so we could carry on levelling. Really, I could care less about this specific bad wolf or that specific bandit leader. Just put in a guard who gives an xp bonus for wolf tails or bandit masks and let me work out who to kill, thanks.

    Consequently, the absence of quest hubs above 20 is something I am positively looking forward to. I am hoping that it will free me from any niggling sense of obligation to knuckle down and “do my quests”. Instead I hope I’ll just be able to roam, explore, kill whatever I like wherever I like and let the levels drift up slooowly.

    We will have a considerable advantage in this, in that we come in with characters in the 40s already. However, one thing’s just occurred to me: although we can come back with our existing account as “Premium” players, presumably there’s nothing to stop us just making a new “Free” account and starting from scratch. Which gives us multiple character slots. That we can twink from the Premium account. And we could multi-box them…

    No wonder they’re having a 4-5 month beta. I’d bet there will be some significant changes to the details of this scheme before it finally goes live.

    Comment by Bhagpuss — 7 June, 2010 @ 3:01 AM

  6. I can see the gold cap. It’s to prevent RMT more than to force players to upgrade, which is why even premium has a cap. You don’t want RMT bank characters to have a free or only ten dollar cost. The downside to increase player volume in F2P games is the inrush of RMT to it since they don’t need to pay for a sub, and even with free accounts shift farming can make a lot of currency.

    I don’t play DDO, but what are your thoughts on item purchases in the mall Brian? Are they irrelevant, or do they affect gameplay quite a bit, and at endgame are often used?

    Comment by Dblade — 7 June, 2010 @ 4:22 AM

  7. I have a friend who is a founding lifetime subscriber to LOTRO and he feels like he’s been well taken-care-of. So thumbs up there. I think the gold cap is the most irritating part to me, what can I say, I’m rather a rich old elf.

    My friend’s hope is that this will revitalize the lower levels of the game. It is all too common for the low level areas of an MMO to become deserted. In this case that means Bree and The Shire feel like ghost towns. It hurts the game overall, I think. And the market is distorted as well.

    In that light, I’m not sure I understand the gold cap. Yes, it does seem to be aimed at RMT, but DDO doesn’t have one, does it? Do they think that was a mistake? Is RMT a problem there?

    Comment by Toldain — 7 June, 2010 @ 7:38 AM

  8. Dblade wrote:
    I don’t play DDO, but what are your thoughts on item purchases in the mall Brian? Are they irrelevant, or do they affect gameplay quite a bit, and at endgame are often used?

    There are a few basic categories of items, listed in order of how much I’ve spent on them so far.

    Adventure Packs are pretty necessary unless you don’t mind grinding. As I said, I can’t stand grinding so these are what I’m mostly paying for. The packs tend to be reasonably priced, ranging from a few hundred points to 900 points for the more involved ones. This is where the majority of my points have gone. People who own the adventure packs can buy guests passes for others to go on an adventure, too; I haven’t bought any of those since none of my friends are playing yet.

    Account options are nice to have, but not strictly necessary. I’ve bought the extra races and classes when they were on sale, except for the Drow which can be unlocked fairly easily on each server anyway. I also bought 32-point build (“champion”) characters that you have to work a bit harder to unlock. I also bought shared band storage. I don’t know if LotRO will do much of this, however, since I don’t see them adding many new races or classes. The gold cap removal would fall under this.

    Hirelings are able to fill out your group. Lots of people like pocket healers. You can buy normal hirelings with in-game currency, or buy special “gold seal” hirelings through the store. You can only have one normal hireling, but you can buy a whole group of gold seal hirelings. Interestingly enough, there are no Rogue hirelings. I bought one gold seal hireling in order to have it operate a two-person puzzle without having to leave the instance (and take a penalty). Otherwise, he wasn’t all that useful. I don’t think LotRO would introduce these, unless the Skirmish pets were a test run….

    Equipment is only marginally useful. You can buy the straight-up magical weapons (up to +5 armor/weapons), but to be honest these are kind of crap compared to the special weapons in game. I have a +4 longsword, but the +2 impact warhammer of pure good is the weapon I use more, because it does more damage (+1d6 to all non-good enemies [which would be all of them]). The pure good damage also passes damage resistance. One top seller is the +1 Full Platemail, though. I suspect this is because people who can wear heavy armor get garbage armor from the tutorial, so grabbing +1 Full Plate is appealing. I’ve not bought any. If LotRO introduces this, it would pretty much kill the crafting professions, I think, unless crafted stuff is better and therefore the store stuff is useless.

    Consumables are what you expect. You can get big stacks of potions. You can also get rods of healing which seem to work like wands but without class/level restrictions, so anyone can pretend to be a healer. There are a few consumables you can only buy from the store, such as a cake that will rez someone (including the cake holder), but this only saves you the time for running back. The biggest ticket items I’ve seen are some books that raise your stats; the store offers a tome that gives you a big bonus to all stats, whereas you have to find tomes with individual stats in the game. One interesting story: Fernando Paiz said that some marketers wanted them to remove healing potions for sale and make everyone buy them from the store. The team pushed back on that idea and won, and he still thinks that’s a good idea. So, I don’t expect them to squeeze people that way.

    Cosmetics are also what you expect. Hair dyes and styles that you can’t choose at character creation; doesn’t seem to be super-popular as I’ve only seen a few strange hair colors running around. You can also buy funny hats which also give some skill boosts. Not a whole lot, but enough that it gives a low-level character an edge. The best one I’ve seen gives +10 to Haggle skill (get a few percent more cash from NPCs). +10 skill items require level 9 or so. I could see this being added to LotRO. I think the in-game items are cool enough, though. :)

    Overall, it works out pretty well, I think. I’ve mostly bought one-time upgrades so I think I’m getting my money’s worth. I don’t feel at a significant disadvantage to people who have spent more, and frankly I can’t tell who has spent more, really. I’m not interested in buying fluff, but the options don’t seem too expensive if I did. I think it’s pretty easy to stick within a budget if you want. As I said, I’ve gotten quite a bit of what I wanted from one initial investment (the price of a new, full-priced game). If LotRO follows this closely, that’ll be fine.

    Hope that helps. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 7 June, 2010 @ 11:59 AM

  9. Another point about the success of DDO is that WoW is fairly stale to play at the moment (especially if you don’t raid).

    I also have a gut feel that the Cataclysm expansion is going to be dull after WotLK. In fact, I feel the fun factor of WoW is permanently on the decline. A sign that the future for DDO/LoTRO looks good.

    Comment by Ponder — 8 June, 2010 @ 8:59 AM

  10. Psychochild said:
    “Fernando Paiz said that some marketers wanted them to remove healing potions for sale and make everyone buy them from the store. The team pushed back on that idea and won, and he still thinks that’s a good idea. So, I don’t expect them to squeeze people that way.”

    Oh my, that would have been such an horrible change. It would have seriously harmed solo play, angered tons of people and made the game more healer-dependent. It’s the kind of change that would have really caused people to quit (instead of simply threatening to) and would have lit the forums on fire.

    I’m glad that the team has pushed back on that idea. It was an horrible one. I like DDO’s current approach to the eStore a lot, though I think a few consumables ought to be nerfed to be less powerful (the spell point potion in particular). Nothing feels mandatory, with the exception of content but paying for content is not something most players would object to.

    Comment by Borror0 — 8 June, 2010 @ 11:08 AM

  11. I’ll definitely be checking out LotRO when it goes F2P. It’s one of those games that I’ve heard a lot of good things about and always wanted to get into. I own the original game plus the Mines of Moria expansion and played them for a bit but it never stuck with me. For me, the F2P model will be perfect to try it out again and see if it will stick this time – I don’t want to fork out for a subscription now and then find out that I don’t like it.

    If I do ever get heavily into the game though I would probably just pay the normal subscription and go VIP.

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 9 June, 2010 @ 10:00 AM

  12. My biggest issue is the time investment. When I’m tired of WoW, I unsubscribe. Thing is, I’m usually a bit tired of MMOs in general at that point.

    I look at DDO and LotRO as fairly big time investments in terms of getting into them. It’s not that I’m saying are they worth $$$ to me, but are they worth 50 hours of my time just to play and learn the game and get a character up to a reasonable level? So FTP isn’t a huge incentive to me.

    Comment by Mark Asher — 10 June, 2010 @ 7:22 PM

  13. Actually the free to play business model has been around for a while. I’m one of the most ardent supporter of this model because it is a win-win situation for both gamers and gamemaker.

    Gamers win because they don’t have to buy a game that they don’t like, and casual gamers can slowly play a game based on a book they love without being punished fiscally or socially for not being online all the time to maximize game time.

    Gamemakers win because they will learn what is drivel and what is valuable content by doing some content purchasing analytics and focusing on the one that gamers purchased most. Gamemakers also will profit more if they produce more valuable content that gamers can buy. I mean subscription based is static, all you get out of a gamer per month is $9.99. But if a gamemaker can churn out 3 or 4 content priced at $9.99 each every month, they are technically earning 3 or 4 times more than the subscription model.

    Of course trying to change the mindset of gamemakers who think gamers will not buy anything in a free game and gamers who think free games are worth crap just because it is free is another thing. Throw in grinding and people “doing repetitive task due to pavlovian psychological reinforcement” thingy, and you got another thing going.

    Which is why I wrote why mmog should be free (shameless plug for my site hehe)

    Comment by Jon Ho — 16 June, 2010 @ 2:59 AM

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