6 June, 2010
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.
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?