LOTRO Legendarium: My vision for free-to-play version 2.0

    
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A few weeks ago I embarked on an experiment that I had hoped would make for a fascinating column. Basically, I created a brand-new free-to-play account for Lord of the Rings Online with the intent of experiencing the game from this perspective, as my normal account has a lifetime subscription attached.

At first, it was a fun challenge as I was trying to work within limitations (only three bags? Ew.) and trying to figure out how much content I could “earn” with deeds. But all too quickly, the reality of math hit home, and I understood what many have calculated before me: To make any decent progress in this game on a free account, you have to be willing to do a lot of grinding and farming. Like, a stupid amount of it, to the point where you’ll either end up hating the game itself or just give up and spend money to unlock content.

I wasn’t willing to pour hundreds of hours into this kind of account just for a single column (sorry!), but it did get me thinking about how LOTRO’s free-to-play format is long overdue for a sweeping revamp. And so, in today’s space, I present to you my vision for Free-To-Play Version 2.0.

Back to Update 1

When LOTRO switched over from a subscription-only format in 2010, the free-to-play revolution was only starting to take root in the industry. Turbine had experienced an unprecedented level of success with Dungeons and Dragons Online’s conversion a year earlier, and when LOTRO’s change invariably followed, the studio took much of the same structure from the former and tweaked it for the latter.

And while it may be strange to think of today, LOTRO’s free-to-play hybrid format was really seen as generous back in 2010. The fact that you could indeed earn premium currency (now called LP, or LOTRO Points) to spend on account and character unlocks gave the most broke among us an actual option.

But what was once seen as “generous” morphed into “quite stingy” over the successive years, especially as more recent free-to-play MMORPG conversions and launches offered far more than LOTRO was willing to concede. Really, apart from additions to the store, mithril tokens, and lockboxes, the studio hasn’t made any significant changes to its F2P format since launch — and it certainly hasn’t loosened up any of the restrictions that have bound it. Today in 2019, LOTRO’s model isn’t quite as reviled as, say, Star Wars: The Old Republic, but I think that there’s a case to be made that our favorite MMO is actually more restrictive than most other titles.

So how can this be changed?

Free People require free content!

As much as I’m not a fan of lockboxes in any format, I’m not so naive as to think that we can just wish them away. Standing Stone Games does need to make money, and this is a revenue stream that can be seen as optional by most players. But what is not optional to play the game is, y’know, content.

Free-to-play adventurers hit a zone content drought very early in the game following Lone-lands, and even if they stick to just the epic story, that ends up petering out around Helm’s Deep. It’s literally impossible to progress unless you do nothing but grind mobs (and do tasks) or pay for zone packs and expansion unlocks.

I think this is the biggest area for improvement that the game needs. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve seen new or returning players learn about the content walls and become frustrated as to how to lower them without spending a couple of hundred dollars on unlocks. It pushes them away and into the arms of other MMOs that have long since made all but the newest content absolutely free. I mean, it’s 2019, why are we still being charged for a Moria expansion that came out in 2008?

Either there needs to be one decently priced package to unlock everything up to Mordor (say, $30 or $40), or SSG should just wave its hands and make it all free. The latter could benefit the game greatly through the increased publicity and population that this would generate. MMOs have a reputation, and SSG would be mindful to keep its flagship property in the good graces of the larger community.

Other changes

I think that a couple of the other more egregious strangleholds on free players could be loosened somewhat, in particular the limits to inventory and riding. These restrictions make the early game more tedious and annoying than that experience should be and work against the ultimate goal of getting a new player settled in and affectionate toward the title. I have always held that it is a better thing if you can design your business model so that players want to spend money rather than feel that they must to escape punishment.

So another goal of a new and improved free-to-play model would be to find a better source of revenue that is fed through attractive additions to the game. Looking at other MMOs, we see that many have success with cosmetic sales, additional companions (pets), and housing. Yes, this is greatly limited by what the art team can produce, but this sort of approach is the backbone of many successful games.

And while I may be going out on a limb for this, it might not be the worst thing for SSG to consider season passes in much the same way that MOBAs and battle royale shooters do. I mention this because the anniversary content is pretty much set up like a seasonal pass anyway. We have a limited time to do various achievements in order to earn specific rewards, after all. And that’s been pretty well received and could be turned into a trifecta of revenue, rewards, and content.

There are plenty of other areas that could be improved, such as a store overhaul (maybe let us purchase more than one thing at a time?) and a much more streamlined matrix of free-to-play vs. premium vs. subscriber offerings. The whole system right now is a bit too antiquated and cumbersome to be as accessible as it needs to be for the newcomer, and that does not bode well for future revenue.

However, I’m sure that many of you have better or different suggestions for a theoretical Version 2.0 of the F2P model, so let’s hear them! Sound off in the comments and let us see if we might put a bug or two in SSG’s ear.

Every two weeks, the LOTRO Legendarium goes on an adventure (horrid things, those) through the wondrous, terrifying, inspiring, and, well, legendary online world of Middle-earth. Justin has been playing LOTRO since its launch in 2007! If you have a topic for the column, send it to him at justin@massivelyop.com.

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Jon-Enee Merriex

As someone who has worked in the industry for almost 20 years now, all on free to play games, I say the following with a bit of weight (I even helped Turbine on their DDO free to play launch).

The point of free to play is not to allow players to play the game for no money. The goal is to create a space where players feel they can come into the game and get a feel for it without having to shell out $60 to try it.

I’ve always preferred the term unlimited time demo to free to play.

In this conversation, players always fail to understand the purpose of free to play. It is not to give you a game you can play all you want for free. These companies are not non-profits. The stance that ANYTHING should be given away as free because X, Y, or Z is imminently flawed because again, these companies are here to make a profit so they can make more games.

On the other side of that token, too often companies fail to understand the heavy burden “loot boxes” and “velvet ropes” put on consumers. The idea that landing just 100 whales can support a game, while true, only exacerbates the “hit or miss” nature of game development.

Ultimately, these games need to make millions a year to survive. In a culture where on the internet everything is free and people are unwilling to pay even $5/mo for a game they really enjoy, that drives companies to come up with these get rich quick schemes to keep the game alive.

One of the most interesting things I’ve found is how in different areas this trend is different. In Germany, EVERYONE pays. Even on free games. 75%+ will pay even if it is just $1. There is just this cultural understanding that if you like the game (regardless of what you think about the developer or publisher), then you need to pay to keep the game going.

In NA that is not the case at all. It is a point of pride to have never paid for something that has brought you YEARS of joy. Then, when the numbers stop looking good and the thing is shutdown, everyone becries the company for not doing X, Y, or Z. When in reality X, Y, and Z all require revenue. This is what creates this vicious cycle, where the companies cannot trust that the players will support them so they have to make calls on whether it is worth while to keep the game.

This isn’t going to end until 2 things happen.

1. Companies need to look beyond whales. A paradigm shift must occur. We must get back to the expectation that every user is a paying user. That may mean looking to create monthly content that is worth spending on. That is a challenge but would likely draw a lot more money in.

2. Players need to get over themselves. If you like a game, you should pay for it, FULL STOP. It doesn’t matter if you hate the developer or if their not updating that one thing only you do. IF YOU LIKE A GAME, YOU SHOULD BE PAYING FOR IT! Now, that DOESN’T mean you need to spend $5000 on lock boxes. But if there is a regular premium service? You should be on that. Maybe there is a $5 pack you’ve eyed but never took a dive on. you should buy it. Until companies feel they CAN trust that people will support the game, they’re not going to stop trying to exploit us.

For me, personally, I invest in a game within the first hour of play. Usually no more than $20 (typically that $1-5 intro pack, I’m buying). Just because if I got to the point of downloading and it is something I think I’d continue wanting to play, I feel I should support. Now if I don’t like the game within that time frame, I don’t support it. I put it down and move on.

In the end, gaming will not improve until we find a way out of this bubble or bust mentality. And that is both as consumers and as businesses.

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outbound_flight

Having pushed back against their model for so long, I occasionally see where SSG (and Turbine before them) are coming from. They seem to really want subs to be their main income. You sub, you get all the quest packs included for the duration, you get a stipend which you can then use for expansion packs and other goodies. I get it.

But I can’t tell whether or not SSG sees how their model is actually a deterrent in a lot of ways. It’s so confusing and so outwardly frustrating, not to mention expensive on its face. It scares away potential paying players before they even get into the game. (“I have to spend how much to get everything?!”) It always ends up with one of us saying, well, you don’t have to purchase everything, just sub first, then purchase this when it goes on sale, then sub again at this point… But it shouldn’t be that way. A business model shouldn’t need an instruction manual.

If they would just simplify everything, I think they’d see a large influx of players and a higher retention rate for higher level zones past the Blue Mountains. Like, make Eriador free for all players; lump all of the expansions/packs into 2 or 3 $20 purchases (or even just unlock expansions with subs); charge a premium for new expansions and call it a day.

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Tobasco da Gama

Unlocking past expansions with subs is probably the best thing they could do to make the game more approachable for new players, especially if they paired it with making all the pre-Moria content completely free.

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terminallynerdy

The SWTOR model of “sub and unlock all current content” is a pretty decent one. Spend $15 bucks and get all the things for life, even if you cant use em. If they applied that to both the quest backs and all but say the last expansions it could work

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Gooty

More than anything, the issues I have with their non-sub models, are the “small” things they make you pay for, such as traits and riding skill being locked. I realize there are workarounds (subbing for one month or purchasing a pack), but there shouldn’t have to be. Basic game features should be basic game features.

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Donald Whitman

I actually have a post on their forums about how out dated their free to play model is and i have been discussing it with players in game as well and the biggest issue for new returning and founders is that you get nothing even if you subscribe. You pay the 15$ a month and all you get is 500 points but you still have to buy all the expansions and content a lot of people really want one thing if you sub you should get all content at least while your subbed.

So for your f2p aspect it seems the biggest issue for everyone playing this game is the hundred dollars or so you have to pay to get the content even if your willing to support the game with a monthly fee.

Someone should try and get an interview with these guys and bring up these questions and that the majority of the community is un happy with what they get as a sub.

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Jürgen Heigl

Few days ago i wanted to give LOTRO a chance, and i enjoyed running around in middle earth. But its really expensive to buy the expansions, so i give up :(

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Roger Melly

All they need to do is lower the price of the older expansion packs by 30-50 percent so the cost of playing the game doesn’t seem too prohibitive to newer players .

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Castagere Shaikura

It’s just not the expansions you also have to buy those quest packs which is just greed.

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Aaron Weddle

most of the quest packs not tied to expansion content come with the monthly sub the expansion related quest packs unlock when u are subbed and have that expansion pack

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Tim Anderson

You can literally buy all the way up to Rohan for a mere 40 bucks. This includes 100% of the content/quests/zones/etc. How is that “cost prohibitive” !?!?!? https://store.standingstonegames.com/store/ssg/en_US/pd/ThemeID.4823088100/productID.284460100/categoryID.58516200

That’s literally YEARS worth of expansions and ALL of the content that comes with it :)

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Roger Melly

Ah I didn’t know about that I stand corrected :P

Is the quad pack a new addition ? As a lifetime subscriber I get all my expansions without paying for them and last year a friend of mine was getting into the game and she stopped playing because she felt it would be too costly given the price of buying all the expansions .

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Tobasco da Gama

The Quad Pack was released alongside the Helm’s Deep expansion (which isn’t included), AFAIK, which is quite a few years ago at this point.

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Vincent Clark

If I’m paying a monthly sub, I shouldn’t see a mithril coin option anywhere in sight–because, in theory, I shouldn’t need or want to use real money to alleviate any built-in grind or speed up any character progression. I also should have access to 3 full trait trees because y’know…there are 3 trait trees available. Sometimes it’s about the principle of things. And, sometimes people just don’t give a shit because they enjoy playing around in a Tolkien sandbox.

The current model is jacked. Don’t expect SSG to change it anytime soon because the model as it is now works in their favor.

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Glen

You better be sorry.

Though the exclamation point makes it sound like a “sorry not sorry”.

😀

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jason smith

I will say the best f2p model I have seen is in STO kind of wish every “f2p” game would sort of have a business model like arcs or cryptic

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Ironwu

For LotRO, what they do on the F2P front does not matter to me. When I play MMOs, I almost always subscribe.

For my money, the very FIRST and most important thing that needs to be done in LotRO is to fix the performance issues! I will try the 64bit client when it comes out, but from what I read it will not help that much with the basic lag and hitching issues. But we will see.

I really fear that the problems are server side since they never existed until Turbine changed the server locations and configurations. LotRO never worked properly after that.