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.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.
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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.
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.