When Lord of the Rings Online ramped up to its launch in early 2007, Turbine offered a tantalizing deal to potential players. If they were willing to part with $299 up front ($199 for LOTRO’s founders), the studio would flag their account as a lifetime subscription. This meant that from then on, they wouldn’t have to worry about a monthly fee.
There were a couple other upshots for the studio with this deal as well. Players who had invested in a lifetime sub had also invested in the game and were more strongly tethered to it — meaning that those players were more likely to keep playing or return frequently. And lifetime subbers could form the backbone of the population and serve as long-term evangelists that would promote the game to their friends.
From the player’s perspective, $299 was a significant investment to make, especially back at the start of a then-unproven MMO’s lifespan. Players had to be sure of an unsure thing — that the game would last, that they would be interested in it for the long haul, and that this would ultimately pay off in their favor.
Simple math laid out the stakes: A player who got a $200 lifetime subscription would need to enjoy the game for more than 13 months to break even, while a $300 lifetime sub meant that 20 months would be required for that same break-even point. It probably seemed like a long time to start enjoying the game effectively for free — at least at the onset.
However, keep in mind that in 2007, the MMORPG industry was deep in its subscription-only mindset. Pretty much every online game required a monthly sub, and cash-strapped players felt torn paying for multiple subs just to have the option to bounce around to different titles during the same 30-day period. A lifetime sub back then created that opportunity and gave players more options while lessening the mental pressure of needing to play LOTRO to justify a monthly sub.
So to put it another way, the lifetime sub was short-term insurance for the studio and long-time insurance for players. The longer the game went on and a lifetime player was using it, the more value they got while Turbine’s up-front windfall got degraded by many months of potential revenue that it had to forgo.
The lifetime subscription increased in its value in the fall of 2010 when the game went free-to-play. Now the package didn’t merely allow for access — everyone had that at that point — but it opened a lot of doors that the F2P crowd had to pay to pass through. All content (except expansions) was unlocked, and many small advantages and bonuses — including a monthly store currency stipend — were granted to these accounts.
Two years to see a ROI for a lifetime subscription at the start of LOTRO’s lifespan might’ve seemed a huge length of time, but now that we’re over 13 years of operation, it comes off as a blip. A player who bought a lifetime sub in 2007 was effectively receiving a free monthly subscription by 2009 — and the 11 years that followed. It ended up being a fantastic deal for LOTRO’s long-term players, which this MMO had more than others.
In fact, the monthly 500 point stipend meant that a smart lifetime subber could (and often did) simply save up those points to use toward purchasing expansions for free. This meant that Turbine/SSG cut itself off from two streams of revenue from this crowd, making it even more difficult to extract cash from players who simply didn’t need to pay for content.
The studio’s response has been to try a variety of methods to crack open the wallets of lifetimers. There was the appeal to cosmetics and housing items, but soon enough, more “whalish” options started popping up: expensive expansion pre-order packages with exclusive bonuses, premium housing, and as of 2020, “mini-expansions” that couldn’t be bought with points until a much later date.
I’ve never heard LOTRO’s developers openly discussing how they or the studio as a whole feel about lifetime subbers, but my guess is that while they’re glad people have stuck around for so long, they may very well regret having put it into place without an expiration date. There’s a slice — no one knows how big or small — of current players that aren’t even candidates to pay for a subscription, and that has to grate.
But I’m not here to advocate for the studio; I’ve held a lifetime sub for a decade now and am pretty happy with what it’s provided for me. It certainly helped me to stay interested in LOTRO for much longer than I might’ve otherwise, and there’s a certain glow it gives to me when I think about how much value I’ve gotten out of it (and might continue to) so far.
I am disturbed to see SSG’s trying to sneak its way around subscriptions, which I’ve already addressed in a previous column. But by and large, it’s one of those rare instances when a lifetime subscription didn’t end up scamming players but gave them a deal of a — shall I say it? — lifetime.