Via Kill Ten Rats, Turbine has announced the full, confusing details of the roll-out for the Mirkwood mini-expansion. They're not quite taking this game free to play with an item/unlock store, like they have with DDO, but they appear to be forging towards a hybrid model.
Is it a paid expansion if no one pays?
The big headline is that the expansion is effectively free for many subscribers. If you are subscribed as of Oct 31, with your billing plan set to "multi-month", and you do not cancel before the expansion launch (December 1st), you get the expansion for FREE. The multi-month subscription is currently $30 for 3 months - this is described on the website as a limited time offer, but the terms and conditions make it sound like it is here to stay - so there's no reason not to switch to multi-month.
If you wanted the expansion and one month's subscription starting December 1, you could pay $20 for the expansion and $15 for the month when December rolls around. Or you could pay $30 now, get the expansion for free, and Turbine will effectively be paying you a $5 discount to accept two additional months of game time between now and then. It doesn't sound like they're going to take your free expansion back if you feel really strongly about paying $15 per month instead of $30 for three months and change it back on December 2nd.
One of the catches is that you must decide by October 31st. Still, what's the point of having a price tag on the expansion at all if basically the only people people who pay that price are newbies and people who got confused by the misleading advertising?
Spreading the DDO store?
The answer is the previously un-announced "adventure pack". For an additional $20, Turbine will sell you two additional character slots, access to a new shared bank feature, a goat mount, and a throw-in cloak that's similar to normal pre-order bonuses. However, this is not a pre-order bonus. Instead, it's an optional additional purchase, which is NOT required to obtain the expansion (unless you are a lifetime subscriber, in which case you can get the expansion and the AP for the price of just the expansion).
The character slots are a big deal if you need them (and relatively cheap compared to additional recurring fees in EQ2 or FFXI) and irrelevant if you do not. The shared bank sounds a bit more functional than EQ2's version, but EQ2's version does not come with an additional fee (and WoW accomplishes somewhat the same effect by allowing you to instantly mail stuff to your alts).
The mount is actually a bigger deal than it sounds, because it does not cost gold to purchase, and because it is willing to go in the Mines of Moria. Currently, you need to farm up a decent chunk of gold to afford your horse mount at level 35, and that mount will NOT ride in Moria - you must instead grind up rep to obtain one. I.e. this purchase allows you to bypass timesinks that non-purchasers must complete, which is relatively unusual for offers such as this in games that also charge a monthly fee.
None of these items would sound out of place to me if you dropped them in DDO's store. Of course, LOTRO doesn't have a store yet. So, instead of being able to pick and choose which of these perks, if any, are worth paying for, we have to take all or none in a bundle that costs as much as the actual content of the expansion (five levels, probably multiple zones, and a new scaling instanced skirmish system for starters).
The Best or the Worst of both worlds?
On the one hand, this rollout effectively saves me a fair chunk of cash - I'd already resolved that I was willing to pay for the expansion, and I will now get the portion of it that I'm interested in for free.
I also have the option of skipping the adventure pack, and I have no intention of purchasing it. (Indeed, there's no real benefit for non-lifetime subscribers who preorder the adventure pack.) I would NOT have chosen to pay $40 for this mini-expansion plus added optional featues (though I suspect that Turbine is hoping that players will see the two as a bundle, rather than evaluating the Adventure Pack on its own independent merits), and I suppose that I should be glad to be offered the choice NOT to purchase it.
On the other hand, unlike DDO, this game still has a monthly subscription fee. DDO has no fee but charges for new zones and other unlocks. If this new announcement sparks a trend - and I can't imagine that it will sell poorly enough NOT to set a precedent - LOTRO will charge a monthly fee AND be in the business of charging extra for unlocking new zones and features. The same is true of the traditional expansion, such as LOTRO's Moria expansion, but Mirkwood is a smaller creature than Moria or Wrath, while carrying the same price tag for players who opt for (or are confused into) the additional purchase.
In this context, the decision to all but give away the expansion to get players in the door makes a bit more sense. You can't sell transactions to people who aren't playing the game. Also, LOTRO has many lifetime subscribers, who effectively are not paying unless Turbine finds new and creative ways of adding additional, non-subscription fees. (Indeed, the $199 lifetime subscription is back, implying that Turbine will take the sure thing of the subscription money now and the prospect of selling additional add-ons down the line over the potentially greater revenue from a cancel-able monthly fee.)
Regardless, Turbine is forging into some new ground here. I suspect we will see this thing morph into a full-fledged DDO-like store (perhaps even using the same currency wallet) if it succeeds. That might be a good thing, if it props up a game that was otherwise not bringing in enough money. Or it could be an invitation for companies everywhere to charge more for features that are currently included in our not entirely trivial monthly fees. Time, and the numbers, will tell.