Monday, November 2, 2009

The Great LOTRO Coverup?

Saturday's deadline for "preordering" LOTRO's oddly marketed Mirkwood expansion by signing up to a discounted multi-month plan came and went. Suddenly, there's a two week extension, with the program now running through November 18th (two weeks prior to the expansion launch date, I wouldn't put money on either side of whether it'll get extended again).

Perhaps they're concerned that players who called their bluff on the original deadline will be even less inclined to change their minds and resubscribe for a worse deal than they could have gotten last week - such is the peril of the high-pressure pre-order. Still, what's the point of charging for an expansion and then going so far out of your way to give it away?

What's In Mirkwood?
Yeebo has a detailed comparison of content added to LOTRO in content patches before and after the Moria expansion. He ultimate argues that Moria has gotten much less content in its content patches than the original game.

LOTRO's original release had 2-3 content patches that introduced as much new geographic area as the described size of the corner of Mirkwood Turbine will be adding in this expansion. Other than that, this new paid expansion includes one new dungeon, one major new feature (new instanced PVE skirmishes), some refinements to the existing systems, and an increased level cap.

The level cap sounds like an open-and-shut argument that Mirkwood goes far beyond your average content patch, but levels are only an arbitrary measure. LOTRO's new levels won't actually contain any new class skills, or, to our knowledge, include any other changes that will make level 65 substantially different from level 60.

The only two consequences of increasing the number, rather than simply adding the content while keeping the cap at 60, are that players will HAVE to upgrade to play group content with their friends and that all current "legendary" items will be obsolete in a month. Neither of these is really a favor to the playerbase, many of whom are not happy with the "legendary" reset.

The First One Is Always Free
My point is not to argue that Mirkwood is not objectively worth the $20 Turbine is asking for it. Rather, it appears that Turbine has taken all of the major improvements which would have been included in Moria's content patches and saved them all up to pad out the feature list for Mirkwood. Effectively, it looks like they're charging for stuff that used to be included in your subscription, and juggling the feature list for patches in the hopes of hiding what they're up to.

Sure, Turbine will be happy to collect whatever cash it can get with early renewals, and sales of the misleadingly marketed "adventure pack" (which does its best to disguise itself as the expansion preorder button on the account page). Even so, it appears that the real goal behind this give-away is for players to accept that LOTRO patch content now costs money - the same deal as Turbine's DDO players get, but with BOTH the subscription AND the per-content fee for access. If that's the case, it's no wonder Turbine is so eager to make sure that as many players as possible get the chance to take this "deal".


Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I love LotRO, and have been enjoying the past year in the game tremendously. I'm having a lot of fun playing with my GF and my friends who got me into LotRO in the first place only to abandon me and go back to WoW are coming back. I'm in a great kinship and doing some fun stuff.

That said, I think SoM is a pretty naked money grab. With the latest fervor about microtransactions and the scams through Facebook offers, I find myself using this (and the adventurer's pack) as an example of how greed affects even subscription games that seek to charge us for this stuff on top of things like server changes, name changes, and soon faction changes in WoW.

I'm not complaining too loud because I'm multi-month and getting the expansion "for free", but I can see that offer not being the same in the future. We'll see how this changes over time. Hopefully those of us with longer memories will be able to call Turbine on it if they start charging for content that used to be in free patches.

docholidayj said...

Some interesting thoughts here and I can't say that I totally disagree. I'm not quite as down on it, but certainly there are some red-flags. About 85% of the expansion sounds really good - however there's a BIG chunk missing. But for me, that 85% is worth the $20.

I really do enjoy the game and believe it will continue on, but I think they have some serious work to do for the launch of Volume 3.

unwize said...

The issue is all to do with lifetime subscriptions.

I'd wager that well over 50% of the playerbase are on lifetime subs (it was about 70% in a recent EU forum poll), and a good portion of those will be founders and early adopters.

I paid around £150 for the game and sub at launch over 2.5 years ago, and since then I'd only paid £15 for Moria until SoM. It simply isn't sustainable to have so many people playing 'for free' once their lifetime subs have matured.

Turbine need a way to get those payers to pay their share of ongoing development costs, and the majority of lifetimers I've spoken too are happy to buy SoM and do so, despite it obviously not matching up to MoM in content.

They early influx of lifetime subs paid for the first 2 years of free updates. Future funding has to come from somewhere else.

Longasc said...

How many lifetime subs are there, and are you really sure they cover 50-70% of the (active) playerbase?

I mean a forum poll is limited to forum users, and most players do not bother with official forums or other forums. I personally never posted on the Codemasters LOTRO forums.

IMO the message is: We are going to have to pay for content in future.

Not so much subscription fees. Who knows, one day we pay 50 bucks for eternal access, but we will pay extra for every new feature, content update, be it a mechanic, zone or whatever.

They were even giving away lifetime subs for reduced prices (Codemasters, LOTRO EU). Gordon from "We Fly Spitfires" suddenly got offered one, and he only played LOTRO for 1-2 months after release.

I am not sure if lifetime subs are to blame, but I think we will never see another Evendim or Forochel as part of a content update for free.

Guild Wars also released one major free content update, Sorrow's Furnace. After that they clearly stated only minor stuff will be added, and everything else will be sold in expansions. Lately they were also more open to "expand your storage through $$$" and additional other thingies for sale in the item shop. Ooops, I said the evil word.

I see LOTRO slowly changing away from the subscription model to a pay for content model, a bit in the style of their very own DDO.

unwize said...

Volume 3 is kicking off with a free update early next year, which sounds like a pretty significant content addition to me.

Turbine pretty much announced their current strategy back at the MoM announcement at Connect '08. A few free updates and a paid expansion per year.

Ok, so they haven't kept up pace with the updates (Lothlorien pushed back from Moria launch, Dar Narbugud pushed back from Book 7 to Book 8), but it doesn't look like they're diverting too far from that strategy.

Expect 2010 to follow a similar pattern to 2009. 2 or 3 free updates and paid expansion in the fall. The Book 3: Volume 1 update will likely indicate whether we are going north for Hobbit content or south for Rohan.

Green Armadillo said...

@Psychochild: And what will those of you who "call Turbine on it" accomplish? As you pointed out when I raised the communication issue, your only vote is to stop paying for the game. For lifetime subscribers, even that vote is already gone.

@Doc: If I'm right, the patches for the Volume 3 launch will be just like the ones in the Moria era. We'll get the first books of Volume III with quests happening in areas that are already in the game, but anything that would sound good on an expansion featurelist will be delayed.

@Unwize: I have no idea what the percentages are, but I'm not a lifetimer, and only a handful of my kin are. I haven't spent $200 on LOTRO sub fees yet, and physically can't spend that much until at least 2011 if the $30/3 month sub is here to stay. (It looks like that deal may be permanent, a change that's overdue given how often it's been offered.)

@Long: Personally, I'd rather have an item shop than a bundled "adventure pack". And the $200/lifetime sub is officially back (not sure if it's a pre-order thing or permanent), which also supports the item store theory; you can't buy items for a game you're not playing, and you might balk at transactions that cost as much as your monthly fee.

@Unwize (again): Obviously, they're going to have patches that they don't charge for. Not doing so would defeat the whole purpose of all this slight of hand. Volume III will start in Mirkwood, and will almost certainly have another cliff-hanger ending that requires the purchase of the next miniexpansion to complete.

I'm not saying that the stuff won't be worth paying for (especially if the next mini-expansion stays at $20, or "free" with a $30 super adventure pack or whatever). I'm just saying that we should expect smaller book updates going forward.

seriouslycasual said...

Without knowing the active subscriber numbers vs. lifetime subscribers it is difficult to judge where they are going with this. On one hand they might just be looking to milk as much money as possible from the LOTRO players, or this might be the desperate steps being taken by a team trying to keep development ongoing with their game.

Also remember all the free publicity they get when they launch an “expansion” as opposed to just another content patch.

unwize said...

Maybe there is a schism between US and EU player habits, but the vast majority of my rather large Kinship are lifetimers, with a few even having 2 accounts. I'm not sure how much of the pie CM have to give Turbine, but EU revenue is in all probability higher than the US. We have at least as many players and we generally pay more.

I also think you need to take a longer term view of free updates to put SoM into context. Some previous free updates were pretty light on content. V1B12 and V1B14 being the worst offenders. V1B10 wasn't wonderful either. I'd take V2B7 and V2B8 over those 3 any day of the week. The only previous free update that came close to having as much content as SoM was V1B11, which introduced housing, Tal Bruinen, Far Misty Mountains and The Rift.

SoM may be a mini-expansion in terms of landscape and conventional instances, but the combat revamp and skirmishes are huge additions to the game, and it is difficult to judge their significance at this stage. Skirmishes alone have the potential to be a complete game-changer for a lot of people, especially if they introduce PvMP ones at some stage, which seems very likely.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Green Armadillo wrote:
And what will those of you who "call Turbine on it" accomplish? As you pointed out when I raised the communication issue, your only vote is to stop paying for the game. For lifetime subscribers, even that vote is already gone.

By doing exactly that: leaving. Making your displeasure known is still the best thing to do, but if you bitch while paying your subscription fee your complaints have a LOT less impact.

Personally, if the next "mini expansion" is not free, or if I'm not multi-month by then, I'm gone. I'll post about it, too, but I'll express my direct displeasure by discontinuing my custom. I'm obviously sympathetic to the idea of a developer needing to make money, but paying for access and having to pay every time they want to add a "mini-expansion" if I want to keep up with my friends goes against my expectations. As I said, I'm not completely bent out of shape this time, but you can be sure I'll be doing something if the deal isn't quite as sweet next time.

And lifetime subscribers still have a voice. They can stop playing and not pay for a mini-expansion. Trust me, Turbine certainly will notice if people don't pony up for the mini-expansion and stop playing. If the lifetime subs are a significant portion of the users, then the servers will start to feel empty and that's not good even if Turbine saves money by people not playing.

I'll tell you one other thing: SoM has convinced me that I will NOT buy a lifetime sub. I thought about it, but if it means I'm going to have to pony up more cash for expansions on a regular basis it's not worth it. The beauty of the lifetime sub is coming back whenever you want. Coming back and finding out that, "Oh yeah, pony up $30 for a few 'mini-expansions' to play with your friends" doesn't sound like a great deal to me.

Yeebo said...

Missed this post, thanks for the double bump. I think that this really is Turbine signaling that in the future we can expect to pay for any substantial content updates. Don't expect to get something the size of Goblin Town or Forechel for free again in the future. It really knocks the legs out from under one of the major arguments that you could make for LoTRO being a good value among full featured sub based MMOs.

It may be an attempt to further monetize lifetime subs, or it may be a simple decision to start double dipping from everyone. As a lifer, it really doesn't bother me that much personally. I don't mind paying $20 every four months for new content.

Were I not a lifer, however, I seriously doubt I'd see much value in keeping my sub active in between paid content releases. Turbine is bound to have some sort of discount for resubs every time they release a "mini expansion." I wonder how much more money they will really make in the long term by reducing the sub fee to a "server access and class balance patch" fee.