So Lord of the Rings Online is apparently going free to play. Given how satisfied Turbine has been with DDO's shift to that payment model, it was probably only a matter of time before they found a way to make it work for LOTRO. Key information available so far include a chart of F2P vs subscription benefits and a compliation of forum question and answers. What have we learned so far?
Trying to close the free leveling loopholes
Unlike the heavily-instanced DDO, LOTRO has a seamless non-zoned open world (like WoW). I'd thought that this would be the largest obstacle to taking the game Free To Play - for example, how would you even get to Angmar if you didn't already own the North Downs?
To address this problem, Turbine is going with an odd compromise. Players will be able to travel through the entire Shadows of Angmar world, regardless of subscription status. Instead, all of the QUESTS in a given zone will be bundled together into "quest packs". All players will get the three newbie zones (good for levels 1-15 or so), but will need to pay to get the quests from level 16-50. (It is not yet clear whether this includes the deeds in any given region, such as explorer and kill deeds.)
There are several quirks to this model. First, it sounds like there will NOT be a level cap on free players - if you want to grind mobs for exp, you'll be able to. To counter this, only VIP's (subscribers) will be allowed to get rested exp. In my experience, it's relatively hard to run out of rested exp in LOTRO, so that's basically a 50% nerf to combat exp. Skirmishes would be another loophole, so Turbine will be limiting free players to four of the game's pre-Mirkwood skirmishes.
The last issue is the previously paid expansions. There's no helping this one if you're Turbine - players have already paid expansion fees for no purpose other than access to the content and expansion owners will therefore be granted permanent F2P access to the relevant content. The odd result is that players who own Moria and Mirkwood (including the Mirkwood storyline skirmishes) can level as free players from level 50 to 65 without paying anything. Turbine is trying to discourage this too by requiring players to pay to unlock all of their trait slots - irritating to be sure - but it certainly could be worse.
Note that this MAY mean that buying a super cheap clearance Moria expansion box if you can find one will be a more cost-effective means of getting access to that content than buying it through the LOTRO store, we can't be sure yet.
Some head-scratching moves
There are a few things that don't make sense to me at the moment. A few:
- Monster play is being described as subscriber-only. Are they worried that free accounts would be used to spy on the opposing faction? I can't see any other reason why this change makes sense, as player versus player only works if you've got players in the zone.
- As Doc Holiday notes, the announcement confirms that the game will not get ANY new content until the F2P rollout "this fall". At that point, the game will be getting what sounds like a Mirkwood-sized miniexpansion, but it will be for levels 62-65 with no increase in the level cap. First, this means that I will have limited reason to purchase this content, especially if the epic book portion of the zone is free to play. Second, I'm not even convinced that the game NEEDS more content in this level range. I hit level 65 very early in Mirkwood, albeit with the benefit of rested exp (which a Premium player won't have). I'd be willing to grind out some extra skirmishes and daily quests if it meant not having to pay for a new miniexpansion just to finish out a level or so.
- Mind-bogglingly, Turbine points will NOT be universally usable in both DDO and LOTRO. If you play both games, you will have to maintain separate balances. Then again, I'm already stuck with two Turbine accounts because they don't have any method to add a free DDO account to an existing LOTRO account, so I would only be in for a headache trying to get that fixed if they did allow a common balance (as SOE does with its Station Cash).
- There's also a gold cap, and it's very low for free players (2 gold) and somewhat low (5G) for premium non-subscribers (anyone who has ever paid real money for something, such as the current boxes). At current prices, neither player type can purchase the larger of the game's housing and free players cannot pay for their level 35 mounts.
- Finally, I don't see any reason why I'd pay for a LOTRO subscription at any point between now and the F2P rollout. There won't be any new content for the next 3-6 months. There will be ways to earn LOTRO Turbine Points in-game, but there will be no retroactive credit for doing things now that will be worth Turbine Points in the future. This means that, if you're thinking of subscribing for a few months to "rent" the content you'll need to get some alts from level 15-50 before "downgrading" to F2P using the expansions you currently own, you may be better off waiting for the F2P rollout to do so.
(Turbine is offering a stipend of sorts for current subscribers, to be paid in Turbine Points when F2P arrives, but the maximum rate for non-lifetime subscribers will work out to fewer points than the cost of the subscription, assuming DDO-like exchange rates. Unless you're planning to actually play in the interim, you're better off buying the points directly when the time comes instead of paying for a subscription to get some points thrown in later. Lifetime subscribers, who seem to be making out reasonably well in this whole deal, need to read the fine print and log in at least once a month between now and the rollout to get all their points.)
Personally, I'm reasonably okay with the way DDO's store works, so I'm cautiously optimistic for this roll-out. I'd much rather pay for what I use and not get locked into a monthly fee, especially now that I've branched out into four MMO's and counting.
That said, this change also means that it is relatively unlikely that I will ever take a LOTRO alt beyond the newbie zones. I'm not going to want to pay to unlock all of the mid-level content that I've already done on my main, as that would stick a huge price tag on leveling alts that I'm not that interested in from 15-50. For most other aspects of the game - housing, cosmetic outfits, storage, etc - Turbine has done a reasonable job of ensuring that the entry level content is free so that they can sell upgrades in the store. I guess that the fee has to come somewhere, but it does seem to discourage alts.
Also, like the DDO store, it sounds like the LOTRO store will be heavily stocked with one-time purchases. That may or may not be a long-term problem, since LOTRO already has so many lifetime and discounted subscribers anyway, but it's something worth watching in the future.