Thursday, June 17, 2010

How Not To Reassure LOTRO Players On Free To Play

Turbine is at E3 talking to people about the coming shift to Free To Play in LOTRO.  Right now, players are asking how this shift will affect them. 

As a LOTRO player, here are my personal top complaints about the game as it stands today, in order of the magnitude of their negative impact on the experience.

1. Content is added too slowly.
2. Travel requires an excessive amount of unattended AFK time watching your character ride an invincible auto-horse/goat somewhere, especially given how unnecessarily frequently quests require players to travel across multiple zones to deliver a message to an NPC and return with their response.
3. Endgame/alternate advancement mechanics, such as player traits and legendary items, lean excessively on extremely lengthy but completely uninteresting and trivial grinds, such as "go kill 1000 wargs for +1 agility".

Let's see how these issues will stack up in the new model.

The first bit of bad news was on the table up front - no new content until "fall 2010", potentially meaning an entire year with no significant content added beyond the paid Mirkwood mini-expansion.  Going back over a two year period from the launch of Moria, the game has received the portion of Lothlorien that was not ready for the Moria launch and a paid mini-expansion.

In the second tidbit, Turbine apparently gave Massively an exclusive map of the new zone that will be added when the free to play update goes live.  It looks very similar in size and scope to Mirkwood, complete with seven sub-areas that will provide the opportunity to offer players a variety of landscape for questing.  The other inexplicable bit that was already announced was that this area will be redundant with Mirkwood for the level 62-65 range.  My LOTRO character is already level 65, and hit that level well before completing the content in Mirkwood.  Why would I pay - whether a subscription or a one-time access fee - for additional content that will pose no challenge to me because I have already outleveled it?

Third, Turbine is apparently saying that players will see Isengard in 2011.  New content, sounds promising, right?  Thing is, this entire endeavor is a marketing presentation.  Players have been waiting for a Riders of Rohan expansion that covers the first half of The Two Towers for two years since the release of Moria.  You don't say that you're going to get players to Isengard if you mean that you're going to release Rohan, Helm's Deep, Fanghorn, and finally the fall of the White Hand.  It sounds more like players will get close enough to Isengard to see that there are orcs and then bravely run away because the defeat of Saruman is in another paid expansion and/or store unlock in some future year.

As to the other two points - travel and grindy alternate advancement mechanics - we're told that it'll be the cash shop to the rescue.  Of the three announced preview items, one is a temporary buff and the other two are consumable items that temporarily alleviate the mechanics in question in exchange for real cash.  For example, there will be consumable teleport - excuse me, off camera swift travel - maps available for all those times when a questgiver wants you to deliver a package to a location so remote that Frodo will have destroyed The Ring by the time you can return.

In the DDO Store (offsite wiki link because, like all item shops, the official website is loathe to disclose actual prices), a 50-charge consumable Rod of Greater Teleport costs 495 TP, or about $5.  Of course, DDO is a heavily instanced  game and nothing I've seen about the game's travel system through the low levels implies that travel ever gets as lengthy as what we get in LOTRO - the LOTRO teleport will save players far more time and may be priced accordingly.

This is, of course, the one thing that I really dislike about item shops - when the developer identifies an aspect of the game that is not fun, their incentive is to create a consumable cash shop item instead of actually fixing the problem.  The irony is that I don't mind the DDO store precisely because it does NOT pull this kind of stunt.... yet?

Rob-Goblin Raiding Comes to DDO Guilds
The other thing that LOTRO players are looking to for a preview of the future is the way that DDO is handling its thriving Free to Play shift.  Meanwhile, DDO is poised to be the first game that I am aware of to ask members of a guild to chip in additional cash to the developers in exchange for guild perks.  The fanciest airships and the earliest access to guild perks will require Turbine Points.  It wouldn't exactly be fair to expect the guild master to pay for everything out of pocket, so the game instead creates a sort of escrow account that players can donate to.  It appears that the system will also allow any guild member to pay the Turbine Point costs of renewing the rental contracts on the various amenities on the airship.

I really wonder whether Turbine has fully explored the issues that this system could create.  Don't get me wrong, there are design issues too, but the social - and potentially legal - implications are astonishing.

Gevlon the Greedy Goblin coined the term "Goblin Raiding" when he basically rented out a high end raiding guild.  He had earned the maximum amount of gold that a WoW character can hold, and he was able to basically ensure that an entire guild would never have to think about money again in exchange for giving a raid slot to a reasonably skilled player who otherwise would not have made the cut for the game's toughest content.

Do Turbine's terms of service permit a Goblin-minded individual to buy a raid slot by contributing Turbine Points to the guild's airship fund?  It would seem hard for Turbine to prevent this, since players could take the negotiations to private websites.  If Turbine does endorse the purchase of goods and services in this way (using Turbine Points purchased from them), is it permissible to advertise in public chat that you're selling raid slots/loot to people who will join your guild and contribute Turbine Points?  Will Turbine Customer Service (which, incidentally, is not available to free players) get involved in disputes over such transactions when one of the parties decides to become a "Rob-Goblin" and refuses to honor their end of the bargain after receiving the loot/Turbine Points?  If not, will we see guilds phishing in the newbie zones for gullible newbies who might be tricked into donating their new player bonus Turbine Points to the airship fund, only to be /gkicked immediately thereafter?

Maybe Turbine has an answer lined up for this, but I certainly haven't heard about it.  Having this situation blow up in their faces would not be a way to reassure LOTRO players.

Same Store, Different Outcomes
The irony is that I like LOTRO as a product, and I don't have serious problems with the DDO store.  Indeed, DDO's free to play shift was enough to convince me to spend money on a game that I have not previously tried.  Meanwhile, LOTRO's shift to the same model may ironically convince me to stop paying for a game that I have previously paid for.  When the main thing that Turbine wants to highlight about the store is the fact that I can pay to remove timesinks that I don't think should be in the game in the first place, that does not inspire me to want to give them money.

The secondary issue is one of expectations.  From what I'm reading and hearing on LOTRO blogs and podcasts, expectations are high that new content will be plentiful and that prices will be reasonable and low.  The reality may be the opposite on both counts.  E3 is a press event, and Turbine (or at least their new owners) are there to raise expectations among outside observers.  At some point, though, someone may need to consider managing expectations among the actual customers.

Sure, going free to play will attract some new customers.  However, where DDO lets players have fun and then charges for additional content, LOTRO will let players in but then charge to remove non-fun elements like tedious travel, grindy time-sinks, locked down access to features and character abilities/traits, and slowed exp gain (no rested exp for free players).  If you succeed in making the game non-fun for non-payers, you simultaneous remove their motivation to pay for more of the same.


Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

As I mentioned in my blog post about LotRO going free to play, a talk at the recent LOGIN conference by one of the producers at Turbine demonstrated that they weren't completely out of touch with regards to the cash shop. The producer said that marketing wanted them to remove healing potions from the game when the cash shop went in; in other words, you'd only get potions as random loot but you'd primarily have to buy them. The developers pushed back and won that fight.

Sure, I'll agree there are people who will want to milk the cash shop for the most amount they can. I think smart people realize that trying to milk it for all its worth is a losing proposition in the long term. The real question is if the smart people or the greedy people call the shots.

As far as quick travel goes, if you want to travel quickly, then roll a hunter. The whole setting is supposed to be pretty low magic, so teleportation is rare.

The thing is, it really doesn't matter. If you keep subscribing, you get 500 free points per month. That means you can buy 5 maps per month just for subscribing, as an example. Or, you can get a deed accelerator every month and two maps. Otherwise, the game will play like it currently does. Just that they are adding convenience items, which can be nice for some people.

Only people who won't be getting anything is people who aren't spending money or who don't choose to spend their money on that stuff. I think the phrase here is, "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch."

I've said in my blog post, I'm cautiously optimistic here. Given how they handled DDO, I expect some intelligence here. I don't think they're going to kill the goose that could lay the golden egg so casually.

My thoughts.

Guinadrodd said...

I agree.

I will pay for new content, but will not pay for gear, stat boosts or workarounds for design issues.

Regarding fast travel and use of magic, there are definitely ways of doing the travel without the player watching the travel.

No one watched Gandalf actually ride to Isengard in the movies (the entire trip). We weren't with Frodo the entire time. It just happened. We saw the important parts.

Think fade to black, then fade back to the game.

Green Armadillo said...

Quoth Psychochild: "If you keep subscribing, you get 500 free points per month."

This is the trap. Those points are NOT free. They are included in the benefits that you get for the $15 you pay for each month for the subscription. You receive those points because the understanding is that things that might previously have been included in the similarly non-free content patches will now cost points in the store. If you spend those "free" points on convenience items and then have to pay for points to unlock stuff at some future date, those points are suddenly very much non-free.

(For example, DDO's winter olympics event, the kind of harmless fun that most games include in their monthly subscription, was instead implemented in a way that makes it very tedious to do without spending Turbine Points.)

As to your "roll a hunter" comment, is it really good design for two specific classes to have instant travel all over the world and the rest to be left out watching 10 minutes of a horse's rear in the name of "lore"? The lore breaks as early and as often as the developers would like it to, and now will break on command if you slip the publisher a few bucks under the table through the Turbine store.

Tanek said...

"This is the trap. Those points are NOT free. They are included in the benefits that you get for the $15 you pay for each month for the subscription. You receive those points because the understanding is that things that might previously have been included in the similarly non-free content patches will now cost points in the store."

I, too, am in the cautiously optimistic camp, so there are many questions where I still need answers. For the 500 points it is my understanding (but hey, I've been wrong before) that as a VIP you will have all the content patches unlocked already. It would only be actual expansions (equivalent of the "boxed" expansions that would have been a purchase under the current system as well) that you'd need to buy.

Many of the points you have in your post, though, are things I will be keeping an eye on as well. The airship payments in DDO were not something I was thinking about before, but now I really want to see how it plays out.

Green Armadillo said...

@Tanek: Here's another example - the DDO had an easter egg hunt event, in which you could run around collecting eggs. In a normal game, this would be a daily quest or even infinitely repeatable (depending on reward quality) and included in the subscription. In DDO, everyone got a certain number of tickets, and more could only be obtained by spending Turbine points. That's one way that subscribers end up having to spend their "free" points to get material that was previously included in the game. You can argue that this is fine because players can choose what to spend those 500 points on, but it is a real shift from how things have been done in the past.

The next area will indeed be included in the subscription, but they specifically say that they have not decided how they're going to do the Isengard content yet. If it gets declared a paid expansion (because, for example, it contains a level cap increase), even VIP's might need to cough up points for it. LOTRO is in slightly uncharted territory because the current expansions are permanently free to play for former subscribers at no additional cost, so they're going to have to do some experimenting.

Tanek said...

@Green Armadillo:
Ah. Ok. I did not really participate much in the egg hunt event in DDO, so never used up the tickets I had in my inventory. If the only way to get more was through the store, I can see where that can be a non-expansion content expense for a VIP. They did provide some, though, and if that is going to be the case when it rolls around again, the argument could also be made that, as a limited-time event, the "free" content is the tickets given to you and only if you want to go beyond that will you need top spend TP.

For the Winter festival, things like the ice skates that were available in the store were also available in-game, although as a timed rental (10 minutes was quite short with all the running you needed to do). At least there were options.

If they are going to limit events/holidays through the store at all, though, it would be nice for the VIP players to get some consideration in there. Maybe they get additional tickets at the start, or a longer skate rental.

I had just been thinking in terms of things like new adventure packs (DDO) or new regions (LotRO) being included in the VIP subscription.

Borror0 said...

"The irony is that I don't mind the DDO store precisely because it does NOT pull this kind of stunt.... yet?"

That is not true.

Look at the respec mechanism in DDO and then compare it to other respec mechanisms in, you know, any other AAA MMO.

DDO's respec mechanism are horribly expensive with in-game currency, or simply unavailable unless you're willing to spend $10 (or more) to respec your character.

Then, a strong case can be made about 32 point builds where it's "pay us $15 now or pay us $15 per character you need to upgrade later on." It's less bad now that they have added True Reincarnation but you have to be willing to TR, with all the grind, favor loss and tome loss that entails.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Green Armadillo wrote:
This is the trap. Those points are NOT free.

Depends on your perspective. Okay, I'll grant that you must spend money to get these points. But, from my perspective they're something being added to what I'm paying currently. Assuming this will work the same way it does in DDO, I'll get access to all the content just as I do now, then I'll get additional points to spend on additional features added to the game. So, from my perspective, they are "free".

(For example, DDO's winter olympics event, the kind of harmless fun that most games include in their monthly subscription, was instead implemented in a way that makes it very tedious to do without spending Turbine Points.)

I didn't play with that much. I found the whole thing to be a bit boring and not very well explained. I assumed it was something that higher level characters would be able to do easier.

That said, I assume you complaining about the hot cocoa item that cost 7 points (IIRC) and saved you a 20 second run. I guess the problem of any convenience item is that someone can turn around and complain that the convenience should be standard.

The real hilarity here is that there are so many other situations where people can pay more to get better service that most people don't complain about. First class seating in airplanes, more courses at a nice restaurant, better golf clubs and a caddy to carry them to improve your golf game, etc. Ultimately game companies are still businesses that have to earn money to stay in business.

As a player, I don't care. I'll go grab a snack while doing a long ride. (...or get a hunter from my kin to help me.) The guy with the map is subsidizing some of my play, and he still has to wait for me if I don't have the map. :P Doesn't mean I'll roll over and accept anything, but I'm having a hard time getting really bent out of shape here. Sorry.

nickb said...

While I agree with a lot you have to say, you can't be that surprised by their sluggishness in adding new content. The same goes for Blizzard - I mean, what happened to the multiple hero class model they had first planned?

Turbine bit off more than they can chew with the existing LOTRO lore, or we'd have seen a lot more content by now... Maybe the new F2P option will provide them with a significant enough cash infusion to ramp up development on the promised areas a bit, but 3 years into a product, I kinda doubt it.

Not that these games aren't fun to play as-is, but this problem affects all MMOs based on existing IP, from what I've seen.

Galadheru said...

My God, I hate LotRO deeding passionately, and I was extremely excited to see a deed accelerator item.

However, what you said here...

"This is, of course, the one thing that I really dislike about item shops - when the developer identifies an aspect of the game that is not fun, their incentive is to create a consumable cash shop item instead of actually fixing the problem."

... has completely changed my opinion of things. Why should I be excited to buy something to dispel of an aspect of the game I truly despise? What is next, "buying" the right legacies on weapons? There is something to be (ethically?) said for outright fixing issues that are so unpopular people are willing to pay for the fixes in micro-transactions to enhance their playing experience.

Daria said...

I'm not real sure of the direction Turbine is taking because to me it seems that playing this game as a "free" player is going to be awful. Having limited bag space when bag space is already a huge issue in this game, having a gold cap, a character limit, all of that would turn me off greatly. I can see lots of people playing the game for a few hours and getting frustrated that their bags are always full and just quitting because they don't feel they should be forced to pony up dough for something that could be so trivially fixed.

Now playing as a regular subscriber on the other hand, I view it that I'm already paying my $10 a month, so if they give me maps to help with transportation it is a bonus. But I am cautious and I do agree Turbine could exploit this and code in further "annoyances" only to provide more cash shop items. But that would be a really poor move and would cost them their loyal subscribers too.