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.