"The problem with buying zones à la carte is that after, you’re locked in. If you change your mind and decide to subscribe once again, you’ve wasted all that money spent unlocking zones one at a time. The only possible way to protect your investment is to keep buying zones at $2.18 each."This happens when a game offers a rental subscription option alongside the option to purchase permanent unlocks (whether of content or features). As the player pays to unlock more pieces of the subscription, re-subscribing in the future becomes less attractive because there's less left for the player to rent that they don't already own.
The Sub Vs Zone Balance in W101 and DDO
Unfortunately for Tipa's wallet, KingsIsle has priced W101's zone unlocks in a way that makes the subscription a much better deal for players who consume a lot of content. On paper, a $2 zone unlock sounds fine compared to a $10/month rental subscription, but the crucial question is how long that zone will last. Apparently the answer is not that long if you chew through content the way Tipa does - she ended up dropping $50 in two days.
Over in DDO, Turbine is having the opposite problem because their adventure packs are actually priced at a relatively low level compared to the VIP subscription. Turbine has increased the monthly VIP Turbine Point stipend to 1000 TP for the summer in an attempt to sign up more players. At the non-sale exchange rate, that's $10 worth of Turbine Points as a throw-in for the $15 all-access subscription, but I'm still not interested. I already own access to 9 of the game's 23 adventure packs, along with the Monk class, the Warforged race, and several things that even VIP's have to pay extra for. If I did go VIP, I don't think I'd even encounter any content that I do not already own during that first month.
Why Turbine wants subscribers
Why, you might ask, should it bug Turbine if I keep buying things straight up instead of renting them via the subscription? The problem is two-fold.
First, DDO's currently high stated revenue is unsustainable because so many of the game's top-selling items are one-time purchases. At the rate Turbine has been releasing new adveture packs, they're looking at $2-4/month in income from players who do not purchase anything more than the adventure packs, and even that is conditional upon Turbine convincing the player that they WANT this month's pack.
To fix, this, Turbine would like players to get more into the habit of spending money on consumables, fluff, and other things that players might pay for each and every month. This is why the subscription gives players a starter balance each month. The store does not even allow players to see the prices of purchasing the content they are currently renting through a subscription. Instead, they want to encourage players to think about other uses for their increasing stockpile of points that do not involves saving them to fund a future "upgrade" from the VIP subscription to a Premium Free To Play account with permanent access to all the crucial content. Unfortunately, the problem remains - as long as I know that my points CAN be used to purchase new content in the future, it's going to be very difficult to convince me to spend them on fluff.
(In fact, the purchase restrictions make me inclined NOT to subscribe temporarily, as subscribers cannot take advantage of sale prices on content that might no longer be offered when their subscriptions expire.)
Lock-In or Lock-Out For LOTRO?
The real interesting question, though, is how this issue will play out when LOTRO becomes free to play. I started writing this post under the assumption that LOTRO would naturally follow the same path that DDO does - with a cheap free-to-play option that leaves the subscription relatively unattractive. After examining the retrictions on free players more closely, I'm no longer so sure.
If you are a former subscriber, you will sign on to find that two of your five bags, most of your trait slots, some of your character slots (which you may or may not be using) and all of the content from 15-50 (other than some skirmishes and all epic book quests) locked. You will be stuck with a 5G gold cap, and will need to pay to unlock the new cosmetic outfit wardrobe storage system. Once you pay to unlock these things, that investment might seem to create a lock-out incentive that renders the subscription obsolete. However, does any of this stuff really matter enough to make players run out and fix it?
I already own a horse and a house, and I cook my own food. I don't need to buy gear from the auction house, so my only expenses are repairs, rent on the house, food ingredients, and occasionally Athelas potions. I can cover those expenses with the free slots left in three bags, and the rest of the vendor trash can rot. If unlocking the trait slots is expensive, perhaps I should take Turbine's acknowledgement that trait grinding is boring enough to be worth paying to lessen the pain as an invitation to skip the grind altogether, instead challenging myself with slightly tougher gameplay via a slightly weaker character.
The fact is that content is the only thing that I'd think about paying money for under the free to play system. However, here's where the differeing playstyles in LOTRO versus DDO change the situation. DDO is designed around repeatedly running the same dungeons. Between loot and the adjustable difficulty settings, there's plenty of reason why players would actually want to retain access to the content after they complete it once.
By contrast, most LOTRO quests cannot be repeated, and there would be relatively little reason to do so if it were permitted. In this model, the value of continuing to have access to the content is diminished. Depending on how the prices work out, it might make sense to pay to rent content when I'm actively using it (either because there is new material available, or because I want to take an alt through the 15-50 range). In that model, I'd basically be using the free access for permanent "welcome back" status for the purposes of talking to the guildies and whatnot, rather than actively attempting to obsolete the subscription.
(Also, LOTRO has several features - monster play and rested exp currently - that are not available to non-subscribers. That could always change if there's a market for them, but it could also be an intentional effort to preserve the appeal of the subscription.)
Anything is possible until the prices are finalized, but it certainly looks like Turbine has learned something from their first forray into Free to Play. Time will tell which version of the model they ultimately prefer.