Back in September, when the F2P model was newly introduced, I was underwhelmed with the game's non-subscription model. Today, the premium free to play option is far more attractive, especially for infrequent players and tourists, but the higher end of the store does far more to push the limits on how much of what used to be gameplay is now for sale in the cash shop. Update 2, feels like it has moved the F2P business model to version two, with all the blessings and curses that go along with the more traditional free to play label.
More open for less money...
At the time of the free to play relaunch, the game's two pre-F2P expansions were mandatory purchases for the increased level caps. This restriction was removed in a previous patch, allowing players to advance all the way to the cap if they were so inclined by grinding the freely available skirmishes and scaling dungeons. The Lone Lands zone was added to the completely free content, pushing players' decision points back to the neighborhood of level 30. In another change, former subscribers are now allowed to use swift travel routes, which were previously restricted to subscribers only (one of the big things that I really disliked about the model back in September).
The update two patch also adds a major update of the Evendim zone, which I happened to have picked up for cheap in a sale using points from retroactive reputation deeds after the relaunch. With some sale discounts, I was able to get the riding trait for an old hunter alt for 57 TP, which is the only thing that you absolutely have to buy as a non-subscriber if you didn't have it from past VIP days. I'll probably make that back while leveling the new character to the revised content, and I don't know that I'm going to need to spend very much money from here to the cap on that character if I really wanted to.
...And more ways to spend
That said, Update 2 also adds many more ways to spend money. At an approximate exchange rate of 1 cent per Turbine Point, you can now buy:
- Up to three additional cosmetic outfit slots for $5 each (account-wide). No complaints here since we still get to keep the two slots we had.
- Up to five additional millstone destinations (LOTRO's version of hearthstones) for $3.50 each PER CHARACTER. All of your destinations share the 1 hour cooldown, you just get to pick multiple destinations for that one cooldown. You can also halve the cooldown to 30 minutes with another paid unlock, that costs $5 PER CHARACTER.
(Note that this is separate from the reusable travel skills and consumable maps that were available at the F2P relaunch. The travel skills share a cooldown with each other and any racial/rep teleports you might have, for $3 per destination per character - unlike the additional millstones, each skill has a single fixed destination. I haven't ever used the consumable maps, so I don't know if they have a cooldown, but it would seem strange if they did.)
- Up to two additional Legendary Item slots for $3 each PER CHARACTER. This one starts to get concerning because having additional legendary items at your disposal can actually affect gameplay by giving you more options.
- And finally, the big and controversial one: the Legendary Item system has been overhauled to be less random, but now there are even more consumables that you can use to upgrade your items... and they're all available in the store with no ceiling on your potential expenses. The reaction in my kinship chat has been punctuated with the occasional "wait, you can buy what?!" as each player notices the new tab in the store.
Bargain for tourists, iffy for long-time residents?
The good news is that this game is far friendlier to low-spending tourists. You probably won't enjoy the game you get if you try to play it without spending a dime, but you can see the world of Middle Earth for far less than $15/month - and, as with DDO, all the content you unlock is yours at no additional cost for future alts.
The okay news is that this model is increasingly designed to get you in the door in the hopes that you'll buy stuff once you're there. Only fair, I suppose, Turbine has to pay the bills somehow, and letting players choose what they want to pony up for is a relatively fair way to offer options.
The bad news is what I feared when the game relaunched. Things about the game that are not good - like the travel system or the random legendary item grind - are being preserved in order to sell cash store fixes rather than improved. Maybe the game is still worth playing, and maybe it's even worth paying for the fixes, but it sets a dangerous precedent. If you consider travel and legendary items "fixed", the biggest problem left in the game is the insane proliferation of bound-to-character tokens, none of which are allowed to go in the in-game currency wallet. A dev commented that they have a proposal for this issue, and the fix may well involve another cash store purchase.
The big reason why I like Turbine's other F2P success, DDO, is because they give you some of the game, which is good, and then you can pay them for more of the game. The big thing that I have enjoyed less about other F2P models is that they give you the whole game, but the game is not good until you pay them to make the things they broke better. I hope that LOTRO isn't going down the latter road.