Monday, July 9, 2012

The Turbine Rebate, and Downsides of the Model

I've been back in LOTRO this week, as I try to get to the game's current level cap and complete the current expansion content before the cap rises again in September.  I'm currently level 72 (out of a cap of 75) and have completely skipped several sub-zones due to outleveling the quests.  While I'm doing this, I'm also re-examining the Turbine Rebate I saw while working on Enedwaith back in April.  As long as I'm at it, having taken a less than favorable view of the SOE model last week, I feel it's only fair to subject Turbine's approach to the same scrutiny.

The Rebate
Turbine Points up for Grabs - 5 TP each for exploring 10 subzones and a 10 TP bonus for finishing all of them
I maintain that the Turbine "Premium Free to Play" model is a model where you pay for content.  While it is theoretically possible to grind for Turbine Points at a "salary" of pennies per hour, I can't recommend this approach to anyone who values their time at any non-zero amount given the cost of stuff that you'd be trying to purchase with said points.
 
What the Turbine Points do reliably get you is a bit of a "rebate" on your purchase price.  In Enedwaith, I snagged 75 Turbine Points (around 15% of what I paid in Turbine Points for the zone).  The Isengard expansion was more costly, but there are probably around 200 TP in easily-obtained deeds (quests, exploration, reputation). 

I've never run an alt high enough to matter, but theoretically such a character would be earning the same rebate for content that I don't need to pay for a second time.  The catch is that there are some things that I do consider reasonably useful (especially the second millstone and the decrease on map cooldown) that you pay for per character, but at a minimum I suppose said character could be run on a Turbine-Point neutral basis.

The Downside of Selling Services
The virtue of doing business with someone who sells content is that they make money when they make content, which is generally a win/win for players.  However, Turbine also sells "services" - I'll expand on this shortly - and people who are in the business of selling services make money when they create or maintain demand for the purchase of services.

Marginally related - the "terms and conditions apply" asterick under "access to ALL quests"?  Quests from three and soon to be four paid expansions are an additional fee.  Minor terms and conditions, really.
Case in point, today Syp yet again points out the issues with LOTRO's virtue system.  These have been fundamentally the same since the game's launch in 2007, and the Sypster's solution is but one of several functional approaches to the problem.  No solution to this will ever be implemented, because Turbine is presently in the business of selling consumable deed accelerators and permanent virtue unlocks.  No matter how necessary, no producer is ever going to approve having their people spend time to remove a source of revenue for the company.

In fact, quite the opposite, Turbine has worked harder to monetize more of the longstanding design shortcomings in the game.
My current supply of rep tokens - a few are unbound but most are bound to character
  • Inventory?  During 2012, Turbine will be rolling out two major features - a recently-released "premium barter wallet" and the first expansion to player base inventory in the game's history - for a total cost of 2000 Turbine Points (roughly $20 - and NOT included for people who still subscribe).  Bear in mind that these things are only necessary because the game generates excessive numbers of tokens, crafting items, etc - of all my MMO's, the two Turbine games are the only ones where inventory is a consistent struggle.
  • Travel?  For several hundred Turbine Points here and there you can unlock the previously mentioned teleportation options, and this week's patch opens the system up for players to purchase as many as eleven destinations for instant teleportation.  This solution is definitely excessive compared to the problem, but it also allows Turbine to collect roughly $40 in points PER CHARACTER from interested buyers.  
  • Finally, we have the Legendary Item system.  The Sypster said he was "0% sure why Turbine felt it necessary to complicate an already complicated system" with yet another way of enhancing items that are designed to be disposable, rather than "legendary".  And yet, Turbine added yet another mechanic in Starlight Crystals, which immediately went to the cash shop.
Bundling
Finally, there's the issue of bundling.  From the earliest days of the Turbine system, many of the best-selling unlocks were one-time purchases.  Unfortunately, this may have created a situation in which many customers are not worth a lot of recurring revenue once they have their basic stuff unlocked.  In response, we've seen a steady trend of increasing prices on unlocks, moving stuff that would typically be included in patches into the cash store (see the two inventory features), and now a trend towards ever-more expensive expansion bundles.  You can theoretically pay for your expansions a la carte with Turbine Points, but these options are priced to make them as unattractive as possible when compared to the price of points.

The Isengard expansion offered all of the new stuff for $30.  After this was a success, DDO followed suit with the just-released Underdark expansion, in which the cheapest bundle that contains everything other than the cosmetics cost $50.  (As an aside, DDO also made an odd decision to offer "epic levels" that do relatively little to everyone so they can claim that the level cap is still free, while splitting off a huge portion of the increase in character power from levels 20-25 into a separate "Epic Destiny" system that is included in the bundles, but costs prohibitively extra a la carte.  I don't get why they didn't just say that the cap increase required the expansion, as a level 25 without Epic Destinies won't be getting far.)

A year later, LOTRO's Rohan expansion was announced with a base price tag of $40.  These bundles were received poorly for coming in at a higher price than the previous year's editions, while offering less than the comparably upgraded packages.  Turbine eventually added more Turbine Points and a promise to throw in the forthcoming instance cluster (which they most likely hoped to sell for an extra fee, since Turbine's marketing department has basically never failed to mention something that is included), but the place they would not budge on was the price tag.  If they're only going to get paid once per year by some (many?) players, they're going to do everything the can to increase the minimum size of that one sale.

To add additional flavor to the world, Turbine just added "dummies" which will display model outfits available for sale in the store.  Nothing says "town occupied against its will by Saruman" like department store display models - wonder when we'll start seeing these for expansion bundle perks.
Outlook
I ultimately decided to put some money into my account during this weekend's point sale, so that I will have the balance on hand to pick up the barter token wallet the next time it goes on sale.  It irks me to pay for something that is free in most other games, especially when Turbine willfully exacerbates the problem with multiple new tokens in each zone, but it's no longer worth my time to work around the two dozen stacks of bound tokens wasting over a third of the space in my vault.  As to the bundles, well, I guess I'll do what I always do, which is wait for a sale and pay substantially less so that I'm not out-of-pocket for the fluff they crammed in to justify the higher price tag.   

At the end of the day, the problem I run into with LOTRO is the same one I had prior to the game's revamp - I will gladly pay for as much content as Turbine can produce, but they just can't make new content all that quickly.  With the new model, I'm able to get much more flexibility in terms of when I can play the content (i.e. anytime after I purchase it, rather than shackled to a monthly subscription) but I'm occasionally forced to pay for stuff I don't want as Turbine tries to keep the books roughly balanced.  That said, if your biggest complaint about an MMO is the pricing, you're usually in a salvageable situation, because eventually the price will come down in some fashion - if the game's not worth playing, that problem is unlikely to get better. 

5 comments:

Bhagpuss said...

My biggest complaint about Turbine's MMOs isn't the pricing. It's the inventory issues you highlighted. My blog's not called "Inventory Full" for nothing. One of the many, many reasons I prefer SOE's Freemium offer over Turbine's is that even on the basic, totally free account in EQ2 you get almost 450 inventory slots per character. At Gold that rises to well over a thousand. And that's not counting the Guild Bank.

Almost all F2P and Freemium MMOs stint heavily on inventory space, but Turbine are about the worst I've seen on combining paucity of storage with a plethora of stuff that needs storing.

Helistar said...

A good analysis.

For me, I dislike the "F2P" label when the game is in reality P2P just like anything else. Saying that it's F2P is like a travel company which offers travel for free. You can take the premium offer and fly by plane for a cost of $200, or you can walk there for free. :)

The barter/currency stuff is particularly annoying, since it moves the game into the land of crippleware. I have no doubt that it works, but I must admit that I'm feeling less and less compelled to buy Rohan. For RoI the TP option was more expensive early on, but I'm not really sure that right now it's more expensive.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Huh. As I've mentioned may times before, the business model for LotRO turned me off the game. I didn't even log on during the Spring festival this year to get the mount as I've done previous years. I just can't get excited by the game when I see these changes, and the game is leaving me behind. (I do admit, the revamp of Moria does have me slightly interested to see how its changed since I played back in the day. Would love to read your perspective, at least.)

I will say that I still don't mind DDO's model, though. They haven't been quite as obnoxious about adding crap to fill up your inventory space. I've not bought any storage space that wasn't account-wide; no character banks or bags. And, while the epic levels are pretty crap, you can get by without bothering with them. You can still play the low-level game just fine, or True Reincarnate when you get to level 20 if that's your thing. Only thing it changes is some of the high level content. But, I do worry that that higher level content will have to be balanced around some truly overpowered epic destiny abilities. Eventually you'll need to get the epic destinies or get left behind, I'm sure.

Zygwen said...

In my opinion, your description of LotRO F2P model makes the EQ2 F2P system sound like a better choice.

Yeebo said...

This is the first time I haven't bought a LoTRO expansion as soon as it became available. The lack of free Turbine points and the ambiguity about whether new end game dunegons would be included turned me off a bit. The steep price for the bundles really turned me off.

I likely will cave and get one of the pre-orders eventually. Having played for so long I'm too invested in the game to sit out such a large expansion. But the pre-order bundles just haven't piqued my interest like Isengaurd did.