Writing my last article on free-to-play games, I found myself thinking more and more about Turbine's decision to take Lord of The Rings Online into the free-to-play model. Is this a smart move for Turbine? Can they duplicate the success they have had with Dungeons & Dragons Online : Eberron? I fear it will not be as easy as some think, and could end up biting Turbine in the ass.
Everybody wants to be like Mike... err DDO
While I have made my position on free-to-play games very clear in the past, I have always said that the one exception to this was DDO. Not that DDO is a standard free-to-play game. The game was designed and launched as a subscription based game, but I have to admit that their conversion to free-to-play likely saved the game from closing. I must also admit a slight biased towards Turbine as well. I was such a rabid fanboi of DDO before the game launched that I was offered my first job in the industry. What a ride it has been. 5 years later and look at me now... still writing articles for games... my life sucks... but I digress, DDO fits the mold of free-to-play like a glove. With their use of so much instancing it's very easy to control access to content. From conception DDO was never the standard MMOG. Being closer to an online action adventure game, it was easy to see how easy you could add the free-to-play option to the game.
LOTRO is another beast entirely. From the beginning LOTRO is a very traditional MMOG. Don't get me wrong, I believe its a great example of a standard MMOG, but there in lies some of the problem. I believe it will be much harder for Turbine to pull off this conversion. While LOTRO uses instancing, it is nowhere close to the instancing used in DDO. It is far easier to nickel and dime people when you can package every couple of quests into a package. With LOTRO you will have to grant access to entire areas with much more content, meaning Turbine, I believe, will have to charge more for it.
Can LOTRO duplicate the success of DDO?
You also have to ask why Turbine has decided to do this now. Sure DDO was completely turned around and brought back from its death throws because of free-to-play, but by all estimates LOTRO is in a pretty good place subscription wise. I'm sure they had expected more before release, but by all the estimates I have seen, LOTRO still has healthy subscriber numbers. This is not a game in its death throws that needs to be shocked back to life. It's a healthy strong community that many in now, debate how long they will stay.
When you open the flood gates to free-to-play you have to be ready to take the bad with the good. Sure you will have all the new players you want in game. You will also have all the asshats that tend to follow free-to-play games. LOTRO has been a bit of an anomaly in the MMOG market. The community is more mature, respectful, and good natured than any other MMOG community that I know of. You can throw that out the window with free-to-play. This more than anything else about the change saddens me to see it go.
Now it must be said that there are some good things that will come with the conversion. To start, while it is a shame to see the old community die, there will be a lot of new blood playing the game. One of the hardest things to overcome for a new player entering into an already aged MMOG is the ability to find groups to level with. With the free-to-play model this will not be a problem. There should always be plenty of people to group with now... if you can handle grouping with the occasional asshat that is.
Also, while Turbine is very well known are respected for their constant content and features updates, the free-to-play model will help to sharpen those abilities. Player feedback will be more important than ever to Turbine. Under the old subscription model it mattered little when content or features were introduced into the game. Now players have the ability to tell the developers very clearly how happy they are with new content. They simply won't pay for it. As developers see what content is being purchased you can bet they will put much more effort into producing similar content.
I don't know if the pros outweigh the cons of going free-to-play with LOTRO. I do know that the loss of such a tight, mature and friendly community will be sorely missed. Turbine is determined to persuade the gods to let lightning strike twice. Myself, I believe its risky and should not be attempted on any game unless the game was dying so fast that the developer is seriously considering shutting it down. LOTRO was nowhere close to such a dismal fate. With that said, I'm still a Turbine fanboi, and really hope they are able to prove the masses and myself wrong yet again.
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