Wednesday, March 30, 2011

LotRO Revisited - Part 6 - Free to Play

At last we've come to the reason that I'm even talking about Lord of the Rings Online again in the first place: the fact that it's now to free to play.  But what does that even mean?

It means you don't need to pay a monthly subscription to play LotRO.  You don't even need a credit card.  You can play this game for dozens of hours on end and not spend a dime.  To do this you just set up an account on the website, click a button to download the game client, and start playing.  Easy.  Extremely high quality content for what you pay (nothing).

So, how is this possible?  The game developer clearly still needs to make money to pay for operating costs and ongoing development.  So they replace a fixed monthly subscription fee with a large set of optional "micro-transactions".  In other words you don't pay a fixed $15 a month, but instead you spend a couple bucks here and there on smaller purchases.  This will likely result in smaller per-account revenue, but by removing the steep up-front subscription cost it's possible to reach a broader audience and hopefully achieve similar overall revenue.  That's the basic business model, and it's an increasingly popular one.  But of course the devil is in the details.

The term "micro-transaction" conjures an image of being stopped every couple minutes to be solicited for money.  It sounds disruptive and cheap.  Certainly paying more up front sounds less obnoxious, right?  Well I'm happy to say that LotRO handles micro-transactions with class and restraint.

You can happily level a character up to at least level 30 before you really feel like you have to spend any money.  At that point you'll run out of free zones and maybe you'll put down $5 to unlock another zone for around 10 levels of quest content.  You don't have to, though.  The epic quest-line is always free, and there are always tasks, skirmishes, and level-scaling instances to keep you busy.

Smoothing everything over is the fact that you gain the real-money currency (Turbine Points) while playing the game.  Every deed you complete gives you some points.  So even if you absolutely refuse to spend real money on the game you'll still be able to pick up a couple things from the store.

So, what sorts of things can you buy?
  • Quest lines for levels 30-65
  • Additional skirmish instances to change up the scenery
  • Cosmetic outfits
  • Shared storage across all characters on your account
  • A wardrobe space for your characters to store and share cosmetic outfits
  • Shorter teleport home cooldowns and/or multiple home destinations
  • Short term acceleration for xp, crafting, or deeds
The larger priced items are content related (quests, skirmishes, etc.) or feature related (e.g. shared storage), and are usually a one-time purchase for the account.  They're less "micro" and more a replacement for that monthly payment.  The key difference being that unless you blaze through content too fast that it's going to be much cheaper.

The more controversial items are the true micro-transactions.  But you'll note that none of the them will outright make your character more powerful, they just make progression faster.  For example you can't buy levels, but you can spend a dollar to get a small percentage increase in your experience gain for 6 hours.  That means you'll level faster than someone who didn't pay any money, but it doesn’t give you better stats, or items, or anything like that.  You still have to play the game and overcome the same challenges.  It's fair.

The micro-transactions are all poised as purely optional efficiency boosts.  Sick of travel times?  Pay a quarter to make your next couple trips instantaneous.  Like crafting but don't have time for the grind?  Pay fifty cents to double the rate of craft skill gains for awhile.  This allows you to pick the parts of MMO grinding that annoy you and pay a little bit to have them go away.  The cynical way to look at this would be that they're making you pay to keep the game from being awful.  But the key thing to remember is that the free experience of today is the same thing people were previously paying a subscription for.  They didn't make it worse for free accounts.  You can pay for a more streamlined experience if you want to, but it's not necessary.  That's what helps the micro-transactions feel optional and not gouging.

I was really wary of the false promises of "free to play", but I've been extremely impressed with how elegantly LotRO has pulled it off.  I believe that you can play the game for free and have a perfectly good time.  I'm also happy to occasionally give them money to make my experience better.

Being presented with all these optional purchases forced me to confront what I really value about my MMO play experience.  It turns out that leveling faster isn't important to me, but looking cool is.  So my first purchases were an awesome looking set of cosmetic armor, some wardrobe space to save fun hats and such, and some more outfit slots so I can choose my look to match my mood.

I also bought some crafting acceleration to get my weaponsmithing skill up high enough to create my own weapons as I level.  I like feeling self sufficient.  Plus crafting is way more fun if you cut the grinding in half.  It's amazing how a numerical tweak can completely turn things around.

Beyond all that frivolous stuff I did pick up a couple quest packs after I cleared out the free zones.  I've enjoyed the skirmishes so I bought some more of those too.  I feel like now that I've spent some startup capital I can coast for quite awhile before my next purchase.  It's hardly been a free experience, but I feel like the money I've spent is well worth what I've received in return.


So, the real question: Is this the right game for you?

Do you like the depth and scale of MMOs, but have very limited time to play and can't justify a monthly fee?  Then the new free to play LotRO is perfect for you.  It doesn't matter if you progress through the game slowly because you'll pay for new content equally slowly.

Are you the sort of player who enjoys MMOs for the first twenty levels when things are fresh, then gets bored somewhere in the middle and quits?  Then LotRO would be a great fit for you because you'd probably quit right before you actually have to spend real money.

Do you get obsessed with your MMO and grind through content extremely quickly? Well then LotRO may still work for you because it still offers a compelling subscription option.  It's only $10, not $15, and you get a substantial grant of points every month (~$6 worth).  So it's kind of like Zune Pass where you get unlimited access but get to keep some stuff permanently if you ever cancel your subscription.

What I can't tell you is how well LotRO satisfies a player at the level cap.  I've got a character there, but I don't play him because I personally don't care for grinding the same content over and over again.  I do know that that there are raids, and there's a community of people running them.  But I don't know how well LotRO stacks up here.

From a value perspective LotRO is hard to beat.  High quality content, flexible pricing.  The real reasons to not play the game are if you don't like RPGs or you aren't particularly interested in the Lord of the Rings fiction.  If killing orcs in the English countryside bores you then this game is not for you.

If you do decide to try out the game, please set up your account using this link.  That referral will give me some kickback (and no, that's not what motivated me to write this series).  Be sure to create your character on the Gladden server, send me a note, and maybe we'll have a chance to adventure together.  See you in Middle-Earth!

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