Return of the... King?

November 8th, 2012

I tend to think that one of the main goals of a subscription-to-F2P conversion for a troubled MMORPG is not only to attract new players but recover players who cancelled their subscription. I think this is an especially valuable group for game developers because it is a group of people who have already demonstrated a willingness to pay for the game. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that I think critically about the process of bringing old players back.

Here's an example of why that sort of critical thinking matters. I recently got back into LOTRO, mainly due to interest from my cousin-in-law who was a big LOTRO fan long before the F2P conversion. But before we could play together, we ran into a number of very significant hurdles.

First of all, he had to figure out what his account name, email, and login information was. Remembering all that after so many years can become nigh impossible, especially if you play lots of different games and obey the rule of having a unique password for each one.

Not that it helped him; once he managed to log in and update, he found himself banned. His account had been hacked and stripped during the period of inactivity. Getting it unbanned involved the intervention of Turbine support. Then, finally in the game, we faced the uncrossable hurdle...

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Posted by: Soulrift

An Expansion for a F2P Game? Is That Even Allowed?

October 4th, 2011

Turbine recently unleashed the Rise of Isengard expansion upon its free to play (Freemium model) MMORPG, Lord of the Rings Online. The expansion costs $30 to $50 (depending on feature set, see link) and is non-optional for access to the new Isengard content. Content locks aren't unfamiliar for either of Turbine's F2P titles, both DDO and LOTRO require players to pay up if they want to quest through the majority of the game. But these have always been microtransactions: A few Turbine points here and there for a small packet of content at a time. A full on expansion to a F2P game seems... misplaced, somehow.

But its also not entirely misplaced for LOTRO. After all, LOTRO already has two expansions that must be purchased in order to access zone content. I always thought it was a bit weird, to be honest, that even VIPs have to buy expansions on top of their subscription fee in what is ostensibly a "free to play" game. If nothing else, it really goes to show just how much of a crippled free trial the free to play option is in LOTRO, given that it just has partial access to the areas prior to any of the three expansions.

Now, it is actually possible to buy the expansion with Turbine points; Turbine announced the components would sell for a total of just under 6000 TP. So all those extra Turbine Points you can earn in-game by accomplishing various achievements, or the stipend you can collect with a VIP subscription, could go towards unlocking the expansion that way. But just how much is 6000 TP if you buy them directly? $97.50. Wowzers. That $30 deal certainly looks a lot better, eh?

I think this goes to show one of the real strengths of the F2P model: you can milk a ton more cash out of people by obfuscating prices. For one thing, prices are listed in "Turbine Points" rather than real money, and points cost more (400 points = $6.50). This toys with the 1-to-1 psychology of pricing: people see an item that costs 995 Turbine Points and think it costs $9.95, when in fact they'd pay $16.17 to buy that many points. Or, more precisely, they'd pay $19.50 to buy three 400 point bundles to buy the 995 point item; having to buy larger bundles than you can spend is another way to convert wastage into profits.

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Posted by: Soulrift

A Thanksgiving Miracle!

November 24th, 2010

OK, it's not exactly a huge miracle or anything, but, if you recall my previous LOTRO post, my free press account got demoted to premium with the F2P transition. Well, later in September, Turbine took pity and upgraded my account with the two expansions and 5000 Turbine Points to spend on the game. I logged in again, bought the Angmar quest zone, and resumed play with my hunter! It was fun for a few hours, but that creeping desire to buy more stuff at the store started to nip at my heels. What about those skirmishes, eh? What about another zone or two? What about some content for your alts?

This is where my experience diverged with that of "normal people." Normal people, it seems to me, would spend their big chunk of free Turbine Points on whatever content they wanted. They're free points, why not? I'd imagine they'd go on a Turbine Store shopping spree.

Me? Not so much. I'm frugal. I don't like to waste anything, least of all money or money-like things. When I got given free Turbine Points, I tried to itemize every possible spending avenue and determine each unit value and... well, the point is, I thought I had better hold on to as many points as possible until I reach the end of the game, and determine then where best to spend the points. The problem is that you have to spend some points on adventure areas to reach the end of the game. I had already bought the one adventure pack, I should just focus on that until I at least finished every last quest and got my points' worth.

But I felt trapped in that one zone. The novelty of it wore off quickly. I hate quest grinding - a topic about which I plan on writing a blog entry on Gamasutra soon. Anyhow, I especially missed Skirmishes, and I didn't want to buy just one or two or even all of them. It turns out, the F2P system really turns me off, at a base level. It disagrees with my penchant to avoid spending.

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Posted by: Soulrift

A Crushing Defeat by Freedom

September 10th, 2010

As you're probably aware, Lord of the Rings Online finished its Free to Play transition today and is now available, for free, to everyone. LOTRO follows a similar mechanic to Turbine's other F2P conversion, Dungeons and Dragons Online: players buy Turbine Points and spend them in the item points to unlock content, features, and purchase various bonuses like cosmetics and temporary boosts. In DDO this works out fairly well because most of the core features of the game are available for free: you only really "have" to pay for content. And even then, if you have a paying friend willing to hand out guest passes, you don't have to pay at all to play through the whole game.

LOTRO is not so forgiving, as I discovered when I logged in and found out that my press account had not survived the F2P transition. Unlike DDO, where my account rolled into a VIP, I now have mere "Premium" access to LOTRO, sans any Turbine Points at all. The result was, in a way, shocking and somewhat horrific. First up, I had to lock away some of my characters, as Premium accounts only get 3. This wasn't so painful as many of my alts were rarely-used experiments. The pain began when I got into the game proper, with my level 41 Hobbit Hunter.

All the quests I was doing yesterday, I cannot do today: LOTRO sells quests in zone-wide packs, so if I want to finish off the dozen or so quests I have left in Trollshaws, I'd have to fork out $8 for that. No, I don't think they pro-rate the quest bundles based on how many you've already done! Also, I can't spend any of my destiny points, despite being able to do that the day before. All those skirmishes I was doing? Nope, locked away too. That crafting guild I was a part of? Sorry, gotta pay to unlock that now. Oh, and my monster play character has been locked away for good. Poor thing.

There are a few things to be thankful for, I suppose. Freebies are only supposed to have 3 bags, but Turbine was kind enough not to lock up 2/5ths of my inventory. I'd better not empty the bags though, in case it prevents me from putting anything back into them. I'm also not sure how the 5 gold limit applies to my 14 gold. And at least it didn't kick me out of my kinship or prevent me from chatting with my still-VIP friends.

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Posted by: Soulrift

F2P Transition + Skirmish Mode

July 31st, 2010

Back in June, when LOTRO's F2P announcement was all new and exciting, I got in touch with Turbine PR to ask them some questions about the game. Maybe my questions were too tough, because they never got back to me with any answers, but they did send me into the game to see how it is now, so I can offer some before and after comparison thoughts. Although I never got any answers to my questions from Turbine, I'm going to take a stab at answering them myself now that I've had a good bit of first-hand experience of the current status of LOTRO.

My first question was kind of an obvious one: Why? Why give up subscriptions and go to F2P? I drew a comparison between DDO's ailing playerbase prior to that game's switch versus LOTRO's apparently still healthy numbers. Could LOTRO really gather enough players who would pay enough in microtransactions to offset the cost of hosting the servers for all the free users? Then it occurred to me: LOTRO was going F2P in order to boost subscription rates.

You see, Turbine's F2P model doesn't replace subscriptions, instead it adds a free to play layer over it. Turbine maintains a "VIP" subscription offer, which essentially unlocks all the game content for as long as you subscribe, giving the game the same sort of "feel" as being in a traditional P2P game. I previously argued that subscriptions are better than F2P when you're only playing a short time, based on DDO's quest pack vs VIP treatment. Would the same logic apply to LOTRO, considering that LOTRO is selling access to quests in zones, rather than the zones themselves?

After taking a closer look at the comparison page between Free and VIP, I saw another few layers that make subscriptions far more appealing in LOTRO. For one thing, only VIPs get Rest XP (double XP for a while after not playing) and only VIPs can spend Destiny Points (various temporary buffs; however I suspect similar things will be for sale in the Turbine Store). Another big issue was the gold cap, with free to play users capped at 2 gold, but then I noticed that non-VIPs can purchase a gold cap removal, so maybe that's not as big an incentive to go VIP as I had suspected.

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Posted by: Soulrift

LOTRO Goes the Route of DDO: Free!

June 4th, 2010

This bit of news caught me completely off-guard: Turbine's other big-name MMO, Lord of the Rings Online, is following in the footsteps of its brother, Dungeons and Dragons Online, in adopting a free to play business model. This is pretty fantastic for fans of the game who aren't up to paying the monthly fee, but it seems an odd move; I thought the game was going strong on its current subscription system, not at all like DDO's floundering population base. I had a lot to say about DDO's change, and most of it positive, but I'm not sure the same success will come to LOTRO.

You see, DDO's game model, that of having lots of little adventure packs you can bundle together and sell piecemeal, works well for F2P: players only need to buy the adventures they want to play and, because the game has no linear design, nothing is required for anything else. However, I'm under the impression (based on 3 months of press review coverage when the game was initially released) that LOTRO is a fairly traditional MMO, with big open areas and strong linear progression. I don't really see how you can bundle up LOTRO in the same way you can DDO.

I suppose the model might just focus on microtransactions: eschew selling adventure area and focus on selling supplies, cosmetics, and other goodies. This could prove catastrophic, however, especially since North American players typically despise the "buy your way to success" that fuels most Asian F2P games (and thus tarnishes the entire category). In DDO, convenience items were strictly that: for convenience. Because you only played adventures with a few other players at a time, you couldn't ruin the balance of the game world by introducing "cheat" items (like store-bought rest shrines). Players uninterested in such conveniences simply opted not to use them or party with people who did. Players who did want to use them could. But these decisions were isolated to the instanced adventure the particular players in question were in. In LOTRO, however, "cheat" items affect the entire game world and, more importantly, the opponents players face in PVP.

I suppose this is all conjecture; I really have no idea what sort of items will pop up in the store, how the game world will be divvied up for payers and freeloaders, or what sort of gameplay will be most affected by all this. At the very least, the game going free means I'll be able to take a look, one way or another.

Posted by: Soulrift

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