Okay, so by now the news has sunk in a bit. Lord of the Rings Online will be going Free-to-Play this fall in the grand tradition of Turbine's recent successful maneuver of switching DDO to F2P. Thing is, DDO was a failing game and the F2P conversion likely saved the title from extinction. What's the reasoning behind converting LotRO, by all means a still successful title? Players are busy debating whether it was Turbine or Warner Brothers' decision (the latter recently acquired the former), but the real question should be whether or not the conversion to F2P will mark the same or similar results as DDO experienced. There are no concrete numbers, but by many estimates LotRO enjoys over several hundred thousand subscriptions. When DDO went F2P the move re-sparked interest in the title and Turbine was later able to report that subscriptions (which were now optional) had tripled and the amount of players had increased exponentially overall.
It was a true turnaround success story. DDO, struggling to find its footing in a crowded market, managed to escape cancellation by innovating in its business model. Perhaps LotRO, while not nearly as troubled as its sister game, is hoping to enjoy similar levels of success. Maybe the increase in subscriptions won't be so high, but perhaps the amount of Turbine points spent will be substantial. LotRO is a theme-park adventure through Middle-earth, which previously was enjoyable for one low entry fee. This fall that will all change, and while unfounded as of yet, there may be reason to worry about what will happen to Middle-earth when the Free Peoples really become the "Free!" peoples. Here then is a brief list of five reasons you should be worried about a F2P LotRO.
#5 Sparkly Griffons for Everyone!
Blizzard's World of Warcraft started a trend: let's give people with more disposable income reason to spend more money on our game by charging for some really cool bonuses. Whether you like the pricing or not, there's hardly any arguing that the celestial flying mount in WoW is a pretty cool way to get around Azeroth. But in WoW the silliness of a flying mount made of stars is believable because the whole game's sort of a semi-serious satire of fantasy. Tolkien's Middle-earth is not. I can't help but be worried that when LotRO changes to F2P in the fall it'll bring with it some incredibly obnoxious purchasable bonus items... like flying griffon mounts or your own personal Gollum non-combat pet. I hope I'm wrong, but depending on who's pulling the strings you never know what could show up in the item-shop.
#4 Free Ain't Free
Sure the game is going to be free to download and play instead of having to be purchased and paid for monthly, but is it really free? A quick look at the announcement's FAQ breaks down how much you get for free, and really it boils down to getting one character per server with limited content to explore. In order to experience more than the most basic of questing zones, you'll have to eventually shell out money for more.
Being a VIP member gives you access to just about everything that today's normal subscription would allow, while being a Free/Premium member means you'll eventually have to spend money to move on in the game. Let's not forget that the game's two major expansions will also still require purchase before players can get to the game's full level cap of 65 or use Moria's two extra classes (unless you've already bought them). Free, in this case, is quite clearly Turbine's way of getting you hooked and hoping you'll want to spend a little dough to experience the full game.
It's smart business, and we all know free isn't really free, but it's something to be wary of if you were hoping F2P LotRO meant you were suddenly get access to all of Middle-earth for nothing.
#3 Monster Play Dies
In the current set-up of the F2P model, Monster Play is going to wind up as a subscriber only feature. Now, provided plenty of people are subscribing to the VIP status, this might not be an issue. But if like me, you're more than a little skeptical of just how many people will remain subscribing to a game that doesn't require subscriptions, then the redheaded stepchild known as Monster Play could wind up even sparser populated than it already is. And that would be a sad, sad thing. Many players were holding onto the vain hope that perhaps one day Turbine would further flesh out the Monster Play option to be a more fully-featured part of the game. And perhaps they will, thereby making people subscribe in order to play as Orcs and Wargs, and this whole worry will be unfounded. But until they do, I'll remain cautiously pessimistic about the future of Monster Play.
#2 Middle-earth: The Tragic Kingdom
One of my biggest fears of the F2P switch is that suddenly an already theme-park representation of Middle-earth will become even more kitschy and diluted by the addition of all the item-shop bonuses. I worry that the developers will want to cash in too much, like the examples in reason number 5, and we'll all soon be wandering around a Middle-earth that is far too little like the game it was at launch and far too much like FreeRealms in Tolkien's universe.
#1 Bye-bye Community
This is by far my biggest worry. Right now, especially on a server like Landroval, LotRO experiences something of an anomaly in online gaming: a (mostly) mature and courteous community. My worry then is what will happen to a place like Landroval when the floodgates open. Will there suddenly be a swell of rude and obnoxious chatter ruining the RP-friendly community, replaced instead by a bunch of foul-mouthed folks clamoring on about how "WoW does this better?" I sincerely hope that this isn't the case, but in most every F2P game I've had the pleasure or displeasure of trying the community is not exactly what I would call a marketing bullet point. Instead the community becomes part of the F2P games that we must simply stomach, and I would rather that not be the case in LotRO. I'd greatly miss the current atmosphere of the LotRO community, if indeed it does get soured by the conversion of F2P. That would be the biggest travesty of this business decision.