In my never-ending quest to discover the freest of the 'F2P' MMORPG crowd, I have found myself wandering in the lands of Middle-Earth. Beset at all times by promises of fancy promotional offers and constantly confronted by buttons and shiny banners that offer lovely new items and advantages, I fail to see how my trek through the lands of Men, Elves, and Dwarves is going to be at all free - but I am a stickler for punishment and a sucker for a bargain. Welcome back to Bang for your Buck where we promise we will find you a slightly free game and if not we will give you, well, nothing.
Lord of the Free Things
The developer Turbine has become the Robin Hood of the online genre of late, giving away their games for free, pretending to be your buddy, and even presenting their in-game currency as reward for certain tasks. Now all of this generosity comes with obvious caveats, like EverQuest 2 Extended, Lord of the Rings Online is not a free game. Nailing my colors firmly to the mast, this Middle-Earth simulator is more of a 'Free Trial' or 'Extensive Demo' than anything remotely like a freebie, and let me explain why.
Rather than slightly hinder the experience or funnel you through certain paths, Turbine has taken the admirable position of letting the free-player enjoy everything on offer within the game (except Monster Play). The only problem, however, is that every free-player will run into the obvious road blocks at around level 20 and further on every ten levels. Where Lord of the Rings Online is an amazingly addictive, enjoyable, and fascinating game - I cannot clearly promote the F2P conversion over the normal subscription model, as on balance, they probably amount to the same amount of cash in the opening months.
So let's go back to the beginning and detail my experiences throughout the initial lands of Eriador. Starting a character in the game is a normal experience, the full four races are on offer to everybody and seven of the eight classes are allowed. The obvious restriction is one of the game's more unique classes, the Rune-keeper; and while it is a little disappointing to see this, the game still offers different directions in which to play.
Selecting myself a bearded Man, Champion, I began my journey in Archet, the newbie hot-spot. One of the great aspects of Turbine's game is the story and pleasantly a lot of this has been refined and updated to go along with the free-update. I butchered my way through the starting areas with the type of glee only pipe-weed and animal entrails can conjure. By level 6 I had yet to spend a penny and I was loving the vibrant, colourful experience. Oh I does love a freebie.
Moving on to the Combe and Staddle areas, things begin to open up and players can see that they are not restricted by any area they wish to trample. Being that these are quest hubs, the number of activities on offer is outstanding and thankfully, aside from one or two, everything was available to myself as a non-paying client. Another surprising addition to the free-LotR are the amount of gifts Turbine lavishes upon you. Upon gaining a level, a care-package arrives by mail and bequeaths many presents and interesting items - one of which being a 24-hour usable mount. Although generous, these presents do make me wonder if this is just the developer's way of being kind or a sly and careful approach to buttering up a prospective cash-mule.
It was at the point at around level 10 that I began to really take notice of the cash shop and the paid-for side of the game. While at this junction in my journey I had not been forced into paying for anything, the ever present buttons and shortcuts were becoming increasingly visible. Take for example crafting within the game: when a player wishes to dabble in artisan-trade, a contextual menu is brought forth and it details what you can make, what level you are, and how many more points you need to gain whatever title or advancement. I noticed, however, from my recent travels in Middle-Earth, a small hot-bar advertisement for craft acceleration potions in various positions on the crafting menu.
Now, a developer/publisher needs to make money; none of us are stupid, we realize that the world we live in is driven by a mad, rabid dash for 'the green' and we all accept this. My major problem is when a game that purports to be free dangles paid-for advancements and advantages at every possible point. To me this sorely negates and misses the point of the MMORPG. If someone is so lazy that they are willing to part with real hard earned cash to pay to become a virtual Apprentice Smith, well something is wrong, drastically wrong. Now this isn't something that is indigenous to Lord of the Rings Online - I noticed it also in EverQuest 2, but Turbine has splattered their whole interface with advertisements that you feel a real impending sense of "you will pay, sooner or later, you will give us money" throughout the experience.
Personally I prefer the more sensitive and easy-sell approach. I know that the game has certain premium items, I am aware that not everything is free, but please understand that if I want an accelerated progression potion I will look for it rather than be garishly reminded every second I wish to commit at certain act within the game.
So with various moans and groans aside, I continued to progress through the game's content and was satisfied mostly. It must be said that Lord of the Rings Online is an excellent game, in terms of sheer quality alone, the title is outstanding and to be experiencing a dozen or so hours of this for free is still enjoyable.
The Kink in the Road (to Mordor)
So at around 13 hours of game-play and at level 17, I began looking for distractions other than simple quest-grind. Like any modern-MMO, Turbine's game offers an Auction House and surprisingly unlike the previous game I tried, Middle-Earth allows its free players indulge in a spot of wheeling and dealing. So at this point I engulfed myself in the pursuit of copper ore and light hide in the search for wealth. After a dozen or so hours of collecting and selling I had made a pretty coin or two, enough to buy a full set of armor, a dozen or so potions and a fancy new sword. Thank the lord above for Bristleboars.
The greatest feat of this F2P'er is that it limits nothing aside from progression (more of which later). Players are allowed to enjoy the experience in every way and if like me you wish to dabble in trade, then that fancy is yours to pursue. The problem with a game such as EverQuest 2 Extended is that unlike this title, it restricted and prohibited certain aspects of the game which in turn makes the experience feel more claustrophobic. Lord of the Rings Online free-style certainly isn't perfect, but it portrays the image of freeness and anyone with a cursory glance sees that nothing is really pushing you into the paying system.
But now we move on to the really important aspect of the article. Just how far can one get without realistically having to spend a penny? Sadly, as stated earlier, only to level 20. This to me was around a day of game play, which is an admirable amount of time to spend on a free piece of software, however, it does fall short of other freebies out there.
As many of you will already know, Turbine offers several levels of membership, subscription, and then content packs to allow progression. Focusing on the latter, Quest packs cost anywhere from 495 points to 995 points, roughly from around $6 to $20. Now for most players, these paid-for content packs are essential to the experience as they contain the more gripping and enjoyable aspects of the game. While it is true that by simply grinding mobs you may find yourself scraping your knuckles on the locked door of 'Siege of Mirkwood' expansion, not many will opt for this as doing so will mean that you miss out on some quality quests and other such pursuits.
Another possibility is that certain tasks within the game award Turbine Points which can be spent on the Quest Packs. While this is true, most of these points coming from grinding 'Deeds' - a system which allocates you to kill X of something and in return you gain a certain trait, perk, and 5 Turbine Points. If each of these objectives only gives 5 Turbine Points, how long will it take to achieve 500 or furthermore a 1000?
The plain and simple fact is that Turbine's F2P is more of an extended trial period until level 20 for most people. And at this point, I do tend to call into question the paid-for packs over a simple subscription. If you say that your average player will hit the level-cap in a matter of two months, over that period of time the player will spend over and above the $30 dollars of subscription on quest packs alone. To me this seems like a worse deal than what was already in place and the buffet-style approach to gaming that Turbine are promoting is something that I am against in truth.
That said, this is probably why Turbine offers both options for their games, allowing people the choice.
To my mind, Lord of the Rings Online's conversion to the F2P model was an effective way of marketing the game. Many players will fall in love with the game before level 20 because it is one of the best MMORPGs on the current markets, but as a free game, in terms of spending no money, it simply fails unless you wish to grind and miss out the best sights the game has to offer, you are going to pay and that means it fails the goal of my Bang for your Buck series. As a game though? Who cares if it isn't free, launch the client, put on your cloak, and pretend to be a Hobbit I say.