On my last article discussing Minas Morgul's story, the discussion in the forums turned to how The Lord of the Rings Online has monetized its content over the years. This got me thinking: Is the cost of entry to truly experience Middle-earth too steep for new players to overcome?
I’ve been playing LotRO since PCs still needed DVD-Drives to install the game. Since day one I’ve traveled through Middle-earth, primarily with friends and kinmates, but often I’ve found myself lately questing entirely alone. It’s been a drastic change in playstyle and it’s one that is due to life changes with friends, time zone differences with kin mates and a lack of new players I know getting far enough along in the MMO to quest with me in the later stages of the content.
The discussion on our forums on my previous article got me thinking – Is LotRO’s content structure pricing itself out for new fans who might be interested in the venerable MMO?
It’s been around for 12 years – there is a lot of content to cover. Much of the content is available simply by paying the $14.99/month sub fee – but even then, you still have the expansions to worry about. With LotRO being very story-heavy as well, it’s not a game that can easily be rushed through or boosted past.
However, these boosts do exist and are available when you buy certain versions of the latest expansions. Minas Morgul boosted you to 120, but even when boosting the developers caution that you really need to play the Black Book of Mordor quests, the in-game name for the Epic Questline post-Mordor, to truly understand what is going on in Minas Morgul.
Indeed, even with some of the story reveals that have happened over the course of the expansion, knowledge of the stories told even back during the Shadow of Angmar days really makes the storytelling more compelling.
However, it’s a slog to get through – and for new players looking to take advantage of the free-to-play aspect of LotRO, you might be in for shock to your wallet when you consider how much these expansions cost on their own.
Unlike other MMOs, most notably World of Warcraft, buying the latest expansion in LotRO doesn’t net you all the previously released content. You still need to buy Mines of Moria, Rise of Isengard or even Mordor if you want to experience all of the story leading up to the current content.
And while over the course of 12 years purchasing each expansion doesn’t seem like much as you’re buying them piece meal, you also need to consider the content updates that add new zones and quests to the game not part of an expansion – but still cost free-to-play adventurers money to enjoy.
For a new player who has no desire to spend money on a sub fee, especially for a game they may not play past a month, getting to dive into the starter zones – The Shire, Ered Luin and Breeland – is a good way to establish the mechanics and get them engrossed in the story. However, anything beyond this and you start to see that in order to do the regular quests in an area you’re spending LotRO points.
While you can earn these in-game for completing deeds, quests and events, it’s a slow way to unlock quest packs and quality of life systems that come with a sub-fee. If you wanted to unlock just the quest packs in the MMO, you’re looking at potentially spending almost 20K LotRO points over the course of your LotRO career. This doesn’t include expansions like Minas Morgul and Mordor. In fact, as of this writing, the only way to get the latest expansion is through the site, not through in-game currency. So if you were really a stickler for holding onto your hard earned dollars and unlocking everything through earned in-game points, you’re waiting months to even enjoy the new content.
For brand new players, this can also feel insurmountable. With other MMOs like World of Warcraft, when you buy a new expansion it includes all the previously released content leading up to the new story areas. This is incredibly convenient as it provides a single price point for someone to hop in and have the choice to either start with a boosted character or to go through the years of history WoW has to offer.
With LotRO, there really is no way to do that unless you spend money or grind and grind through all of the older story and zones to get to the current content – or simply forgo it all and use a boost to start playing the new expansion right away.
In terms of LotRO Points versus real-life money, you’re spending more than $200 if you want everything. And while $200+ for 12 years worth of content doesn’t seem like a lot when you put it in the context of the history of the MMORPG, for someone who is just starting it now, to fully experience all of Middle-earth it might be too steep a price.
The VIP price is compelling for this reason – not only do you gain access to all the quest packs (minus the expansions themselves) as part of your sub, you also get a stipend of points to spend in the store. Lifetime account holders have it easy – while the $200 price back in the early years felt steep, having a lifetime account has likely saved those users hundreds of dollars over the years. Unfortunately that isn’t an option any longer.
Standing Stone Games has been selling the last two expansions with high priced collector’s editions where the only differences between spending $79.99 and $129.99 are a few cosmetics, titles and an extra carry-all crating bag, to use the latest expansion as an example. $130 is a lot to ask for a single expansion, especially when the items you receive in game don’t add a whole lot other than vanity (though the carry all bag does provide some utility to established crafters). Why not include the entire wealth of LotRO’s incredible storytelling as part of the package? Or at least the main story beats and expansions -as not every zone is required to understand the overarching plotline. Give players more value for their money that might keep them long-term – or entice a new player who is interested in LotRO but is put off or intimidated by all the quest packs and expansions they have to buy piecemeal to fully get the whole story.
I know plenty of people who have wanted to get into this epic MMO yet can’t bring themselves to do so simply due to the monetization structure of the game. Hell, I’ve bought Shadows of Angmar three times have all the special edition versions applied to my account – yet if I let my sub lapse, I lose access to those zones! That I’ve paid for! It feels bad walking around Angmar with my level 42 Minstrel and not being able to do any of the quests I’ve bought and physically own the discs for because of how LotRO’s monetization works.
The Lord of the Rings Online is worth playing through the Epic Story and investing in if you’re interested at all in Middle-earth or Tolkien’s works. The team at Standing Stone Games (and the full Turbine team before them) have done an incredible job of creating stories that feel like they would fit in the Professor’s world, for the most part. And while viewed in a vacuum, $200+ for 12 years worth of content doesn’t seem like much in the grand scheme of things, for new players – and when compared to industry leaders who still put out expansions for older MMOs – Standing Stone Games really needs to look at whether or not their free-to-play model is now holding new players from continuing beyond a few weeks and truly exploring Middle-earth with their friends.
Sitting in the newer zones in the Morgul Vale, it feels empty – this expansion just released a few months ago and already end game areas on Arkenstone are starting to feel devoid of life. My kinship still logs on, but we do infrequently, and we really haven’t injected any new players in our ranks in a few years – partly by design and partly because there just aren’t many we’ve come across in our adventures. By ensuring that when new players buy into your game can fully enjoy your MMO – while still retaining the cosmetics, skirmishes, and other quality of life items in your in-game store, my hope would be that this would change, especially on some of the lower populated servers.
Hopefully with the next LotRO expansion we can see the dev team follow the lead of other MMOs and inject more value into the collector’s editions beyond the cosmetic.