I've A Feeling We're Not In Kansas Any More
The title of today's column comes from The Wizard of Oz. Newly arrived in a completely unfamiliar land, Dorothy says these words to her dog Toto, then after a pause, follows with "We must be over the rainbow!"
In my December column that looked back at a number of 2009's noteworthy trends in the free to play space, I included SOE and Turbine entering it with Free Realms and DDO respectively. Naturally, I also wondered what they would do this year. In the latter company's case, we got a rather dramatic and very interesting answer when the announcement came out on Friday that The Lord of the Rings Online will convert to F2P in the fall, both here in North America and also in Europe where it's published by Codemasters. The change is also sure to be welcome by operators in other parts of the world, such as Mail.Ru in the Russia / CIS region where subscription is only a small part of the overall MMOG market.
I wouldn't say we've gone over the rainbow, but when I saw the news, the quoted words came to mind because one of my first reactions was a feeling we may have arrived in a land some will find rather unfamiliar, one where it's suddenly a lot harder to disavow or ignore the legitimacy of the F2P market sector.
It's pretty difficult to deny that LOTRO is a major title in the subscription category. Although I don't recall any official count ever being released, people who track such statistics tend to put it the 250,000 to 300,000 range. If this is in or near the ballpark, the game probably ranks somewhere in the second part of the top 10. It's also bringing in a considerable amount of revenue each month, even after we factor in that those people who took the $199 lifetime offer aren't paying anything.
Which brings up the big question: Why the decision to switch business models? Since it doesn't appear broke, why fix it?
Since I don't have a private line to Turbine's executive offices, I don't know the actual answer. However, the most obvious and straightforward possibility that pops to mind is to make more money. Yes, it's possible to come up with scenarios in which the company opted to change for purely strategic reasons that made it willing to accept an expectation of lower profitability. But do you truly think that's what happened? If so, can I interest you in some nice property in Florida? When the tide goes out, it can even resemble land for a few hours.
Let's make a couple of seemingly reasonable assumptions. One is that Turbine and parent Warner Bros. believe LOTRO will benefit from going F2P; i.e. that the game is seen as having greater long-term potential via the change. The other is that they are pretty confident this will be so. Why would they make the shift if they felt unsure? This is, after all, their flagship MMOG - and there's no heir apparent in sight.
Then, let's ask ourselves what this decision likely indicates about the western free to play market. Which of these scenarios seems to make more sense?
(a) The F2P market is small and unimportant, just like its detractors make it out to be.
(b) The F2P market is considerably larger and more important than they think it is.
While it's possible to take position (a), doing so appears to require making assumptions that are more of a stretch. For example, Turbine might believe the market is small, but that LOTRO will cause it to spike, or that the game will capture a huge share as current players switch over in droves.
It's seems both far simpler and more believable to assume (b). The truly adamant naysayers will remain in denial no matter what. I've never expected them to change their minds. What I do hope is that LOTRO's impending shift will help others who aren't so obstinate to accept that F2P is a significant factor in our western market.
This week's MMOG trivia
LOTRO was not the first attempt to create an MMORPG based on Tolkien's seminal fantasy world. What was the original title of the project announced in 1998? Bonus question: Name the development studio and the publisher.
The original title was simply Middle-earth, which was then changed to Middle-earth Online. The developer was Yosemite Entertainment, part of publisher Sierra.
Grognards may remember that the game was to incorporate a form of permanent death. This was, of course, very controversial. Also of interest, the project was headed by Craig Alexander, who returned to the property when he joined Turbine a few years ago. The lead writer was Daniel James, later of Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates fame; he had previously tried to obtain the license for his own company. Other notables on the team included design lead Steve Nichols and designer Janus Anderson, both subsequently associated with Dungeon Runners.