Back when LotRO announced its non-subscription pricing option, we had some of the best MMO blog drama of the year. If you want to see your favorite blog-folk being mean, spewing hate, and accusing each other of ruining the industry, I recommend Keen’s post and many of the responses to it. I promised to circle back to the topic after six months. Where are we now?
If you are a regular reader, you know that I have been unhappy with LotRO’s content development pace. It is a quest-based theme park game that has released three zones in two years, one of them as a paid expansion. This is not to say that LotRO’s development has been on hold. Those two years saw a re-vamp of early content, retrofitting of content to make is useful across greater level ranges, and several entirely new systems. So we have seen improvements in quality, if not much growth.
Economically, LotRO looks to be doing great. More servers, higher population, and every indicator I have seen suggests that the cash shop is making good money and subscriptions are up. I do not know if the result was as extreme as with DDO, but I am always struck by having subscriptions increase when a game goes F2P. The economics also recommend working on the lower-level content, rather than expanding at the cap, because the new income sources (players) are going through the early content, while the non-income sources (lifetime subscribers) are at the cap and can hardly pay less.
My current judgment is “too soon to tell.” In a business sense: so far, big win. We will see if that holds up after the initial surge from what is effectively a re-launch. In a game sense: so far, not great. The game has not gotten any worse, nor has it sunk into adding problems just so that you pay to make them go away, although I imagine the restrictions are pretty harsh on anyone trying to hit the level cap for $0. My biggest problem with the cash shop is the frequent advertising for it. “Let’s add a cash shop button to every screen in the game, even if the subscriber/lifetimer already has everything you could buy there! Let’s add a pop-up alert for the store every time we give the player a nickel worth of points!”
The main reason it is too soon to tell is that we have not seen what Turbine is doing with their new dollars yet. If revenue is put back into the game, with development in year 4 more like year 1, this will be a big win for the players, whatever it might mean financially. I would like to think that the re-investment would pay off, but for the moment, I am thinking only about the question of whether more $$ -> more designers, programmers, and artists -> more game. If 2011 sees “free” updates with at least two each of new zones, raids, book updates, and skirmishes, plus continued class updates, I will call F2P a win for the players, existing and new. If content development continues to limp along, neutral. If all the crunch goes into the paid update in late 2011, negative. And if things actually get worse in all the cash shop ways we know and fear, I may need to get my own torch and pitchfork.
Hmm, by that measure, how positively does Blizzard’s development rate speak for the subscription model?