It seems that after the success of Dungeons & Dragons Online going free to play, Lord Of The Rings Online is to adopt a similar model. We found out a bit more about what that means by talking to Adam Mersky, Director of Communications at Turbine, and Kate Paiz, Executive Producer for the project. They explained how they see this new model as the logical, mature direction for MMOs, and how removing the subscription could be the best approach for the future of online entertainment.
RPS: Let's talk about why. Your press release mentions DDO, did that prove the model for free-to-play?
Mersky: For us it has, certainly. DDO we thought would be successful, because we worked very hard on it, but the day before launch, well, you never quite know how people are going to react. It has surpassed any of our expectations, because before we went free-to-play DDO was ranked eleventh out of the most-played MMOs in North America, and now it's number three. That took four months of it being live last year. It clearly has had a big impact.
There are two truths in our business. The number one reason people play MMOs is because their friends do, and the number one reason they don't is because of a subscription. Let's be clear though, we are just expanding into a free-to-play option. There is still a subscription option, and the stores will be optional, you can play the game without ever going to that stuff. That said, the success of DDO clearly validates what we believe the future of online entertainment could be. As soon as we saw that success we made moves to do that to LOTRO. I think you're going to see this from our competitors. There will be a lot of different flavours, but you will see more of this going forward.
RPS: So this is about population? You need as many people as possible to keep LOTRO alive? Can't you survive on a hardcore of subscribers?
Paiz: I don't think we should frame this in terms of saving or needing, it's about opportunity. The number of players obviously grows, as we saw with DDO, from a free game option. We're very happy with what we've done with LOTRO, but as you say there is a lot more for people in-game with a larger population of players. There are more opportunities for Fellowships to form, a lot more opportunity for players to socialise. This isn't about saving LOTRO, but about growth. This is where we think the industry is maturing to.
RPS: I suppose I phrased the question in that way because it feels like the idea that the MMO market was going to explode on a subscription basis, and that the other big MMOs were going to share in the millions that World Of Warcraft seems to be have been able to stake a claim on, has been lost. It feels like the other MMOs needed another way if they were going to grab these audiences...
Paiz: We from our perspective we see that there is a stigma attached to paying a recurring monthly charge, and when you are talking about subscribing to two or even three MMOs that stigma increases. There's a mentality there saying "if i am going to spend this much money then I have to log in". People feel that if they have more than one of these games going on then they have to dedicate their lives to playing MMOs, and that pressure becomes off-putting. We have listened and we are responding to this kind of feedback: players are saying "please let me access these games and play it my way". They just want to pay for the content they want.
Mersky: And I am having deja vu here because we were have this conversation just recently. This is where entertainment content is going, right? We were joking that we thank Steve Jobs for kicking open the door, because ten years ago you wouldn't have been able to buy just that track you wanted to listen to, you'd have to buy the whole album. And that's what people want: that song you heard on the radio, no more, no less, and that translate over to video on demand, we pay for and view stuff when we want to. This applies to MMOs too. You can subscribe and be the guy who plays thirty hours a week, or you can be like me and have job, family, kids, and have no problem dropping five dollars one evening to unlock some content. I might not be back for a couple of weeks, but I've had my fun.
RPS: Okay, so let's talk about exactly what this means for the game. Exactly what is free?
Paiz: If you come in from the start you will have all the launch content, all the launch classes and races, the two classes that came with the expansion are still linked to the expansion, which you can purchase. Once you enter the game, for free, you can play the first three big regions, which is eight hundred quests. Then as you get up in the level 20 area you enter the epic storyline and you are involved with the fellowship, and you play in support of the Fellowship Of The Ring, that's all free up to the start of Moria, that is still paid-for content. You can basically walk around the entire West of the world, assuming you are the right level so the mobs don't kill you. The NPCs who have quests that are related to the paid-for content are still there, but with a locked icon. You can talk to them, read the quest dialogue, and then choose to buy the regions the quests are in. You'll be able to do eighty to two-hundred quests off that one purchase. We think that if you're there and you're enjoying the content you'll get around to opening your wallet because you want to enhance your game experience.
RPS: What does this mean for the existing playerbase?
Paiz: All the benefits of having a subscription will still be there, because you will get access to all the content, and the expansions. You will also get 500 points to spend per month in the store. Lifetime subscribers will get the same 500 points per month. They won't be paying any more, unless they choose to spend for more points.
RPS: So what is the beta for? How will that work?
Mersky: That won't change the way servers are operating now. If you have a character and you log in any time, it will still be there. The beta will take place on a private server and won't impact on the current service. So go to lotro.com and come sign up for our beta, we will have an announcement in about two weeks. We want European testers too, so please come over and take a look.
RPS: Thanks for your time.