The monetization of Middle-earth

Lord of the Rings Online is one of my favorite MMOs. Hobbits rule. I love my pony; I love farming (real farming) and crafting dyes and weapons and food things that actually sell on the auction hall. I have a lovely house at 1 Wending Way, Pearbridge, The Shire. I counseled Frodo and took a screenshot of my character dancing with Arwen. The game had its annoying combat quirks and grinds and slowdowns, and Moria is one of the worst zones in any MMO ever, but overall, it’s always been a comforting world to experience for a few months a year.

In fact, I very much wanted LotRO to go F2P and was wholly unsurprised when it did so last year, given Turbine’s earlier freemium conversion of Dungeons and Dragons Online, a conversion that likely saved the game from an early and unfortunate demise.

But I regret that wish because LotRO suffered deeply from its switchover. I don’t mean the game became a financial loss for Turbine; it did not. But like many Western games that “go free-to-play,” LotRO was over-monetized to the point of ludicrousness, to the point that I no longer find it a comforting retreat but rather a flashing neon advertisement of tawdriness. Let’s not fuss over whether Tolkien himself would approve (he would not); let’s just consider whether we do.

The majority of freemium games are Eastern, not Western. They are frequently designed to be respectably decent games first, then a cash shop is layered in to sell perks and luxuries and shortcuts. Generally, an MMO like Zentia can be played in full for no cost. Freebie players will rarely notice their disadvantages, but players with disposable income will buy stacks of materials, costumes, mounts, and experience potions to make more of the time they spend “working” while playing. Barring exceptions like Russian-born Allods Online, Eastern F2P MMOs are fairly predictable in this regard.

But in the West, freemium games focus only on the money. That might seem a foolish comment; obviously, MMOs are a money-making business, and these companies would be doing a disservice to their stockholders if they neglected their directives. What I mean is that the game design process itself becomes compromised in the quest to monetize a game. It’s a subtle difference, monetization vs. profit. But whether the game is designed freemium at the start like Free Realms or becomes freemium later in its life like LotRO, the game itself suffers when the developers focus on how they can monetize little pieces of the game. The game becomes a bunch of little fragmented pieces rather than a grand, coherent vision of a game that’s good enough to sell boxes and subscriptions as the sum of its parts. The MMOs, as a result, are very small and narrow because their developers thought only “what bits can I make that I can sell” and “what can I charge for this bit” rather than “this bit is nifty and will be part of a great game that will sell.”

LotRO is greatly affected by this. Its pieces were broken down and priced individually, just as were later additions, and very little care was taken to integrate the cash shop into the game experience. The player is confronted with splash screens advertising the cash shop the instant he logs into the game. There’s an enormous cash-shop button attached to the main hotbar. Quests award tiny and therefore useless amounts of Turbine Points, serving only as a constant reminder that hey, you should go buy something, and have you seen the cash shop yet? Because you totally should.

The prices themselves are problematic. Turbine has cut the costs of some salable items due to player feedback, but even the sales are yet another way for the company to remind the player that the cash shop exists and prey on our very human fear of missing out on a good deal. These are admittedly incredibly primitive marketing tricks, but I resent their being used on me in a game I enjoyed because of its original subdued and woebegone tone. I can appreciate Little House on the Prairie and the Vegas strip for what they are, but I don’t really want those experiences merged, and in many ways, I miss the simplicity and honesty of a flat subscription fee. I never felt marketed to when I just paid that flat fee. Subscriptions have their own problems, especially double-dippers, but “breaking my immersions” has never been one of them.

Neither is paying twice for the same content. Even those who purchased the original boxed game at full price must re-purchase the world zones (specifically, the quests therein) piecemeal. That remains one of the most egregiously greedy and unconscionable decisions I’ve ever seen in an MMO. When I consider games like LotRO, DDO, Free Realms, and even EQ2X, I can only wonder whether their parent companies truly understood how the classic freemium model works — that it’s normal for the majority of players to decline to become customers. These companies clung to their subscriptions and designed the freemium parts of their games only to hook players into subscribing to the “real” game rather than to exist as solid standalone games endearing enough in their own right to encourage repeat luxury purchases rather than obligatory expenditures.

And that problem shows up not just in marketing but in the game itself when poor game design becomes another method of revenue generation. Instead of reducing the tedious and unwelcome virtue and trait grind, Turbine made virtues and traits buyable with cash. Instead of speeding up horse routes, Turbine took them away from non-subscribers and placed startlingly high fees on them for a la carte players. Dyes, food, potions, and tools are purchasable, allowing players to bypass the crafting market within the game.

I could not bear to let go my home in Pearbridge, so every few weeks it drains a bit more of my gold. But neither can I bear to fork over to rebuy zones and get back to the grind. I was willing to pay $15 a month to farm and market and dabble before, but it’s actually even less palatable now that it’s free. The commercialization of such an antique and mythological gameworld just makes me sad, and the company’s very act of pricing things individually — its double-dipping as a matter of course — makes me think only in terms of value, not entertainment.

I once wished that Turbine would next take Asheron’s Call free-to-play, but knowing what I know now, I think I’ll just hold my tongue.

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9 Comments

  1. ArcherAvatar says:

    I really hope the developers of Guild Wars 2 are reading articles like this one that very poignantly express how horribly wrong a cash shop in an MMO ‘can’ go. It is the one aspect of GW2 that causes me considerable concern.

    • Bree says:

      At least we can be content knowing GW2 will not have a sub (unless that’s changed and I’m unaware of it). IMO, the fact that the game isn’t really just trying to overcharge for everything under the sun in an attempt to coerce you to subscribe is something working in its favor. I certainly plunked down my fair share in what passes for GW1’s cash shop and was happy to do so to support the game — even paying probably too much for costumes — because with one notable exception ($40 for vault space upgrades), I didn’t feel like I was being tricked or abused. The cash shop truly offered luxuries, not virtual necessities.

      I can’t entirely say the same thing is true of NCsoft’s other games-with-cash-shops, though, but that’s for another post. :D

  2. ArcherAvatar says:

    @Bree
    Comments like that are very reassuring to me. I’ve never participated (for long) in an MMO that made heavy use of MTs becuase I’ve always found them to be abussive. Comments like yours about GW’s current cash shop make me think it can actually be implemented in a way that isn’t inherently abussive towards it’s players… and I’ve heard your opinion echoed by several other folks I also trust.

    So, although I don’t have personal experience with ArenaNet, I have hope, and I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt when folks like yourself indicate that they haven’t goofed it in the past when they had a chance to.

  3. Zax19 says:

    Premise: I got here because Jef Reahard mentioned one of your old articles and I liked it :).

    I’m quite surprised by your reception of their F2P model because I’ve heard that it’s one of the best there is. Even though I hate the advertising, it’s very difficult to take an existing game and decide where to draw the line of playing for free. My main problem is the currency cap removal which costs almost 400 TPs and would be very difficult to get with just one character. The system cannot allow you to get to the max level and do everything without paying any money but it allows you to get some TPs and unlock the few main constrictions.

    If you like playing for just one character all the way till the end you’ll have to buy new content, the same way the purchase price coveres just the content at the release. It can be annoying but you still have the option to sub. If I don’t like some area, some content, I won’t pay for it. Some people put up with a monthly fee for almost no new content and eagerly pay extra for new content in form of an expansion. With LOTRO all I hear is how simple it is to be a VIP for a month and get so much value for your money…

    PS: With regards to regular games and early releases of DLCs I was thinking of a pre-order bonus like “free updates and DLCs as far as 6 months after the release” or something like that as a protection from releasing content that should have been in the game. On the other hand, paying an arbitrary amount of money for a certain time of content support is again the old MMO subscription problem – you have no guarantee you’ll get your money’s worth. That’s why BUY TO PLAY (such as GW or essentially the “additional” content in LOTRO) is so great. It requires no commitment but allows you to spend your money if you think the content is worth it, all that along with the old pay to play model.

    • Bree says:

      Ug yes, the currency cap is a real pita. So are the limited bags. I admit that these don’t affect me, as I already owned an account and was therefore Premium (and grandfathered in to the old currency caps and bags). I did have to pay to up my auction hall limits, though. All three of these things are huge barriers to entry in F2P games (which Turbine ought to have learned from Allods).

      I think it’s interesting that you’ve heard it’s better to go VIP for the value — by my calculations and other threads I’ve seen for LotRO and other similar games, it’s nearly always a better call to go Premium and buy only what you need, assuming you plan on playing longterm. I’ve found the same is true in City of Heroes to some extent as well. In fact, threads on the Turbine forums actually complain that there’s not *enough* value in VIP! Hehe.

      Granted, if you just wanted to take three months and play one character to endgame and quit, you might be right — it might be better to just VIP for those three months. That doesn’t tend to be how I play MMOs, though. I sample, leave, and come back!

      I’m with you in loving the GW model, but it’s because GW somehow manages to avoid the impression of nickel-and-diming that LotRO embraces. I suspect that for the price I paid for Prophecies, Factions, Nightfall, EOTN, and stuff like costumes, makeovers, and vault upgrades, I could easily buy everything in LotRO that I’d ever need. But because LotRO’s real goal is to annoy Free and Premium players into subscribing, Turbine has a perpetual incentive tailor all new game mechanics and additions toward that end. Guild Wars, on the other hand, lacks that sub, and so its cash shop is actually populated with cool stuff that makes me *want* to buy it to amuse myself rather than *have* to buy it just to keep pace.

  4. Zax19 says:

    About the VIP, I’ve heard that the information on the transition from VIP to Premium is outdated and that if you log in all your characters during the VIP period you get to keep a lot more than just “Additional Character Slot, Gold Limit Increase and Faster Login” – both bonus bags and something else. The 500TPs you get definitely isn’t enough to buy high level content once the one month of VIP ends but bearing in mind 15USD ~ 1200TPs it seems like a good deal (if you really get both extra bags). Then again, on the Turbine support website it says you can’t use PayPal for VIP and a guildee told me he did so anyway and it worked… so I understand how confusing all the buying decisions might get xD.

    The bags and the currency cap are my biggest issues (the auction costs very little) but they are also needed to limit any gold farming. I’m only level 25 but I stopped caring about the currency cap for now as I’m stingy enough to buy only the cheap things and over 2g doesn’t sound cheap to me :D. The bags are annoying but it’s also related to money – I don’t feel like I need to buy anything (any guild helps a lot, people have crafting) and with the task items there is just too much vendor trash in my inventory. Yesterday I had to vendor 3 identical recipes, so I’d lower the drop rate on most things.

    Anyway, despite the annoying advertising my friends like the game and considering one of them is a guy who entered several competitions based on knowledge of Tolkien’s works I’d say the game is worth a little hassle. For me the game itself is mediocre but supports some degree of RP which I miss in most MMOs. We used to play on community made servers in Neverwinter Nights and the size (up to 96 players online) is “small enough” to keep track of the people around you which is one of the issues I have with RP in sandbox MMOs (the other being the large amount of grind – crafting, building, levelling up).

    I hope “Some Assembly Required” helps me find a good sandbox MMO for RP without the grind (something like “it takes weeks to build a house but you only need to work a few hours a week – spending more time doesn’t speed up the process). Thanks for the reply and your work at Massively :).

  5. Azazel says:

    I enjoyed your article. It was like I’d written it myself. preaching to the converted, I guess, though.

  6. K says:

    I agree whole heartedly with this article. The monetization of the game has totally ruined it. You can spend real $$ to teleport to the next step in your quest now. Power leveling for people with no life and unlimited incomes. Pay 2 win.

    I bought this game in $2007 at full release price, and the thanks I get is being forced to pay for it twice.

    Shame on LOTRO.

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