Edit 6/4/10 — Well, well, well. Turbine just announced that LOTRO will be going Free to Play in Fall 2010. Now we know what has been in the works and we can all look forward to many more people playing this game we all enjoy!
- Community Announcement
- Official LOTRO Free-to-Play Press Release
- A letter from Kate Paiz, Executive Producer LOTRO
- VIP Chart
This article has festerd in my brain for some time. I’m not a huge fan of rumors and speculation when it comes to MMOs, but in this case I’m making an exception. I have absolutely zero inside knowledge of what is going to happen in the future of LOTRO. This is my personal take based upon some facts and some speculation.
So, yeah — I’m officially donning the tinfoil hat and predicting that LOTRO will become Free to Play some time this year — possibly with an announcement at E3 on June 15.
This prediction is based upon some facts, some speculation about those facts and just a gut feel that something big is in the works for our little game. I’m going to attempt to share my thought process as best I can to support this prediction. Right or wrong, I have to say that this has been a fun exercise.
It Started with a Gut Feeling…
For the past 18 months or so I have had a feeling that something big is in the works for LOTRO. This is the part that is impossible to quantify, or perhaps even communicate properly. My impression has been that public development on the game has slowed down since Mines of Moria was released, especially since summer of 2009. By public development I mean releases, patches or expansions.
If public development has slowed it could mean many things. One is that LOTRO isn’t doing very well financially. Many have speculated that the Lifetime Subscription offers were so successful they have hurt LOTRO in the long run because with reduced recurring revenue it is tough to pay the bills to keep a game like LOTRO going. Couple that with the sad financial state of DDO (until recently — more on that later) and there seemed to be a lot of pressure on LOTRO to pay the bills to keep Turbine running.
Another possible situation is that Turbine is working on a new MMO (*cough* Harry Potter *cough*) and has to spread out limited financial resources, causing LOTRO development to suffer. A new MMO takes several years of development work to even get to a point of announcement, so this seems plausible. In fact, I’d be extremely surprised if Turbine ISN’T working on their next MMO.
Or they could be working on a Hobbit tie-in to the upcoming movies (if the movies ever get the go-ahead from the studio and find a new director). Turbine has the rights to the Hobbit and LotR books until 2014 and can extend those rights until 2017 according to their current agreement. For the record: if LOTRO doesn’t go F2P my next best guess is that a Hobbit tie-in of some sort will be announced within a year.
A third possibility is that the “missing” development time is being used for a long-term LOTRO project of some sort. Each MMO company has a finite number of “dev hours” available based upon how many employees work in game development. Assuming that the number of people working on LOTRO has remained basically the same since launch it would mean that there is a fairly consistent number of dev hours available to be used on LOTRO.
This third possibility is what triggered my gut feeling that something big is in the works. A huge number of dev hours seem to be unaccounted for since mid-2009 if you take a look at the new content releases below. If those hours didn’t go into SoM and the couple updates, where did they go?
Then a Couple Interesting Things Happened…
DDO (which predates LOTRO by over a year) seemed to be in trouble a couple of years ago. The 14 original NA servers had been merged down to 5. The initial enthusiasm about DDO seemed to have worn thin and people turned to shiny new games (such as LOTRO!) instead. Just about everyone I know who had played DDO thought it was a decent game but that there were better options available for their monthly fee.
So what happened? Turbine stepped up and threw a Hail Mary — they made DDO Free to Play! So far it seems to have worked — DDO has become revitalized with a huge influx of new players and a resulting increased income stream for Turbine. Check out some numbers:
Since DDO went Free to Play:
- Monthly Active Players up 10x
- Monthly Revenues up 5x
- 3x more active customers and subscribers
Pretty amazing stuff. And it apparently didn’t happen overnight — Turbine spent 18 months on the process of converting DDO from subscription to F2P.
As if the DDO rebirth wasn’t enough, we got another curve ball thrown at us a couple months ago. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group scooped up Turbine. Interestingly, it was widely speculated that one of the primary reasons Warner Bros. wanted Turbine was for expertise in microtransactions.
So I Performed Some Quick Research…
Turns out my gut feeling was dead on. LOTRO development (measured by new content releases) has demonstrably slowed since June 2009:
- 4/24/07 LOTRO SoA Released (Vol. I Books 1-8)
- 6/14/07 Vol. I Book 9
- 8/21/07 Vol. I Book 10
- 10/24/07 Vol. I Book 11
- 2/13/08 Vol. I Book 12
- 4/24/08 Vol. I Book 13
- 7/22/08 Vol. I Book 14
- 11/18/08 MoM Expansion (Vol. II Books 1-6)
- 3/17/09 Vol. II Book 7
- 6/23/09 Vol. II Book 8
- 12/1/09 SoM “Expansion” (Vol. II Book 9 and Epilogue)
- 3/1/10 Vol. III Book 1
Now the pattern is becoming clear. Since release LOTRO has consistently seen new content on a quarterly-ish basis until June 2009. Since June 2009 new content has slowed substantially. In almost a year we have an “expansion” that really wasn’t and the start of a new volume that basically runs us around the existing content to take up some of our time. Skirmishes are a great concept that I’m 100% a fan of, but they are also repetitive and it takes so many SM’s to level up your henchman (about 18,000 I believe) that they become quite the grind. But I digress.
Edit: Goldenstar brought up a good point in her comment about the lull before SoM. I took a look at each expansion and here is how they stack up:
MoM gave us 10 new levels, 12 new zones (Eregion, Lorien and 10 full zones in Moria), 2 new classes, six books of story and the legendary item system.
SoM gives us 5 new levels, one new zone, 2 books of story and the skirmish system.
If they needed a lull before SoM why didn’t they need a lull before MoM, which clearly offers more content? Hmmm…
A search turned up an interesting editorial at MMOHut that states, “We have already confirmed that Turbine has held serious discussions internally about converting Lord of the Rings Online to a micro transaction based game, but until an official announcement is made there’s no way to be sure whether anything will happen.” I can’t find conformation anywhere, so I’m taking this with a grain of salt. Still, it does make sense that it came up at some point in the past.
And Took a Couple Things Into Account…
One last little factoid to be aware of is lead times and projections. As mentioned before it takes several years of development before an MMO ever opens to players. Once an MMO goes live it still takes a substantial amount of time to develop, maintain and bug fix the game. Many of the major MMOs seem to have a cycle of having major expansions 1-2 years after launch and then every 1-2 years afterwards. I read or heard somewhere that skirmishes took over 1year to develop, and we know that it took 18 months for DDO to be converted to a different subscription model. The point being, nothing happens quickly in the MMO development world.
The announcement that DDO was going to a F2P model was made on June 9, 2009. In July 2009 F2P beta testing began, with a launch of F2P on September 9, 2009. Prior to the launch of DDO F2P there is a 10 month content gap.
Projections play a big part in the mix as well. When a decision is made to develop an MMO the development budget is based upon certain projections about subscription numbers and revenue. Based on the projections they can hire a certain number of people to develop the game, set up a certain number of servers, etc. Once the game is released all the projections go out the window and the MMO developer is stuck with reality. If a game exceeds projections (WoW) they will use the extra revenue to add servers and hire more people. More commonly I think, a game will fall short of projections leading to server merges (DDO, AoC, many others) and possibly staff reductions.
And Concluded that LOTRO Will be Free to Play!
Mix all of this together and here is what I think has happened:
LOTRO was launched to much fanfare 3 years ago. Given the lead times involved in the industry it is probable that the Mines of Moria expansion was planned right around the time the game launched, or shortly afterwards. Given the huge initial interest and resulting revenue surge development continued at a rapid pace for the first couple years.
Then things began to settle down as financial realities set in. MoM was an aggressive expansion that generated a lot of re-interest in the game, but probably not enough to financially justify maintaining such a hectic development pace. The yearly subscriptions that brought in so much revenue at the start began to be a drag on earnings as time went on. People left the game (as they always do) and Turbine has been particularly aggressive with Welcome Back Weekends for the past couple years in an attempt to increase current revenues.
At some point before MoM was released Turbine made the decision to convert DDO to a hybrid Free to Play game. DDO was a more mature game that had experienced a drastic reduction in players and was probably in financial trouble at that point. DDO is also set up in such a way that made the conversion relatively easy and was an opportunity to gain some valuable experience in microtransactions as the market began to trend that way. Basically Turbine had everything to gain and nothing to lose by giving this a shot.
September 9, 2009 rolls around and the new free DDO is a huge hit, pretty much going from zero to hero. Subscribers and revenues are way up and Turbine is very pleased with the results. The experiment was a resounding success and they now have concrete experience they can use for other titles.
Turbine figures that if F2P has such a trememdous impact on DDO what sort of impact could it have on the premiere title in their MMO stable? At some point the decision is made to convert LOTRO to F2P. So in 2009 LOTRO development resources were diverted to making the conversion. There was still come content in the development pipeline that needed to be released (skirmishes, end of Vol. II, etc.). So we end up with what we see in the list above — a trickle of content that doesn’t seem to match the torrent that had come out in the years before.
This would explain the half-assed SoM “expansion” very well if you think about it. If most of the dev resources were being used to convert LOTRO to F2P there wouldn’t be a ton of time left over to develop a real expansion like MoM was. So instead they took two free content updates and packaged them together with skirmishes and 5 tacked-on levels to come up with barely enough new content to call it an expansion. All just in time for the holiday buying season…
It is clear that SoM isn’t nearly as in-depth or as polished of an expansion as MoM was. Just look at the reduced price, the way it was distributed (no box) and they way they literally GAVE SoM AWAY before launch if you purchased a multi-month game subscription. I’m sorry, but you don’t give away an expansion unless you are desperate or you know something big is in the works and you are stalling for time…
Flash-forward to present. LOTRO has been in a lull for a while and news has been particularly scarce. We pretty much already know that Enedwaith will be the next new landmass. We know that we will eventually be in Mordor. Other than that there isn’t much we do know. Players are screaming for info but Turbine is being particularly tight-lipped. Like they would be before a huge announcement…
So there you have it — my thoughts on what that announcement will be. It would explain the slowdown of new content and all of those missing “dev hours” over the past year or so. It would dovetail with industry trends and the conversion of DDO to F2P. If I’m right it could revitalize this game we love and lead us on to new and better things.
Or, I could be completely wrong…