Free-to-Play vs. “Unlimited Trial”

A lot of additional information is pouring out on LotRO’s upcoming switch to FTP; some cogent summary and analysis can be found at The Ancient Gaming Noob and Player Versus Developer (both blogs you should be reading anyway.) And there’s a consolidated FAQ over on the forums, HERE, which is worth reading.

Various things about the LotRO switch are making it look a little less appealing for the ultra-casual/free-only player. These stem from one obvious source of potential issues, namely that LotRO is not as natural a fit to the free-to-play model as DDO was. There’s expansion content to consider, for example – for free players who were once subscribers and who bought the expansions, how will this be handled? Information is now starting to come out to explain this kind of thing.

Ultimately, while I’m not one of those people who thinks that the traditional subscription model will be going entirely away any time soon, I think that we’ll be seeing more and more games heading down this path – mostly new games, but some older traditional ones as well. It’s harder to switch a game’s money model after it’s launched than during development, not least because one runs the risk of undercutting the expectations of existing players.

Given the success of DDO under this kind of model, I’d rather have seen it from Turbine than anybody else – and I’d probably rather have seen it from LotRO than any other game, since it’s one of those titles I’ve felt was pretty good but not sufficiently appealing to me to warrant a $15 a month fee. Turbine now insure that I and people like me will give the game another chance. And with no time constraints there’s no question that at least some of us will get hooked.

In a sense, though, more so than in DDO, it seems like it’ll be harder to play the game even semi-seriously while sticking strictly to the free content – free players will have access to much less of the game’s total content and will be playing under more onerous restrictions, like a 5 gold cap on money even for players who have spent some money on the game, which I suspect is a move to keep a boot on the necks of gold sellers. FTP LotRO will be pushing players harder towards paying the VIP fee than DDO does.

This is good and bad. LotRO is a game that fits a monthly subscription fee better than DDO did. And in a sense this package looks a lot more like the kind of “unlimited trial” we’ve seen from a variety of triple-A games in the past year or so; the difference is that Turbine is folding those players into the customer base to a greater extent, in that once you exhaust the free content, you’ll be able to drop a couple of bucks on some extra stuff to do, which may work out to lasting several additional months for some players. The modular approach takes away the commitment of paying the subscription fee.

One counter-example would be Age of Conan, which you can now play for free up to level 20. After that, although you can create an alt and run the same content over again, I suspect that most people either subscribe or quit playing. To the subscription-wary, LotRO is giving a third option: pay for a little bit of extra content. This may stretch the playable lifetime of the game from 14 days (the duration of the game’s current free trial,) to potentially many months, and I would venture to say that many, many people who spend 6 months playing LotRO even semi-actively will end up spending some money on it somewhere. This is money that Turbine simply wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

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3 responses to “Free-to-Play vs. “Unlimited Trial”

  1. I’d guess we are going to see a lot of experimenting by the established games companies over the next couple of years as they try to figure out what payment models work. The idea of a solid starting platform that is polished and fun, followed by incremental, ad hoc purchases of further content is a very attractive one for players, I’d say.

    In the games that have a mixed model of full subscriptions and “free” play, one option that doesn’t seem to have come up yet is separating the two payment groups by server. That might be less atractive to players in an already-established game like LotRO, where server-identity matters and people already have social groups set up, but in a brand-new game it might be interesting.

    Given the entrenched position in favor of paying a sub that so many current players seem to espouse in blogs and forums, it would be interesting to see a AAA title launch with segregated Subscription and Pay-As-You-Go servers. If I was in the marketing department I’d be tempted to offer what would currently be included on a standard sub at a premium rate of, say, $25.00 a month and see if there really is an elite market there prepared to pay for exclusivity.

  2. On the one hand, I more or less consider DDO to be my main game right now, and I’ve spent more since I started playing it under F2P than I would have for a sub. But… the fact that I can “put it away” and come back when I want is the real draw for me. I’m currently “taking a break” from EQ2 again since I’ve been to most all the zones in the new expansion and I don’t raid, so. . . .don’t wanna just grind the same old instances all the time. It’d be nice if I didn’t have to pay $15 a month for the occasional time I drop in to say hi to my guild or crank out a level on my dirge or something. DDO gives me that option, EQ2 doesn’t, but since I don’t want to actually cancel my EQ2 sub…. there ya go.

  3. Ironically, I think I might actually pay Turbine less money in the future under F2P than I would have if they’d stayed with subscription + expansion fees, since now I’ll only be paying for new content.

    I don’t need a higher gold cap, since I already own a mount, and I don’t need more bagspace since I’ll be gold capped. I’m not doing monster play or leveling alts anyway. Somehow, I’m resisting spending money on cosmetics in other games. From what Turbine has announced so far, the ONLY feature I really think of as a need to unlock are the trait slots, and I’m hoping to be able to earn enough points for that unlock through gameplay.