Back in June, when LOTRO's F2P announcement was all new and exciting, I got in touch with Turbine PR to ask them some questions about the game. Maybe my questions were too tough, because they never got back to me with any answers, but they did send me into the game to see how it is now, so I can offer some before and after comparison thoughts. Although I never got any answers to my questions from Turbine, I'm going to take a stab at answering them myself now that I've had a good bit of first-hand experience of the current status of LOTRO.
My first question was kind of an obvious one: Why? Why give up subscriptions and go to F2P? I drew a comparison between DDO's ailing playerbase prior to that game's switch versus LOTRO's apparently still healthy numbers. Could LOTRO really gather enough players who would pay enough in microtransactions to offset the cost of hosting the servers for all the free users? Then it occurred to me: LOTRO was going F2P in order to boost subscription rates.
You see, Turbine's F2P model doesn't replace subscriptions, instead it adds a free to play layer over it. Turbine maintains a "VIP" subscription offer, which essentially unlocks all the game content for as long as you subscribe, giving the game the same sort of "feel" as being in a traditional P2P game. I previously argued that subscriptions are better than F2P when you're only playing a short time, based on DDO's quest pack vs VIP treatment. Would the same logic apply to LOTRO, considering that LOTRO is selling access to quests in zones, rather than the zones themselves?
After taking a closer look at the comparison page between Free and VIP, I saw another few layers that make subscriptions far more appealing in LOTRO. For one thing, only VIPs get Rest XP (double XP for a while after not playing) and only VIPs can spend Destiny Points (various temporary buffs; however I suspect similar things will be for sale in the Turbine Store). Another big issue was the gold cap, with free to play users capped at 2 gold, but then I noticed that non-VIPs can purchase a gold cap removal, so maybe that's not as big an incentive to go VIP as I had suspected.
At any rate, the F2P treatment for LOTRO seems to make a lot more sense now, as I can certainly see a lot of free players paying for a VIP subscription for as long as they're active in the game. Buying quest packs can be irksome, because one of the nice things in LOTRO is just going around and doing whatever quest catches your fancy. On the other hand, I wonder what happens in the end-game; once you've completed all the quests, do you just cancel your subscription and buy the one or two end-game dungeons that you raid or whatever? To be honest, I'm not sure what LOTRO's end game is like.
There's another issue I wanted to discuss though, and that's Skirmishes. Skirmishes are awesome. Skirmishes are short instanced battles that you can enter from anywhere in the game world, can be tailored for 1 to 12 players, sport 3 difficulty levels, and provide you with "skirmish marks", a generic currency that can be spent on gear and other rewards from skirmish vendors. When I first encountered the system I thought it was a PVP system, like WoW's battlegrounds, but it's not: it's PVE content. Also, whenever you're in a skirmish, you also get a skirmish companion, a customizable "pet" for which you can purchase (with skirmish marks) classes, skills, and appearance modifiers.
Skirmishes are the perfect answer to the "I only have half an hour but I want to have some fun" problem in a lot of MMORPGs. If you're in a good kinship, chances are you can call out for some friends, throw a small (or large!) group together in moments, and charge into a skirmish from wherever everyone happens to be in the game world; no need for pesky gathering together! The only downside to skirmishes is that the system only becomes available to players when they reach level 30. I hope that Turbine adds some more skirmishes to allow lower level players into the system, as I think this could help boost retention significantly if F2P players are abandoning the game before reaching level 30.