Today is an important day for LOTRO: we’ve announced that this fall, LOTRO will begin offering a Free-to-Play option! Players will be able to download the game and adventure in Middle-earth for free. With Free-to-Play comes the addition of the LOTRO Store, where players will have immediate in-game access to a wide variety of special items, account services, and convenience items.
Cue message board posts from pundits decrying the doom of the subscription MMO, message board posts from current LOTRO players 'anticipating' the flood of new players demanding milk in the Shire, and the head scratching from industry analysts wondering how this relates to the recent Warner Brothers buyout.
As for my take, it seems fairly simple. LOTRO is a game which, while fairly new (about 3 years old), is not likely to generate new subscribers. In addition, a not-insignificant amount of players are lifetime subscribers, whom Turbine will not see any more money from pending a boxed expansion. (Lifetime subscriptions in general are not a good idea for game companies - it's the classic appeal for short term cash in place of long term income, appealing precisely to the hard core players who are likely to keep a subscription in play over years). Going free-to-play not only brings a new wave of players in who would not have considered a pay-to-play model (see: Dungeons and Dragons Online, Funcom's experience with Anarchy Online) but also opens the way for cash shop gear that will appeal to all players - including the already-paid-for lifetime subscribers.
The key questions here are two. The first: Is transitioning to a F2P model sufficient to match the revenue that LOTRO's not insignificant (300k or so?) number of subscribers were still generating? One suspects that DDO's experience answered that question affirmatively, given Turbine's now going effectively all-in (minus the venerable and lightly populated Asheron's Call). The second, which is impossible to answer - does placing all of the company's bets on F2P ensure enough income to fund future projects for the studio? Or is Turbine relying on cash infusions from their new mothership for that?
We do still live in interesting times.