'Lord of the Rings Online' Makes an Offer That's Hard to Refuse

Free to play, and worth your time

MMORPGs are where franchises go when their owners decide that the downfall of civilization is worth a quick buck. It takes a special kind of bastard to take unprecedented level grinding, incremental character progression, and spreadsheet-building and package it in a product which resonates with a demographic obsessive-compulsive enough to find such chores enjoyable.

In a way, I'm glad that World of Warcraft is such a monolith in the genre. It has held 50 percent or more of the MMO market since 2006. I can get behind that kind of evil, if only for the certainty it provides. World of Warcraft may be a Sith-run empire enslaving our youth and slowly consuming or destroying all the non-porn aspects of the Internet, but at least you know who's manning the turbolasers on the Death Star.

A corollary to this is the sick pleasure I get to experience every time some upstart tries to get a piece of the MMO pie. Watching developers dash themselves against a 12-million strong subscriber base is a nice change of pace from shouting and waving my fist at Blizzard Entertainment for releasing another WoW expansion instead of finishing Diablo 3 already.

But like the bacteria that are right now evolving to become further immune to penicillin, some MMO publishers are adopting drastic new tactics to try to claw out a foothold in the market. Veteran also-ran MMO developer Turbine has recently raised the bar on desperation moves by offering a majority of its flagship title, The Lord of the Rings Online, on a free-to-play basis.

Instead of charging a flat monthly rate for access (with an additional upfront cost to purchase the client software), Turbine has decided to let the product speak for itself. Players interested in grinding their way through dozens of fetch quests with a Middle-earth theme can now download the LotRO client directly from Turbine and have at their fingertips all the basics of the game.

"Sounds great," you're probably saying, "but how the hell are they keeping the doors open? Those server farms aren't going to pay for themselves." Why, through the miracle (read: industry-wide plague) of microtransactions, of course!

Compared to what was recently a "full" version of the game, the free version of LotRO is a bit anemic by design. Turbine has deliberately throttled back their gratis offering in an attempt to turn free players into paying customers. Several aspects of the game can be either accessed or uptweaked through a quick visit to the LotRO Store, which offers everything from riding skills to storage space to new character classes and playable areas.

It doesn't quite neuter the free experience, but considering the mindset of their demographic, Turbine's plan is an almost perverse inversion of the norm. The MMO player is the closest Gollum-analogue the real world is likely to produce anytime soon. Every dedicated MMO-er has a distinct (if practically incomprehensible to the rest of us) vision of how much his "investment" in his MMO account is worth. He may see it as a question of time, money, effort, or (rarely) real-life opportunities lost, but no matter what metric he uses to measure it, the sum total is invariably way too much to stop at this point, turning the player's MMO account into his Preciousss.

By dropping the universal subscription model, Turbine has shaken the abaci which so carefully tabulated the social failures of their customer base. A lesser attempt—something like Mythic Entertainment's "unlimited trial" of Warhammer Online—would have been risky; cutting a swath this wide out of their users' perceptions is downright ballsy.

Ballsy, but effective. Turbine's "first hit is free" strategy may bring closer the comparison between MMO purveyors and crack dealers, but from a financial standpoint, it makes perfect sense. After Turbine tried the same thing with Dungeons & Dragons Online a year ago, subscribership doubled and income rose by 500 percent. The month following LotRO's switch saw similar results; Turbine reports one million new LotRO accounts, a 20 percent return rate of former players, and LotRO income levels double those from a couple of months ago.

So what we have here not only simply works but also potentially signals a sea change for the traditional MMO model. While it probably won't shake World of Warcraft from its lofty perch, Turbine's gambit may well do just as much for MMOs in a completely different way. LotRO is on the fast track to proving the survivability of an MMO outside of the Blizzard hegemony, and by losing the mandatory monthly payment, Turbine has effectively removed one of the greatest obstacles between the genre and the more casual gaming demographics.

Now if somebody could figure out a way to make MMOs less of a chore to play, we might actually have something.