Of course the answer is “yes”. All businesses want to make money. That’s why they exist. The publishers who put out and maintain MMOs are all more than happy to accept your money, whether it is from the initial purchase of their game, subscription fees, collectibles, expansions or buying whatever fake currency their game uses.
But the deeper question here is this: Do MMO publishers want your money?
I throw this out there because some kinmates of mine who participated in the Helm’s Deep beta came back with some opinions on the changes and have been talking about them since the NDA was lifted. In a discussion about the merits of the class changes between the beta testers and the developers, one of the impressions a couple of them came away with was Turbine saying, “If you don’t like the changes, go away.”
Let me start by saying that I did not participate in the Helm’s Deep beta, so I am not privy to the beta forums and did not participate in the conversations that went on between the beta testers and the developers, so what I am relaying to you is at best second hand. In addition, even though the NDA was lifted, the beta testers still may not copy or quote anything directly from the beta forums.
Apparently, in responding to complaints about some of the changes, person(s) representing the dev team said something to the effect of, “90% of LOTRO players were casual players” and if “the other 10% don’t like the changes, tough [cookies].” My friends went on to say that the general feeling is that the game is being nerfed so that it’s easier for casual players to access and advance at the expense of hardcore raiders, who feel that the changes are not beneficial to the game.1
Without getting into the merits of that argument,2 let’s boil this down to the root issue: money.
Turbine is in the business of selling something. With LOTRO, they’ve got a brand that is very strong, especially with the second movie in The Hobbit series coming out in six weeks or so. They’ve also been very successful in monetizing the product that they have using the free-to-play micro-transaction model that wrings cash out of subscribers and non-subscribers alike.
So what risk does Turbine take when they intentionally alienate a portion of their subscribers?
Earlier this year, I was in the market for a new car. My list of “essentials” (ie-showstoppers) looks like this:
- Rear or four-wheel drive
- Six cylinders
- 3 pedals
There are some other features I like to have, but aren’t necessary (red, 2 doors, navigation, heated leather seats, etc.). But if you take that feature list and compare it to the available cars in my budget range, there is a very short list of vehicles out there for me to consider, with nothing in my preferred brands.
The question there is: Do automakers care about what I want?
For the most part, the answer is “no”. To date, the best-selling passenger cars/trucks for 2013 are:
- Ford F-Series
- Chevy Silverado
- Toyota Camry
- Dodge Ram pickup
- Honda Accord
- Toyota Corolla/Matrix
- Honda Civic
- Ford Escape
- Honda CR-V
- Nissan Altima
It’s all pickups, sedans and crossover SUVs. There’s nary a sports car/mid-life crisis in sight. I fully realize that what I am looking for in a car is way outside of what mainstream car buyers want, but I think this also plays to this particular circumstance.
Sure there’s the V-6 Mustang and Camaro, but my personal experience with both Ford and GM is less than complimentary, and they make it hard as hell to find one with a manual transmission.3 There’s also the Nissan 370Z, the BMW 328i and Hyundai Genesis Coupe. But the days when there were a wider variety of cars in this market (3000GT/Stealth, Supra, RX-7/84) are gone. In fact, I’ve been begging Toyota for years to bring back the Supra, but the closest they’ve come is the FR-S/BR-Z project they ran with Subaru, and I don’t want a 4 cylinder car.5
My point is that many automakers have intentionally abandoned this market segment because it’s not profitable. Toyota doesn’t want my money. Mazda doesn’t want my money. Mitsubishi doesn’t want my money. Honda doesn’t want my money.
That leaves me (the consumer) with the choice to either go to a different manufacturer who still sells the basic kind of car I want, buy used, move into a different price bracket, or buy a product I really don’t want.
Based on what my friends have said about their interactions with the Turbine devs and marketing team, I think we’re seeing the same thing with MMOs.
I don’t mean to pick on Turbine, but you know that Trion, Perfect World, Blizzard, EA, Sony et al employ legions of demographers who analyze the market, their subscriber base and the game to see what parts are the most profitable, and weighs the risks/rewards of any changes made to the game in terms of the balance ledger, not based on how well received any changes will be on the forums.6
So the MMO publisher looks at who is costing them the most money, and who is generating the most money. In the case of LOTRO, what portion of the subscribers are hardcore raiders? What portion are casual players? Who falls in-between? Who is buying points from the LOTRO Store?
Yes, the raider may be paying $15 a month for their subscription. But they may also have bought a lifetime account for $200 three years ago (when they were on sale), and is now generating no monthly revenue. In fact, the person with the lifetime account is costing Turbine money because they’re taking up server bandwidth but not contributing to the coffers.7 Even if they paid $300 for their lifetime account, after 20 months at the standard LOTRO subscription price of $15 per month, that account is a liability—not an asset—to the game.
To what end should Turbine go to make its players happy? After all, without subscribers and paying customers, MMOs go away. What recourse do you (the player) have if they make changes to your beloved MMO that you not only don’t like, but loathe?
As a consumer and patron of Turbine’s game, the only real leverage you (individually) have is to cancel your subscription and tell all of your friends that you would prefer not to patronise their product.8 It is the threat (real or perceived) of a boycott or economic sanction that aligns the product of a service provider with the demands of its customer base.
How many players have to leave for Turbine to take notice? Will players really leave after the class changes? What percentage of the players who leave will be replaced by new subscriptions?
For me, I don’t have any comment on the changes to the game (although I am a bit apprehensive based on what I’ve read and heard from my friends) and I won’t say until I log in and play under the new system.9 But we all know people who don’t handle things well when the cheese moves, and they may bolt for the doors the day after the updates go live.
The bigger issue is this: Does Turbine even care what you or I do?
If Turbine decides that they would rather chase casual players than hardcore players, that’s a conscious business decision that they’re making. That is, they’ve determined from their data mining that their revenue streams are not coming in from the 5% of players who log on from 7 PM on Friday night, play until the sun comes up, and who belong to kinships that require 30% percent participation in all raids in a month or a player is demoted or expelled.10
Their money is made from the folks who pay a monthly subscription fee, and then shell out real money to buy fake money to purchase items/rewards/fluff in the game, and then go back for more. After all, how much real money is generated from raiding or grinding dailies as opposed to festivals?
Most players are not hardcore raiders. Hardcore raiders may devote tens of hours per month playing LOTRO, but that leaves their revenue per hour played very low, unless they are also spending gobs of real money purchasing Turbine Points from the store.
One thing I’ve also noticed is that every time there is an expansion or change to the game, there is a certain portion of the player base who kvetches and complains and threatens to leave. Some actually do, some are just making empty threats and some people leave but end up coming back for some reason.
Another issue which comes to mind revolves around matching the kind of game players want with the kind of game Turbine wants to sell. Do players want a raid-centric game? Some certainly do, but others find the music and cosmetic system to be their thing. Others like playing creeps in the Moors. Others like role-playing. Or crafting. Or whatever.
LOTRO is an old (by MMO standards) game, and it may be nearing the end of its life cycle. When I started playing (just after Mirkwood opened), I read that they planned to have about 7 years’ worth of source material at the rate expansions were being developed. Unlike say, WoW or SWTOR, there is a defined end to plot when Sauron is defeated, the Hobbits return to the Shire and the Fourth Age begins. What will be done when they run out of epic story? Replace LOTRO with another Middle-Earth game? Ramble on “as is” until someone shuts out the lights? What if we are seeing the groundwork being laid for a completely new engine?
One other thing I wonder about is whether the old mechanics alienate new players because of all the nuance and grinding. Is the intent to steal players from other MMOs, who by now are used to WoW’s talent tree system, because that seems to pervade all new MMOs?11 If the changes do drive subscribers away from LOTRO, what portion will return when a suitable replacement game cannot be found?
I fully understand why Turbine is gearing their marketing and gameplay towards the casual player. That’s where the money is. To pretend otherwise is foolish.
And that’s why the roads are flooded with Camrys, while I am still desperately trying to find the spiritual descendant to the Supra now that I can afford one. Whether I permanently leave LOTRO for another game remains to be seen.
- I want to reiterate that I do not know exactly what was said, either on the part of the beta testers, or on the part of the people representing Turbine. I am relaying what I was told and my friends’s impressions of the game and Turbine’s official responses to criticism of the class changes. ↩
- I will address the class changes and review the Helm’s Deep expansion after I’ve had a chance to play the live version. ↩
- My ’87 Taurus died on prom night (in 1990) and my ’01 Alero was the biggest piece of crap anyone ever slapped 4 wheels on and called a “car”. I’m also not a muscle car guy, but that’s also a matter of personal preference. ↩
- Yes, I know the RX had a rotary engine; I owned one, but I’m throwing it in because it fits the class. ↩
- I ended up with a Genesis Coupe 3.8 Track, in case you’re curious. ↩
- Pandas, anyone? ↩
- And they’re getting 500 Turbine Points every month for “free”. ↩
- As I indicated previously, lifetime subscribers have even less leverage because they cannot cancel their subscriptions, and it may very well be fact that Turbine would rather those players not utilise their accounts, which are not generating any monthly revenues. ↩
- Having said that, I’ve already dropped my account to F2P once, and I’ll probably do so again when my current 3 month subscription cycle ends because I’m spending a lot of time playing SWTOR. ↩
- That number of 5% is something I just made up. It’s a guess, really. The percentage of hardcore raiders among the player population may be more or less than that, but that’s my general estimate. ↩
- And before you say, “Trait trees should never be in LOTRO!!!”, remember that they’re already in the game. The mounted combat trait system is the WoW-style trait tree. ↩