Monday, 25 April 2011

Free to Play

In grad school I had a group of friends who liked to relax on Friday evenings by playing board games and role-playing games. Apparently that alone made us geeks, even if most of us hadn't also been studying computer science and engineering.

The Olde Gange has long since dispersed to the ends of the earth. I never found a new group, and computer RPGs weren't anywhere near as much fun – until I found out about Turbine's “Massively Multi-player Online RPG” based on Tolkein's Lord of the Rings novels. The theme alone was enough for me to pre-order the original Shadows of Angmar in 2007, and I've had a lot of fun with it since.

MMORPGs often require you to pay for something to install on your computer (the “client”) then pay a monthly fee to access the actual game (on a “server” Internet site). Last September Turbine went to a new business model: You can now download the client for free and play for free as long as you like – but you're limited to what's in the starting regions, and have some potentially annoying restrictions on other things like how much Stuff your character can carry around. To unlock the rest of the game you pay “Turbine Points,” which cost real money. Clearly they hope that enough people will get hooked on the early parts of the game so they'll pay for the rest. It turns out that you can also earn Turbine Points by completing various in-game “deeds.” Some people look at the prices for new regions (600-1000 points) versus the income (5-10 points for most deeds, with many taking several hours of play) and decide the in-game rewards just aren't big enough.

So, just how much of the game can you actually play “for free?” Asking that question caused my inner geek to surface: instead of speculating and arguing, model and calculate.

To a systems design geek a model is an abstraction that throws away some detail of the real thing to give something easier to deal with. A good model gives you answers that should reasonably match what goes on in original.

The first step in modeling how free play works is gathering data. As far as I can tell Turbine only tells you the rewards as you encounter deeds in-game. Fortunately lots of people have been playing the game, and some of them have recorded what they found. So I put together a spreadsheet and found that by doing absolutely everything in the free regions (Ered Luin, The Shire, Bree-Land, and the Lone-Lands) you can earn 775-995 points (depending on how well you do on the hard-to-quantify “reputation deeds”), which is enough to pay for the next region (North Downs: 595 points when I checked). So, yes, you can earn a bit more free content in-play. Unfortunately, by the time you finish paying for and playing the North Downs, you don't have enough points to pay for another region.

But as with most initial models there's an implicit assumption: that you only play one character. Some people want to try out different Races (Dwarf, Elf, Hobbit, Man) or Classes (9 kinds), and are willing to play through everything a second time. It turns out that Turbine lets you play two characters for free. Any points they each gain go to your overall account, and you only pay for new content once per account. With two characters, you can get the Trollshaws and Angmar, which add up to most of the original game, with 345-1155 points left over. Moreover, by the end of the North Downs you have enough to pay for a third characters instead (595 points), who can earn enough for another region or two. Also, there are 15 servers, and their points add to your overall account – though you'd interact with a different bunch of people on a different server, which might interfere with the social part of the game.

Of course, for lots of people there's no replay value in a second character, and Turbine gives you plenty of other things you're going to want to spend points on, too (including a lot of stuff us old-timers had to earn in-game, but that's a different flame session discussion).  I'm a lifetime member, with access to all the content already, so the points are only useful for those “other things” – the “fun” stuff that makes the game a little more pleasant, like extra storage space. So, your mileage may vary. I really do think most people will pay for points eventually – thus making this post of direct use to only a limited audience.

But that's the way it is with a lot of things us geeks find interesting.