After many years in development, The Lord of the Rings Online from Turbine Entertainment launched in 2007 and offered players a chance to explore the history of Tolkien's Middle-Earth from the perspective of a hobbit, human, or elf playing through the epic saga of the War of the Rings. The game drew praise from many players for staying true to the stories of Tolkien's universe and for offering plenty of opportunities to delve into the lore of Middle-Earth by way of achievements and more quests than you could shake a certain glowing blue elven dagger at. But the game will soon undergo its most significant update yet: becoming a free-to-play game that monetizes itself through microtransactions from a cash-op (an in-game store). We recently took a guided online tour of the game as it is, and as it will be, when it relaunches this fall.
The big question for current, former, and would-be players of the free-to-play game is this: How is such a mature game with so much content already in there going to be made free to play? Turbine suggests that it will probably follow the lead of its other recently gone-free-to-play online game, Dungeons & Dragons Online. The studio currently plans to offer the majority of the base game's content for free to all players, including the ability to walk across the entire realm of Eriador and play through a huge amount of content and quests, until they meet a select few epic quest vendors (indicated with a lock icon over their heads) who will offer players the chance to pay a small amount of money to unlock a select few epic quests. In addition, the game's previously released expansions, Mines of Moria and Siege of Mirkwood, will exist as separate, for-pay expansions, which, when purchased, will unlock all their content. Turbine has suggested that it may continue to release future expansions this way (that is, crafting a huge new area to explore in a new expansion and then selling that entire expansion whole on the marketplace), though this decision hasn't been made yet.
Otherwise, the game will have an in-game store client that will sell mostly cosmetic, crafting, and convenience items intended to help busy players take some of the "consuming" out of the game's more time-consuming activities. These include traveling across the world (mitigated by purchasable fast travel), repeatedly hunting monsters, and waiting for crafting components to randomly drop as loot (you can simply buy the components outright, instead). The current plan is to make sure that nothing in the in-game store will directly affect any character's power level (so you can't simply make a stronger character by opening your wallet) and to keep for-pay currency completely separate from in-game gold. Turbine has also stated that it is committed to making sure that (with very few exceptions, such as those locked quests) players will be able to discover or purchase pretty much everything that is sold on in the cash-op without spending any additional real-world money. The in-game store uses a Web page-like interface with clickable links, though it's planned to launch only as an in-game application; it won't be accessible from outside the game when it relaunches later this year.
We started our tour by jumping to and from various areas, old and new, including the upcoming Harvest Festival event, which takes place in a hobbit village around the aptly named Party Tree (a giant tree adorned with streamers). The Party Tree is also the site for new vendors and quest givers that let players access content specific to this upcoming event, which will start in a few months. The event includes The Haunted Burrows, an instance in the village that's basically a carnival sideshow haunted house and offers lighthearted questing and mock threats in the form of phony enemies that may change your character's state (some giant spider enemies may briefly paralyze you with webbing) but won't actually hurt you or enter combat with you.
We then took a cursory look at the new story-driven content that will debut right along with the relaunch of the game, namely Volume III, Book II (the follow-up to the previous book of Volume III's content, which encompasses the early build to the War of the Ring). In this case, Book II will cover the careers of the Grey Company, an elite squad of rangers assembled to aid the nation of Rohan to the south. Over the course of the new content, your character will actually get to know these mysterious warriors and their unique personalities and accompany them on their journey to the land of Enedwaith. This journey was barely discussed at all in Tolkien's original fiction, other than it was written that but 30 of the brave rangers arrived at their destination. Enedwaith will be a much brighter area with plenty of outdoor content--a stark contrast to the game's last content update, the gloomy confines of Mirkwood Forest.
Since the Grey Company's journey was not documented in the original fiction, the story, quests, and content to explore will be all new even to veteran players. The content will also focus on exploration and lore by way of more new session play--Lord of the Rings Online's short-lived lore quests that let you relive the memories of a past character and briefly take control of said character. Session play quests give Turbine's designers a chance to tell a new story through a different character's eyes and also let players temporarily control a noticeably more powerful character in truly epic quests pitted against tough odds. The session play quest we played involved the rangers arriving at a snowy mountain pass after hearing that their king has apparently been lost. We stepped into the leather-soled boots of one of these powerful characters and began exploring the area, which was covered with furry-but-reptilian frost worm monsters that our souped-up character mopped up with ease using both his bow and his sword.
From what we can tell, with the switch over to a free-to-play model, not much of the original game experience will change greatly in The Lord of the Rings Online. The development team remains committed to bringing the lore of Tolkien's classic novels to life through new quests and new areas to explore, and it doesn't seem like the switch to a free-to-play model should be terribly disruptive otherwise. Questing, new achievements, new titles, session play, and skirmishes(short-term, repeatable, combat-heavy quests) will all still very much be a part of the game when it relaunches later this year.