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The Road to Mordor: Gated communities


This past week, many of us were shaken out of our self-absorption with LotRO's F2P switch as we were suddenly joined by -- of all things -- the good folks at EverQuest II. I don't think anyone could've predicted two such high-profile MMORPGs moving to a subscription/free-to-play hybrid model this year, which makes LotRO and EQII comrades-in-arms for the time being. Both titles are currently in testing, with their F2P release coming this fall.

Other than the mutual surprise of two game communities that were taken off guard (except for that one guy who, y'know, totally called it and won't stop crowing about it), there are a number of similarities as both SOE and Turbine look to replicate DDO's F2P success and bolster both the number of players and number of dollars coming in to both games. However, there's certainly a major difference in how the freebie players will be handled: LotRO is integrating them with subscribers on normal servers, whereas EverQuest II Expanded will segregate the free players on their own unique servers.

So I thought that this would be an excellent time to talk about one of the crucial factors of F2P switches, which is the potential growth and/or fracturing of the game's community. Which MMO has the better idea, LotRO or EQII? Hit the jump for my thoughts.

Elitism vs. hospitality

While I think it's an exaggeration to say that nobody likes change, we certainly are creatures of habit and resent change when hits a part of our life with which we're already comfortable. Throw an uncertain future at us, even one laden with promises of a better life and sparkly things for all, and we tense up and feel anxiety settle at the base of our skulls. I don't blame LotRO players who are nervous about this fall's switch -- heck, I am too. I know how things work now, but even with Turbine's reassurance and DDO's history with the switch, I can't say with certainty how everything's going to pan out. Best-case scenario, players pour into the game, Turbine makes more money, Turbine updates LotRO more frequently, and our MMO's lifespan extends further. Worst-case? There's a contingent that's pretty good at coming up with those, culminating in ludicrous claims of Turbine collapsing into a black hole and taking the universe with it.

Somewhere in the middle of these points of extremism are the more-likely scenarios and plausible concerns. The biggest worry cited by LotRO fans is that this move will fracture the community or dilute it with uncouth savages who will barge in with verbal graffiti and spoil what a lot of people have worked very hard to create. I'll attest to LotRO's sterling community, one of the most welcome, patient and helpful gaming groups I've had the privilege to experience. And from what I've heard from my friends in EQII, they have a similar tight-knit family that takes pride in both their game and the quality of their players.

However, right now the problem is that nobody can prove one way or the other whether the influx of free players will help or hinder the community, creating a time of limbo before we know for sure. For some, it's a positive opportunity; for others, an attack on their gaming lifestyle. Ergo, the community demonstrates two overriding attitudes: one of hospitality, and one of elitism.

The elitist attitude says that the game is fine the way it is right now, that all the people currently playing constitute the "real" fanbase, and that if they had to play the game a certain way, everyone else should as well. They resent what they see as moochers coming in to munch on the free content, moochers who have no strong incentive to be an uplifting addition to the community. Elitists fear trolls and jerks, and out of that fear is born a self-fulfilling prophecy: All of the new players are seen as trolls and jerks, whether they actually are or not. Elitists want to shield their community from corruption, and tend to become hostile and closed off due to that desire.

Then there are those with hospitable attitudes who choose to see free players as a blessing rather than a curse, and who are marshalling forces to come out and greet them with open arms. Hospitable folks want the same end result as the elitists -- the continuation and preservation of a terrific community -- but choose instead to incorporate new players into the fold instead of shutting them out. They do this by highlighting to others what makes their community great, taking the time to mentor new players in the ways of the game and the social circles, and wielding positive peer pressure to counter trollish behavior.

Both groups acknowledge that change is coming and that our reaction now as a community will impact the game for years to come. The only question is which way we will go.

A tale of two servers

What's fascinating is that SOE and Turbine are taking sides in how they structure the new versions of their games. Turbine wants integration between freebies and subbies (is that even a word? Ed. - No, it is not.), and will be throwing both types of customers into the same mix. SOE wants segregation between freebies and subbies (Ed. - Still not a word, Justin.) and is simply separating the two groups on two different types of servers.

So does that make Turbine hospitable and SOE elitist? Eh... I think the labels don't strictly apply, although you could certainly take the stance that they're catering to one group over the other. It's also important to see that Turbine and SOE have different visions for their new freebie playerbase. I think SOE is pushing harder for free players to up and subscribe to the game (in either regular or Extended format) whereas Turbine is hunky-dory with either subscriptions or microtransactions, as long as it's getting something out of you.

From what I've read about EQII this week, some players are satisfied that their subscription service won't be sullied by freebies littering their landscape -- but there's also a vocal group that is genuinely worried that any and all new players will immediately head to the free servers instead of ever setting foot on the subscription ones. The worriers wonder if this will cause the old game to dry up in terms of numbers, like a river's flow being diverted to other regions.

Of course, I'll bet you that there are those in LotRO who wish Turbine would take this route and keep free players in an isolated ghetto, preserving the integrity of their experience without shivering with distaste when a free player asks a question in the advice channel.

I'm strongly for an open community, not a gated one, because I feel that it offers the best future for the game, period. I think it's a huge mistake to get into an "us vs. them" mindset, especially when you fall into the fallacy of labeling any free players as stereotypes. Gamers are gamers, each with their positive and negative sides, and must be treated on a case-by-case basis instead of lumping them together as a faceless mob. I'd rather be associated with a community that welcomes, helps and teaches others instead of a community that is known for its selfishness, elitism and hostility.

And I'd hope you would too.

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