BLOG Lord Of The Rings Online goes free-to-play

Experience Middle-earth online for nothing... ish. Blogger John Cooper, level 22 hunter, tries to mend his broken willpower

This summer I spent time on the free trial of World Of Warcraft – and was happy when the whole thing came to and end, such was its easy addiction for my hopeless willpower. Now a greater threat casts its spell across my monitor as Lord Of The Rings Online goes free-to-play, inviting me to wander around Middle Earth all day and all night wearing brightly coloured trousers and a hat with bear's ears on it.

Graphically it still looks good for a game that been around for a while. I can't vouch for its authenticity to the books of Tolkien being a got-them-but-not-read-them paperphobe, but I do know the films in some detail and one thing they omitted is a hilarious version of Tom Bombadil, dancing and glowing with an odd Somerset accent. I tried to talk to Tom but was killed by a large tree.

I hate to admit it but I'm hooked. I know better but was again lured into the low-level grind of having a quest thrown at me with the promise of a nice shield, trousers or a hearty egg breakfast - I'm not kidding - in exchange for running several miles in one direction to kill something or (less violently) deliver a letter - at one point I thought I was playing “cosplay postman simulator” - and repeat until you die, then get revived at a stone circle... and then again some more, until your wife leaves you or the landlord turns up.

Finally I got to speak to Tom Bombadil, who after a few basic errands sent me off to get killed and eaten in a dingy barrow. Surprisingly I survived and managed to muster enough coins to buy a basic horse and set off exploring the land. I've been from Bag End to Bree-land performing heroics; I'd just rocked up in the North Downs for more adventure when I noticed an odd quest - a quest that I had to pay for, with real money.

LOTRO is one of the first MMORPGs to adopt the relatively new free-to-play model. Traditionally massively multiplayer online RPGs are subscription-based with a monthly fee to pay, which sounds steep, but there is a cost to run the heavy-weight servers that house these massive game worlds. By letting gamers in for free, the makers of LOTRO are injecting lifespan and value to a previously subscription-based RPG, a model being watched closely be other MMORPG franchises to see if it works in the long term and offers a viable alternative. So what price is freedom in Middle Earth?

You're free to enter the game world and there's clearly plenty to do without paying any money; the change comes as your character evolves and move up through the levels. Eventually you'll want to discover new lands and quests and these require "unlocking" at the Lord of the Rings Online Store. Here you can buy everything but the means to stop Tolkien's grave spinning. Quest packs cost points and points cost money (or can be earned in game). Quest packs vary in size and the cheapest bundle of points you can buy is around a fiver.

If I was nitpicking, the only argument I'd have is immersion. One of the best things about games is how immersive they are, especially RPGs where playing a role is kind of the point of it. Paying to play using this new method does detract a little in the immersion… but it's an invigorating change and, as I'm discovering, also a test of your own willpower too which is no bad thing. You can have it all now for a price, or have it free with time and grind. LOTRO could more accurately be described as a play-for-free-then-pay-as-you-advance game. Time and number of players will tell whether this works.

I'm Bobby Trumpet, a level 22 hunter – come find me in the North Downs. Bring a horse.

This is a personal blog by John Cooper. There is an article about the most exciting upcoming online role-playing games in SFX issue 203, on sale next Wednesday 17 November. In the meantime, find out more about Lord Of The Rings Online here , which is also the source of these glorious pictures. Feel free to share your Middle-earth experiences in the comment thread below.