League of Legends – Deconstruction
Mobile / Social games aren’t the only type of games that use the F2P business model. There have been massive success stories over the last couple of years with games like Riot Games’ League of Legends and Wargaming Inc’s World of Tanks. Over the next few weeks, Microsoft and Sony will be releasing new consoles and both consoles will allow the F2P business model for developers / publishers to utilise. As a result, I believe this will herald the true coming of the Triple-A F2P experience.
League of Legends (Riot Games)
League of Legends (often referred to as “LoL”) by Riot Games is an isometric MOBA (multi-player online battle arena) game, which is a subset of the RTS (real time strategy) genre. Players select a champion and either battle 1-on-1 against other players or form teams to battle against other teams. Unlike in Warcraft / Starcraft or even Clash of Clans, the player does not control multiple units. They are in charge of just one character and use of a character’s special abilities and strategy is the key to victory. In team battles the combination and synergy between characters leads itself to a very deep meta-game that is incredibly fun to play.
LoL has a game loop, but it’s very different in it’s nature to a typical social game loop. The primary difference is that there is no energy mechanic or restriction in place. You can play for hours on end with no hard stop in place. This is effective because when a player decides they want to play LoL on their PC, they are making a focussed choice to have a single form of entertainment to consume for a given time period. On mobile / social, many things compete for your time so it’s hard to have lengthy play sessions. So mobile/ social it’s best to half short fulfilling sessions, but on PC or console you want a lengthier (but still fulfilling) experience.
The “loop” part comes from the rewards and expansions. Every time a match is won or lost, a player receives Influence Points. A winning player / team gets more points, but even if you lose you get them. IP is then used to buff up your character and purchase runes which offer stat / skill increases for your champion. This encourages you to play over and over again as it’s always worth playing. Stat and skill bonuses can *only* be purchased using Influence Points. Even if you spend real money, you cannot immediately update these stat points.
Monetisation from the loop comes in Riot Points. When the player reaches level 3, they are awarded 400 Riot Points to spend for free, but this is a pretty small number and pretty soon the player needs to spend real money to get more RP. However, by far the most ingenious thing about monetisation in LoL is that nothing ever feels forced. Players can (and do) play for years without ever paying, but it’s always in their best interests to pay to be able to get an even more enjoyable experience from the game. This makes the game feel “fairer” and rewards players who stick around for a long time and does not give unfair advantages to players that spend lots of money.
Players can purchase consumable items called Boosts. Interestingly, boosts do not offer a competitive advantage (such as extra Health / Magic), but they let players grind at a faster rate. This is how Riot Games create a value proposition for their players. If you want to buff up the stats on your champion and need 10000IP, it might take you a solid week to do that. However, if you buy a high-level boost, you could reduce that to just one hour. This is a powerful message to send to players. Everything in the game can be attained completely for free, but it takes a long time to do it. You can increase the speed easily, but you don’t have to. This feeling of choice (even if it sometimes an illusion) is what makes the game so lucrative.
Boosts make a big difference when a player has multiple Champions as it can be hard to get enough points to increase stats for all owned champions quickly, creating an additional motivating factor.
No “pay to win”, but “pay to compete”
Another big difference between mobile / social and PC / Console F2P games is that in the latter, it’s a very bad idea to have “Pay-to-win” items. In Rage of Bahamut, if I fight another player, I can get a massive advantage by buying powerful cards. In League of Legends however, player skill governs who wins. Even if I have spent £20K on League of Legends, it does not offer many competitive advantages over a player who has spent £50.
For hardcore games, creating too many (if any) pay-to-win scenarios drives off your free players and stifles the growth of your community. This reduces your monthly active users and drives down potential conversion.
Therefore if there is one lesson to be learnt above all others from LoL, it’s to make a game that is fair and balanced between non-paying and paying players.
However, notice though that I’ve titled this section “pay to compete.” The best way to think about this is in a similar way to competitive sports players. I can go to a pool hall and borrow a cue and play against anyone who is there. However, a serious player will own their own cue that suits their style of play. In LoL, players can pay to increase the maximum capacity of their Runes (and recently their Mastery). A player who has 20 pages of Runes therefore has an advantage over a player that only has 2 pages of Runes. However, this mechanic is capped. A player can’t spend £10K on acquiring thousands of runes to give them an unfair advantage. Instead it means that the game naturally forms two distinct categories, paid players and free players. Once a player is happy to spend, they will buy all of the rune pages for their character to be able to compete with other spending players.
However, its also important to note that a really skilled player could win despite being handicapped by not having many runes. Player skill plays a massive element in the metagame and gameplay of LoL.
Champions / Skins
As LoL does not have a loop that lends itself directly to monetisation, most of the revenue from the game comes from the hero characters of the game, called Champions.
Players start with one champion, but there are over 100 to choose from. Every week, some of the other champions in the game can be selected for free, allowing players to pick up and use them without paying. These characters are free only for a timed period (usually 2-3 weeks) after which players must pay to keep them. This is a really great system as players who are engaged with the game have something new to try regularly and if they like the new character, can buy them outright. Champions have different prices and are sometimes put on sale to encourage players to buy them.
Existing champions also have new skins released for them. Skins are different costumes or appearances for existing characters and look really cool, although they offer no in-game changes. All Champions are also balanced and Riot Games updates and patches the game regularly to keep the overall meta-game fair. Although players work out optimal strategies and tactics, through a system of ability counters / champion differences, the game is always fair to play and as a result incredibly fun.
New Champions are also introduced into the game every 3-4 weeks. New Champions usually have new abilities or mechanics that make them feel fresh and different. Often new characters also seem more powerful than existing characters, but usually this turns out to be as a result of unfamiliarity with the new characters. If they really do turn out to be too string, then Riot Games balances them and makes them fairer. This means that when characters are initially launched, many die-hard fans buy the new character and re-engage and it’s a great example of how new content increases sales. The key here though is that characters are not too difficult to make and so many can be released frequently.
Competition / Community Driven
League of Legends is a very hardcore game and many people have become rich by becoming professional players. Tournaments have massive prizes and games are streamed online around the world for people to watch. LoL is not just a game, not just a sport. For it’s most passionate fans it’s literally a way of life.
Riot Games have over the years managed to find an incredible ability to reach out to their community and make the game something that transcends gaming and feels like a blend between a hobby / sport / lifestyle. This shows the power of understanding the people that love your product and tailoring and tweaking it so that those players / customers are super-engaged with your product.
League of Legends has it’s own carefully balanced and weighted economy. Players initially rank-up quickly but soon reach a point where it takes longer to progress. This makes it worthwhile spending to get boosts to rank-up at a faster rate.
When we look at the amount of points that are earned per dollar spent, we see that Riot Games have balanced their economy so that players are offered significantly better value for spending large amounts of money. Interestingly though we see that up to $50, the ramp is fairly linear, whereas for the highest pack value increases phenomenally. Quite simply this means that if you really like LoL, spend lots to get better value! Given the fact that the game is fun and fair, I expect many players do spend large amounts of money on the game and are happy to do so.
Many companies are now realising that games are not just a single self-serving product. Customers are happy to play a game for hundreds, sometimes thousands of hours if it’s engaging and fun. If a game therefore has new content, rebalances and mechanics, players are actually even more happy to keep playing and keep paying.
Riot Games update LoL every few weeks, looking at which tactics are overpowered and what feels unfair for their customers to play against. When you make a competitive game, it’s almost certain that certain characters / strategies will be more powerful than others. For example in real life in Formula 1, the Red Bull racing team has a faster car than their rivals and win more races as a result. If something similar in LoL, the game would rebalanced so the car was less fast so that it was fairer for the other teams. This keeps people playing as the game becomes more and more like a sport over time with there being a multitude of strategies that are viable.
After initial success from a very fun product, Riot Games could have tried to make their game more accessible / friendlier for the mass market to increase revenue and grow their game. Instead they chose to stick to being not just good at what they provide, but 1st in class. Players stick to their game like superglue and with 12M DAU, many of which will be super-engaged high spending / repeat customers, their business model makes perfect sense. And this is a game that is fun, fair, balanced and addictive. Players are happy to pay because they want to and not because they have to. Or at least it feels that way. All-in all, what a great job!