To hear Teut Weidemann, the consultant featured in this recent article by Leigh Alexander on Gamasutra, Riot Games is a dynastic game with a stagnant and inefficient model that only works thanks to the size of their game, League of Legends. This conclusion ignores the history, goals, and success of the company, while simultaneously relying on weak data, shoddy analysis, and short-sighted rubrics, making me wonder if either the author or the consultant played the game past level 10.
Weidemann comes out swinging with a hard-hitting conclusion: as far as monetization goes, “it’s not a good idea to emulate LoL“. Why? Let’s dive into what LoL‘s monetization system is, according to the article.
Alexander correctly identifies that LoL has a dual currency system. The exact functioning of the system is something Alexander seems confused about. Influence Points, a so-called “soft” currency, can be used to buy all gameplay components (although it can take awhile). Riot Points, a “hard” currency, can only be acquired through occasional giveaways and purchases. Riot Points can be used to acquire gameplay components, however, the only in-game items which require an RP investment are skins – a modification of the surface appearance of an in-game component, much like these commemorative World Cup skins that make your champions look like football players.
Alexander, however, claims that “most items require some amount of both types of currency”. As somebody who has purchased every champion – well, not Fiora – a full set of rune pages, and most runes, I found this very confusing. Apparently, Riot took my money even without me knowing it. In fact, I can’t think of a single item that requires both types of currency. This may seem like a minor point, but many of their future claims are rooted in the idea that RP is the main currency of the game.
Their first complaint is based around the champion release calendar. League of Legends releases a new champion on a semi-regular basis: in 2014, about every 3 months, but in 2013 it was closer to monthly, while in 2012/2011 it was much closer to every 2 weeks.
According to Weidemann, the new champions are “always, always overpowered”. This allows “players who pay for the game [to] buy the champion immediately”. Of course, this is a problem, as it allows players to “buy” in-game power. There one tiny problem with this analysis, and it is that its two central theses are both false.
Let’s start with the claim that the new champions are “always, always overpowered”. Seven out of the last ten champions released (Gnar/Vel’Koz/Yasuo/Lucian/Lissandra/Zac/Quinn) were considered extremely weak on release, and three of the last five were buffed in the patch after their release.. Gnar currently maintains the 10th lowest win rate in casual play (46.49%), the worst win rate of any champion in ranked games (41.08%), and an embarrassing last-place 37.34% win rate in ranked games between the best 1% of players, a whole 6% behind the second “worst” champion, Olaf.
What about players “paying to buy the champion immediately”? Well it turns out there’s not much truth to that either. Gnar was played in 46.43% of casual games today. How is it that 46.43% of casual players are paying cash money for Gnar? They aren’t. You see, new champions can be bought through soft currency, just like any other gameplay content.
From there, the article seems to lose a coherent tone, as if the author simply wanted to find random things about LoL to complain about.
The game is “very hard to learn organically”
Riot’s primary game design element is transparency of content. If somebody thinks that League of Legends is hard to learn “organically”, then they haven’t played any competitive computer or video game. League of Legends pales in comparison to its main MOBA competitors, DOTA 2 and HoN with regards to the arcane nature of the game. That’s not even counting games like Starcraft, which often require the memorization of complicated build orders that can only be found by watching pro players or looking up professional guides, and have huge mechanical skill required. Many of the decisions in League of Legends, by contrast, can be mapped relatively mathematically, or I’d never have had a job!
Yes, League of Legends is a competitive game. Yes, getting better takes effort. Is basketball a bad game because you have to work out to get good? No, that level of dedication is what makes high-level play so fascinating. Yes, learning about the game takes time. Is golf a bad game because you have to learn when to use a wood or an iron? No, that level of complexity is what makes golf an engaging sport. Or so my grandfather tells me.
“populated with foul-mouthed young boys”
Yes, League of Legends has had past behavioral problems. But in fact, they have cracked down so hard on what they call “toxicity” (a topic I will be visiting soon) that many members of the community (presumably the toxic ones) have complained quite consistently that they are too strict. The article then goes on to claim that Riot had to close LoL‘s chat. Given that the in-client and in-game chat features are working currently, I can only assume this is a reference to “chat bans”, restrictions on toxic players’ ability to chat in game. Far from shutting the chat down to prevent in-game toxicity, Riot simply has chosen to limit the ability of toxic players to have an effect, in the worst-case scenario, excising those players from the game.
It is at point that the article veers into the completely baffling. Alexander runs off a list of numbers: 70 million players, 32 million monthly players, $624 million in revenue, and $1.32 Average Revenue per Paying User.
According to her, these numbers allow us to conclude that the number of players who choose to pay for content is extremely low: 3.57%, or 1.2 million players, and those players only spend about $1.32 each. According to the article, this is a sign that Riot isn’t marketing hard enough, that they should be fleecing their player base harder.
I would argue that the focus on a quality game, not monetization is precisely what makes League of Legends such an appealing game. Every Rioter I know considers their #1 goal to be the complete satisfaction of the player, whether that player is a paying customer or not. Why?
The long-term goals of League of Legends are bigger than selling a game and moving on to the next one. I mentioned before that the author makes a mistake in seeing League of Legends as some dynastic company, whose economic model only works because of the large user base. And yet 5 years ago, there was hardly any Riot Games at all. Riot Games didn’t have success because of their large player base, they have grown a large player base precisely because of the quality of their product.
So no, Riot is not focused on “aggressively increasing its revenues across… a smaller player base”. Why? Because they understand the fundamental concept of a good product: if your game is good, players will stick around and tell their friends, and word of mouth is the best form of advertisement.
Thanks to this model, League of Legends is the biggest computer game the world has ever seen and the first esport with its athletes recognized by the American government. The Season 3 World Championships drew in 32 million viewers, and with more than twice the player base this season. Riot Games thinks that LoL has another ten years in it, but even if it doesn’t, even if it tanks and dies with the Season 4 World Championships, what it has accomplished thus far is nothing short of brilliant: from non-entity to biggest game in the world in 4 years, not to mention sport!
So if you ask me, analysts should be less concerned with comparing Riot Games to other gaming companies to find their “mistakes” and more concerned with trying to figure out how they could ever be so successful.
Maybe, just maybe, Riot doesn’t have the “privilege” of ignoring monetization because of their large player base. Perhaps they have a large, invested player base because game quality – not monetization – is their #1 goal.