Machvergil Comic number 043

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Why Riot Games gets my $$$

There are tons of Free2play games on the internet.  Some are truly free.  Some bombard you with ads and others have premium stores where you spend real money for virtual benefit.   Some are indie, while others are the ‘casual’ undertaking of a massive games super publisher.  With the changing dynamics of the industry, game developers are well aware of the growing market share of gamers who are not the kind of people who read press releases from E3 or PAX.  They are not going to read about your upcoming title so they can pre-order the special edition for $100 and wear that around like a badge of honor.  These same studios are also aware that if they want to keep themselves in business, they need to tap into that market, because the ‘hardcore’ demographic has become so fickle and picky that we don’t just throw our $60 around without doing research (said $60 price tag probably has a lot to do with that).

However, a lot of people can be convinced to at least try something if it doesn’t cost them anything.  Not only that, but at no charge our expectations drop significantly.  I mean think about it, with WoW, you’re paid over $50 for the game and all its expansions, plus you are continuing to pay $14.99 a month.  At that price,  you have every reason to be upset anytime you want to do something with the game and it doesn’t work because you are giving these guys a ridiculous amount of money for the ability to play their game.  Meanwhile,  if  you go to try out a Flash game on some Flash game portal like Miniclip or Kongregate and it doesn’t load, you’re only out the time it took to load the page, no biggie.

The problem with this philosophy is that once you have people playing your game for free, they aren’t apt to stop playing it for free.  After all, they need to save their precious $60 for [Insert name of big budget Fall 2010 game here].  There’s even a real stigma about it in some cases.  I remember when I tried Runes of Magic for a month my big hook was “I better be able to play and enjoy this game at no charge because I am never buying anything at their store.”

Some of this attitude comes from a negative stigma about “buying the win.”  In a traditional video game, we all pay an opening charge and should be on an even playing field.    When we find out someone has spent more money than that to game the system, we naturally get upset because we don’t want to have to spend more money to catch up.  It’s not an alien concept, many baseball fans hate the Yankees because they can buy all the best players and be consistently good from season to season.  Free games that use in game stores therefor have to find a way to sell something to their customers without it feeling like the thing  they are selling gives the players who spend more money an unfair advantage.  Otherwise, the players, both free and otherwise, will be pushed away and go back to some game that has a more level playing field.

League of Legends (LoL) is a free to play game that uses an in game store.  It has the same issue in its concept that other free to play games have.  The difference is, in my opinion, they nail the execution.

For those of you who don’t know, Riot Game’s League of Legends is the spiritual successor to the internationally popular Warcraft III mod, Defense of the Ancients, known as DotA.  I’ll spare you a long winded description of how the game itself works, but think of it as a RTS where the base and it’s units are on auto pilot and each player controls a single “champion” who leads these auto-generated troops to destroy the enemy base.   The catch is each of these champions is unique, and the enemy team’s players are trying to stop you and destroy your base.  It results in a very dynamic game that flows freely from player vs computer play to player vs player play and back again in bursts.

League of Legends (by the way, Riot wins points for naming their game LoL automatically), is free to play.  You go to their site, make a free account and download the software.  Once its installed, you’re in and you can choose to match wits against bots to learn the game, or skip right to baptism by fire through the game’s matchmaking service.   However, just because you can play doesn’t mean the game is fully unlocked.  Every week, the team at Riot picks 10 of the game’s 50 champions (as of time of writing – they continue to add more every two weeks or so) to be available for free.  They go through lengths to make sure the 10 available champions include a number of each possible champion type (think offensive or defensive) and include easy to play and hard to play ones.  As you play with certain champions you will start to get attached to how they play and how their abilities work and how they work with a team.  At the end of that week however, that champion gets locked up again, so you can’t play him/her until the next time they are free, which depending on the champion could be a while.

Once your favorite champion is locked you have two choices.  Playing games earns you a form of in-game currency called “Influence Points” or IP, which you can spend on unlocking new champions OR on items that make your champions more powerful.  You earn more IP for playing games against real people than against bots, and after a certain point they start to limit IP gain vs Bots to encourage PvP play.  Champions range from as cheap as 450 IP to as expensive as 6300 IP.

Alternatively, you can spend real money to purchase “Riot Points” or RP, to buy your champion.  Champions tend to cost as cheap as $2 and are as expensive $7.50 per champion, with most sitting around $4.50.  Players can also choose to purchase champion bundles that include a bunch of champions for about $30, though they should make sure their choice champion is included in said bundle.

This is the point at which Riot Games makes a move that is absolutely brilliant.  By making the game free, they let you try it at no risk.  Don’t like it?  Stop playing, you’re out nothing.  Like it?  Then you’ll keep playing it, though sooner or later you’re going to develop some favorite champions and then you have to choose to pay the in-game or real money to unlock them.  You could choose to play the 123 practice games it would take to afford a 6300IP champion, OR you could just give Riot $10 for 1380RP and buy any champion you want.  You have to ask yourself, what is more valuable, your money or your time?  For some people, the answer is your money, and for them Riot is cool with you not paying them, and telling your friends to play, maybe they’ll feel other wise.  For others, like me, my time is more valuable and I can spare the money to get the champion I want now and enjoy playing them, rather than play a bunch of games with champions I don’t like as much to get them.  Besides, money spent on a champion means you saved IP for runes which will make said champion more powerful.  It’s great that you have the choice.

Add into this the game uses a level-up system to allow you to make your champions slightly more powerful over time.  Between earning IP and earning experience to level yourself up, the game also encourages you to keep playing, and perhaps be risky and try PvP matches before you might otherwise have the courage to do so.  After all you earn more XP and IP losing a PvP 5v5 match than you do winning a practice game against bots every time.

I had worried that Riot wasn’t going to make enough money on a system like this to keep themselves afloat, but Riot’s President spoke to the game’s success in a recent article, so good on ’em!  That article’s an interesting read, I recommend it.

At the end of the day though, as smart as this system for the store is, the most important thing is the game of LoL itself is fun.  If the game itself was underwhelming, then the game being free to play would just give people the opportunity to download it, try it, say meh, and uninstall it, resulting in no profit for Riot and their staff ever.  LoL’s system isn’t for everyone, and probably would never work for a single player game, but I would love to see more multiplayer driven titles use a system like this that invites new players to try before they buy, and then not mandate buying.   For now, shine on Riot!  I have enjoyed Garen, you’re newest offering, and look forward to what new champions your bring out next!

2 Responses to “Why Riot Games gets my $$$”

  1. avatar Gerard Mullens Says:

    Wow! Thank you! I always wanted to write in my site something like that. Can I take part of your post to my blog?

  2. avatar Vergil Says:

    If you reference where you got the text from before hand I don’t mind.

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