After a gradually broadening beta that lasted for more than six months, Riot Games' PC multiplayer action/strategy/RPG hybrid League of Legends: Clash of Fates has launched. But as a free-to-play experience with optional paid "customization and convenience," the work for the Los Angeles-area developer is only just beginning. To generate revenue, the company must continually add new content and features to its game, fostering a community willing to choose to incrementally invest in the experience.
League of Legends is heavily inspired by the mega-hit WarCraft III mod Defense of the Ancients, which pioneered a gameplay mechanic that is being featured in an increasing number of commercial products, and former DOTA caretaker Steve "Guinsoo" Feak is a Riot designer.
Earlier this year, Gas Powered Games released Demigod, which draws from DOTA, while Riot will be competing with S2 Games' upcoming Heroes of Newerth as more direct DOTA successors. DOTA's current custodian is also now employed by Valve, creating the potential for even more big-name competition.
That crowded market means each individual studio has its hands full trying to attract the large and vocal DOTA community while expanding the reach beyond the existing hardcore audience out to the broader market.
Gamasutra sat down with Riot Games co-founder and president Marc Merrill and lead creative designer Shawn Carnes to discuss how the company plans to do just that, from its low-cost business model, to usability concerns, to breaking free of the grip of publishers.
You've had quite a long, relatively public, beta leading up to release. Is that a necessary part of development for a multiplayer game like this?
Shawn Carnes: Yeah. I like a long beta process. I worked for Blizzard, and when we were doing [World of Warcraft], we took a year or so -- it felt like a year, anyway. A long beta process is really good, not just because we're working out the kinks of the development, but because balance is such an integral part of the game.
Tom Cadwell and the designers have been spending a lot of time [on balance]. I mean, we're trying to balance 40 champions and making sure there's not an overwhelming strategy, like one or two champions that outright crush. The long beta process really helps.
It also ties in a lot with our philosophy, which is we're nothing without our community. So, during this time, we've been able to generate a lot of interesting and good work through the feedback of our community, working with them, talking with them, and them giving us great feedback. It's worth it. The short answer is, it's worth it.
Can you speak to how the design has changed as a result of the community?
SC: Absolutely. The strongest one that comes to my mind, because of what I do, has been feedback on the colors of the map. We went through a huge pass where we took another look at the whole color palette. Because we have a very painterly style, it gives us a broad range of options into making champions.
However, that painterly style was really too bright, and it popped too much. Eventually, if you get three champions on the screen fighting one another and you get a bunch of minions, you can't really see what's going on. Our community was invaluable about giving detailed information -- "Whenever three or more champions are on the screen with all the big particle effects, here's how I can't figure out what's going on."
Through iteration, we've been able to help isolate the champion on the screen better, all based on feedback from the community. We've been able to tone down the color palette but still make it look rich and exciting. That to me, in my mind, is a great example of how the community has really helped out.
I assume you expect balance to still be a perpetually ongoing process.
SC: And it's actually going to be a really difficult process, too, because while balancing 40 and tweaking things to make sure, at some point, you get to sort of a maintenance point. But we're going to be introducing five champions a month, or four champions or month, or something. It's difficult enough balancing those four, but how those four interact with the existing 40, sometimes you have to go back to square one.
That seems like a fairly quick pace.
SC: Yeah. Because we're offering the game for free, it's part of our credo. We're in the business of servicing our community, and to do that, we have to introduce not only new champions, we're going to introduce new maps, new game styles for these maps. We're going to be introducing new customizable skins for the champions.
We're really dedicating as many resources as we can to the ongoing development of the game. I mean, it's really important. Without our community and without a bunch of people playing this game, it's nothing, so we need to please them.
How does your business model accommodate that if it's free?
SC: I'm starting to think of it as more than free. You can play the game from start to finish, engage in all the content, and never spend a dime. What we do is we sell two things. We sell customization, and we sell convenience.
When you download the free client, you get like eight champions to start with, and that eight is going to be a constantly rotating cycle of champions moving in and out. However, what you can do is you feel like you're up for it, is can spend money to purchase Riot points to unlock various champions.
But as you play the game you gain influence points. Those influence points can unlock those same champions. You can also do it for skins. There will be some degree of exclusivity of skins, but not necessarily from a monetary standpoint. For example, everyone at PAX got a free alternate version of [playable character] Card Master. I believe his cloak says PAX 2009 on the back of it. There will be some degree of exclusivity in that regard.
The second point I was talking about is convenience. The summoner system is our persistent metagame. A League of Legends game takes like 30 minutes. It's a little faster on average than a DOTA game.
So, when you're done with a game, you are a summoner controlling that champion that you just played with. You'll be gaining experience as you play, so as you advance in levels, more and more options are going to open up for you. Various summoner spells will open up for you that otherwise couldn't use. New champion options will open up for you as well. And you'll also gain mastery points.
It's sort of our take on sort of the WoW talent tree, but very focused on champion manipulation and a better manipulation of your summoner spells and the rune book. So, as you progress, more slots on your rune book open up, and you're able to fill those with runes.
Marc Merrill: We have two types of currency for the business model. One is Riot points, which you can purchase directly with real money. The other is influence points you earn just by playing the game. The thing we think we're going to sell the most of is what Shawn's talking about -- this convenience of leveraging your time more effectively by buying boosts, which increase the rate at which you gain influence points. It's kind of like a double-XP weekend in WoW, where you can level up your summoner slightly faster per game you play, or you get more influence, which is how you unlock a lot of the cool stuff in the game.
Players are always going to feel this scarcity of these influence points -- "Wow, I've played a bunch of games, and there's so much cool stuff that I want to unlock. I want these champions. I want to get these runes. I want all this stuff. Ah, I wish I had more influence points." And you can get them just by playing so you never have to spend any money, or if you're a guy like me, I'll go, "Okay, I'm going to play six games this weekend, so I want to play the double influence point boost."
SC: Let's say Marc can play 40 hours a week and I can play 10, but we want to play together. Now, just so we're clear, a level 1 summoner can still trump a level 30 summoner. It's all skill-driven. But if I want to stay close to him and I want to still feel like I can hang with him, I can use these boosts to basically keep up with the Joneses, so to speak.
MM: Essentially, I'll have more options the more content I have and the more games I've played, because I'll have access to all 40 champions and stuff like that.
Have you gotten any nervous reactions from the community about that style of monetization?
MM: Yes. Certain people, when they're not familiar with it, they ask, "Wow, are you going to sell power?" That's the number one thing that people are concerned about.
The good thing is that the answer to that is absolutely no. You cannot directly buy an increase in power. I can't buy a champion that somebody else can't go unlock, because then I would have an advantage.
If, say, a ninja guy is considered really powerful, and someone else can buy him but I don't have him, that's lame. Similarly, if I can go buy runes directly, which increase the power of my summoner, that's also not cool, because then the guy with the biggest wallet gets a bit of an advantage. But all that stuff is driven by influence points, which you can get by playing.
SC: Our community has been very vocal about all aspects of the game, including that. Getting back to the whole point about talking to the community, we have a good relationship with our community and we're trying to build that as well. They've been giving us feedback and actually posing questions that we need be posed. So, yes, they've been concerned about it, but through the effort of being as transparent as we can with the community, I think we've done a good job educating them. I don't think they're nervous.
MM: A lot of the guys are initially like, "Hey. What is this?" because they're not necessarily familiar with it. It's not a model that is used in a lot of games in North America. That said, when they get educated about it, they recognize, "Wow, I literally never have to give you any money at all. I can unlock everything. You're essentially building this awesome game with a big budget and all this, and giving it to us."
Essentially, the reason we're doing this is because we believe if we deliver tremendous value to the end users, we'll be rewarded with player loyalty, and over time, we'll have a very large user base. And even if a subset of users do spend any money with customization options and things like that, it will be sufficient, especially because League of Legends is going to be operated globally, so every piece of content we create gets exported to a very large audience.
SC: I don't want to rattle Riot's saber too hard here, but really this sort of business model to me is super exciting. When you put out a game and you sell it for $39.99 or $49.99, sometimes you get the feeling that once it's out, the developers are like, "Okay, we're done with this. We're moving onto something else."
With this business model, we're saying to the customer, "Look, we're with you on this 100 percent, and we're going to give you that level of support that you expect with a lot of these games." We're going to be rewarded by the customer through our hard work. That's a good relationship. That's a good feeling.
MM: It's not about a big launch date. It's about growing the community over time.
You're still offering a flat fee version, though.
MM: We're selling a collector's pack, which essentially comes with a bunch of unlocked champions right out of the gate as well as some exclusive content that you can only get in the collector's pack. That will be available both at retail for guys who want the box and some cool stuff, or digitally online.
One of the things that's cool about the business model is that player accounts are going to have value, because they're going to have this scarcity of these cool champion skins and things like that. They're going to gain value over time, with the PAX skin as an example.
SC: With the collector's pack, you're basically doing a front-loaded purchase of stuff that you could normally do through the store, but we're also tossing in like a really nice custom map. We're also giving you like $10 in Riot points just for buying the game. In essence, it's like $10 off already.
MM: It's the best value we're probably ever going to have available. I don't know if I want to say ever. But it's a great value, because the price per champion for this bundle is way less than it would be if you a la carte spend time or Riot points to get them.
SC: And it's important to have a store presence like that -- having the box in a store, on a shelf. There's always good value with that. We have great partners with THQ, and GOA in France, and we'll be launching in China with Tencent, so we're very excited.
Looking at the landscape right now, S2 is making Heroes of Newerth, and recently, there was Demigod. Those are both also DOTA-inspired, Newerth moreso. What do you think about the growing ecosystem of DOTA competitors?
MM: We think it's actually awesome because we really do believe, and this is reinforcing what we've been saying for a long time, that DOTA has pioneered a new genre of games that's going to continue to expand. Our philosophy, of course, from day one has been to improve upon DOTA to simultaneously make it deeper for the hardcores while lowering the barrier of entry to reach a much larger audience.
That's why we're making the game free, why we focus a lot on usability, why we custom built our own backend and all this stuff. It's stuff players have been asking for for a long time. The other games are great in their own way. We think it's great.
SC: I absolutely agree with Marc. The more the merrier, frankly. This type of gaming, because it's team PVP dependent, requires a rich and robust community. You have to have a large community to support it.
So if there are a bunch of people doing their different takes on DOTA, addressing the issues that DOTA frankly can't ever address -- because there's only one map, and the graphics are going to be nine years dated and they'll never improve, and it's locked into the WarCraft III engine -- it only grows the community. And our philosophy is that the bigger the community, the more people are going to be enjoying this style of games.
MM: It's growing the market. It's like when the tactical FPS first came out. It's a different spin on it. We think we're going to be growing the market substantially, of course, because we're so focused on usability. As the pie gets bigger, as the tide rises, all those are raised, etcetera.
One of the most common experiences you hear about DOTA is how unforgiving it is for newcomers.
MM: "You're the noob. Get out of our game, you feeder."
SC: If they don't kick you out before you download the map, then you get crushed.
So you guys are directly addressing interface usability, but how do you actually keep the play experience from just being that DOTA scene all over again? A lot of DOTA players are joining over.
MM: This is my favorite question actually. From day one, that's been one of the biggest focuses that we're trying to solve with League of Legends. It's why we have the really advanced matchmaking that we have. It's why it's so easy to hop into teams with players that you know and want to join the map the picked. It's why we're focusing on building a really robust tutorial that we're about to release into the game.
It's why we spent such a high amount of time really studying the interface elements of what critical piece information is or isn't being delivered, and then creating UI solutions to address those needs, just like the ability to deselect your character -- again, fixing a legacy issue of WarCraft III. We have a recommended item tab in our item shop that's also extremely intuitive -- "What items do you want to get? Do you want to be defensive? Do you want to focus on offense?" Things like that. You know, just really trying to empower the user with information through the game so they cannot make really bad decisions and so they can learn.
We've found that when the sharks are playing with the sharks, they have a greater experience. When the minnows are playing with the minnows, they have a great experience. When the shark plays with the minnows, nobody has fun. So we're also doing things in addition to the matchmaking, like having a noobie island concept, where summoner levels under a certain level can only play other summoner levels of a certain level.
And this is something that we're really never going to be done with. Shawn is leading the effort on the tutorial and a lot of the stuff. We're going to constantly improve the experience. To allude to some things to come also, right now, League of Legends is very PVP focused, but we're experimenting with different gameplay modes that are more PVE oriented -- co-op, and things like that. Because the gameplay of leveling up a character and buying items and whatnot is really extensible far beyond this style of gameplay, we're going to have different game modes that we think can reach broader market segments.
The low-level island you describe reminds me of the tiered league system Blizzard has announced for StarCraft II.
MM: That's interesting, because that sounds similar to the design that we have with our leagues that we're going to be rolling out, and our tournament system that we're rolling out. We're incorporating this stuff into the actual backend itself so players can host their own leagues and tournaments and all that. There's a very similar concept there.
One of the coolest things about having our business model is we can also reward positive player behavior. We're going to have a thumbs up/thumbs down reputation system. When people are actively contributing to the community on the community site -- our community is attached to the backend account -- we know who's good and who's doing great things.
We can reward them with influence points. We can reward them with champion skins, exclusive content, and things like that, because we really do want to have a great positive community, and the developers are leading the charge.
That's why we all directly speak to the community, unlike most companies that have one community manager who is the voice, and that's it, because they're afraid developers are going to say something. We're transparent. We're open. We want to engage direct with the users, and our guys have been doing a great job. I think the community has reacted really well and have rewarded us for that. We think as the user base grows, that will just continue to happen.
SC: The size of our company, too, really helps. Having direct access to the actual community in this industry is kind of a new concept. It's a bit alien. Being able to communicate and directly get feedback and have it affect your work, it's totally invaluable.
How big is your company?
SC: We're about 45 to 46 paid staff.
MM: Between 40 and 50. It fluctuates between interns and stuff like that.
So when you say the size of your company is an asset, you mean the smaller size.
SC: Yeah. This company, in my opinion, is very agile, especially in working with the community. We're able to get that feedback and incorporate it at a very rapid pace. Some companies have to filter it through -- PR sends it to QA for analysis, then they send it to developers.
There's stuff that gets lost in translation. Especially for a product like this, which is all about PVP content, it's important for players to understand what's going on. It makes it totally worthwhile to be able to get that feedback directly. It's like pulling it right from the tap and being able to do something with it.
That has been traditionally more common with PC developers, particularly smaller ones, who don't have to go through a platform gatekeeper or anything like that to update their games.
SC: In my opinion, developers are starting to understand that if PC gaming is going to continue, then the type of games that we do needs to shift to fully recognize that. We're doing exactly that, [with] our ability to take customer feedback and be very agile in implementing it, and providing things that would be very difficult to do on the console but still have that arcadey feel to it. You'll start to see companies being really smart about that.
MM: From the business perspective, we think there's never been a better time as a developer to go direct to the end user, because [of] a lot of macro industry factors and technology. One of the main value adds that publishers traditionally have is the ability to drive customers, but when you're going directly to consumers through online-type games, the publisher doesn't necessarily a lot of value in that regard. Their primary competitive advantage has always been distribution.
If there are other ways to leverage distribution to get your games in front of a lot of people, that creates a lot of opportunity for developers. Then there had to be a business model shift as well to create a model that will sustain a live product and a live service, which is why we view launch as the start of the game, not the end.
We really look at this as operating a service to users. It's almost analogous to the "software as a service" transition that hit the enterprise software industry. "Games as a service" is going to continue to come out. There are a lot of companies that are working on things right now that are going to continue this trend in the future.
In addition to distribution, though, publishers also provide funding.
What's the solution to that part, from your perspective?
MM: That's a great question, and in fact, my business partner [and Riot Games CEO] Brandon [Beck] spoke at GDC Austin exactly on that topic -- alternative sources of raising capital as a developer. As part of going direct to consumers and owning a larger portion of the value chain, the economic equation can be vastly different than the traditional publisher developer model.
Yes, publishers generally fund development, but the developers get a terrible end of the deal. Developers really create all the value. Publishing is arguably a commodity where they say, "Hey, I can market this game or do operations or customer service," yet the splits from a revenue perspective don't necessarily match that.
A lot of the developers that have created hit franchises but that don't own the IP, they don't necessarily do really well. That's something that helps drive developers to want to find additional ways of seeking funding and additional models that capture a larger percentage of the value chain. If the only value publishers are adding to online games is funding, it's probably not worth giving up the lion's share of everything -- whether it's tech, tools, or IP -- and having them recoup all their costs and take that massive percentage of net or of gross. In good scenarios, it's just not worth it.
SC: Speaking as a designer, having been on sort of both sides of the fence -- working in a development house that's funded by the publisher and working in this [independent] environment -- I have to admit I really prefer doing my design work in this environment.
I've seen far too many times, for better or for worse, the publisher exert pressure on the developer affecting both iteration and innovation when it comes to design. Here, because we have our own bankroll basically, we're able to execute what we feel is best for the product ourselves. If we're successful, that's great. If we fail, then it's our fault.
MM: Just to comment on that, that's not to say we aren't data-driven or that we aren't trying to understand the end user or that we don't have sort of business minds or that we don't think from the publishing perspective. We absolutely do. In fact, we probably have better and more detailed metrics than most publishers. The difference, though, is that we're able to kind of marry both the perspective of the end user -- because we directly speak to them -- and are building the game with the business perspective of driving economic value as well.
One of the things I think we do really well at Riot is to understand what the customer's needs and wants are, what our development perspective should be. And that's not just from a feature perspective, but also from a monetization and content perspective. If you're delivering tremendous value, there are ways to monetize. And that's really what we're trying to do.
Are you guys looking to get onto external distribution networks, like Steam or others?
MM: Potentially, we're talking to them about that. We have a pretty focused customer acquisition strategy initially, because there are a lot of users who have played DOTA in particular who have been asking for this type of product. There are a lot of things we can do to go acquire those customers on a much lower cost basis than we could through more traditional means, which is part of why it made sense for us to go direct to consumer.
But this is not necessarily a mass-market game right out the gate. As we add more game modes, we believe that it will be. At that point, we want it to go a lot broader. So our strategy tends to focus on initially tailoring the game and the marketing efforts on converting the core, building the audience, and then expanding beyond that.
If you envision the market as kind of a donut, the inner circle is the core DOTA user, and the adjacent market is the WoW PVP arena guys, etcetera. Then there are the mid-core gamers, who are guys who like playing Counterstrike or various other session-based games, who are competitive and would probably like this game, too. Or RTS gamers. Then finally there's the broader online gamer as the farthest, outermost circle, which we think we can reach in the future.
The PC is an interesting market in that respect - it's so massive, but it's much more fractured than the consoles. I assume that by the outermost circle you're referring to casual users of things like PopCap games or even Facebook games. How do you attract them to a game like this?
MM: To us, it's all about crafting content that's going to retain people. We look at the audience as different market segments that have different interests, wants, and needs. We believe there are ways to educate people, to grow them into the competitive PVP experience.
But there are also a whole bunch of users who are just never going to be interested in that type of game. The casual 35-year-old demo that loves PopCap Games -- PopCap is amazing, by the way -- or the Zynga [social gaming] audience, that's a very different play style. That being said, one of the cool things about the free-to-play model is that it does lower the barrier to entry. You can reach a much broader audience. And Facebook can become an effective means of acquiring customers. But we would approach that by being very focused initially on particular keywords or particular age demographics that that we think our gameplay matches.
As we add additional game modes, we would then brand them differently to target other user groups that we think would match the customer segment that we'd be looking at more effectively. It all comes down to kind of a cost-per-customer-acquisition and what the lifetime value of the user is.
There's a whole system of metrics that we've devised and that many other companies have as well - [Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates and Bang! Howdy developer] Three Rings and so on -- that look at it from a pure dollars and cents perspective. If the cost of acquiring the customer is less than the lifetime value of the user, that's a very scalable business model, and you can go acquire users all day long.