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Looking at the current gaming marketplace, it’s amazing to see the changes we’ve made over the last five years through our spending habits. Where $60, boxed retail games were the norm, now digitally distributed titles are the way to go for gamers who want convenience and easy storage. Likewise, the “freemium” pricing structure — play for free, pay for perks and customization — is increasingly becoming more prominent, with multiple companies looking to capitalize on this piecemeal method of consumption.
A lot of people, however, aren’t totally sold on the concept of freemium gaming. There always seems to be a catch, especially when the tendency is for developers to lock away from gamers content that would normally be accessible to get them to pony up extra dollars. Similarly, most freemium games don’t offer much in the way of a game experience comparable to a retail product, relegating them to the status of novelty games that cater to an extremely specific niche audience.
Honestly, even as it becomes more and more commonplace, the freemium structure isn’t something I thought could work. That is until I was persuaded to try League of Legends. After seeing how developer Riot Games approaches the concept of a free-to-play game with paid perks, I’m confident that the model can work so long as developers follow suit and attempt to hit these simple-yet-critical tenets of freemium game design.
Offer a quality product
Free doesn’t mean cheap. Sure, most gamers won’t pay — statistics are conflicted, but the general consensus is that only 5% of gamers put money into freemium products — but the people who do are funding your continued success. If you’re going to put out a freemium product, you need to make it valuable to your paying customers.
Riot Games took this concept to heart when they designed League of Legends. To explain with wondrous acronyms, LoL is a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) game, a genre made popular by DotA (Defense of the Ancients), an extremely loved Warcraft 3 mod that most connected gamers have at least heard about in passing.
The genre consists of players directing their individual champions across a standardized battlefield made up of three “lanes,” pushing A.I.-controlled minions (“creeps”) back, and fighting the opposing team’s champions and defenses. The goal is to defend your lanes until you can make a sufficient push to destroy the enemy’s base.
So, how does a simple real-time-strategy hybrid based on a free mod justify its existence? High production values are key. From the main login screen to the interface and in-game graphics, the overall presentation and atmosphere of League of Legends smacks of quality and effort.
The models and assets might not be on par with a Crytek game, but at no point does League of Legends resemble Farmville, Mafia Wars, or any of the other (relatively) low-cost productions that similarly demand your disposable income incrementally. League of Legends feels confident like Riot doesn’t need your money. Paying for low-cost freemium games always feels like charity; paying for League of Legends feels like an investment.
Sampling leads to sales
When you begin League of Legends, you have nothing. You’re a Level 1 Summoner, and without any Influence Points (the game’s soft currency earned from playing the game) or Riot Points (hard currency purchased with real money), you don’t get to choose which of the 80-plus champions you want to bring into battle.
Many champions cost at the equivalent of $7.50 USD each; how do you get somebody to take a chance on a new character that they might not take to? The solution is to allow them to try without ever implying that they need to buy.
Every week, Riot offers a free rotation of ten champions that every player has access to. The selection is generally made up of easy-to-use characters, some more interesting choices for accomplished players, and a recently released champion. And while two players on the same team can’t pick the same champion, there’s enough time in the week to test drive each of the free champions in both player vs. player and player vs. A.I. games.
While it may seem like Riot is shooting itself in the foot by giving away so much free content — and realistically, it’s possible to live off of these free champs and never buy anything — the ability to sample the wide range of character options does lead to sales.
Are you completely enamored with Ashe, the frosty archer? If you play well with her and want to keep using her after the free period is over, there’s a definite impetus to purchase her from the in-game store to unlock her forever in every game mode. Sure, you could play for a few days to earn the Influence Points necessary to unlock her, as she’s a low-cost champion, but for newer or more complicated champions, paying $7.50 USD or so far outweighs the amount of grinding necessary to own them forever.
The first hit is free; then, it’ll cost you. It might seem greasy, but it works. Since the product is of such high quality, feeling bad about the purchase after the fact is rare since players get to sample Riot's a la carte content beforehand.
Provide something for everyone
The aesthetic and feel of League of Legends is reminiscent of World of Warcraft: fantasy mixed with rudimentary technology. Within that loose visual framework is the potential to cater to every conceivable demographic, and while this usually spells doom in game design, Riot found a way to vie for everyone’s dollars at once.
The trick is to design individual champions for different groups of people, instead of trying to make every character and visual component appeal to everybody. Champions typically range from dark and brutal (Tryndamere, the Barbarian King) to sexy (Sona, Maven of the Strings). But that’s not all! Like Todd McFarlane? How about Cho’Gath, a dead ringer for Violator? Or, if you’re into pirates, why not try out Gangplank or Miss Fortune? Equal opportunity racketeering!
Like ninjas? We’ve got at least three of them! Collect them all!
There are even champion selections for the cutesy-loving crowd. A wide range of Yordles (think gnomes — except the males have hampster features) is available for your saccharine needs. But the fun doesn’t stop there! Werewolves! Vampires! Vampire hunters! Trolls! Robots! Whatever your interests or leanings, you’ll find a champion to like and purchase.
In this way, League of Legends appeals to everyone — folks who like hardcore fantasy tropes, Anne Rice and Twilight fans, and the chibi-loving crowd. That means everyone’s money is up for grabs.
Focus on community
Want your game to be successful? People need to play it and keep paying for it incrementally; you need to give them a reason to keep going. The reason is generally other people who are also invested in the experience; however, just getting a bunch of folks who like a game together does not a community make. You need some grease to help those gears turn.
Riot’s biggest step towards creating a healthy community for lies in the Summoner’s Code. This list of guidelines and standards acts as a peer-review system, where serious infractions are sent to a special Tribunal forum for voting. Multiple offenses can mean a temporary or permanent ban, locking a player out of his precious purchased content, so there’s a definite impetus to be cool to your fellow gamer.
While it’s not a 100% effective method of jerk weeding, it does set the tone for Riot’s commitment to the game, a commitment that is bolstered by the personalities that run the show. The people at Riot are passionate about what they do, and it shows.
At public events and tournaments, expect to see Nika "Nikasaur" Harper, David "Phreak" Turley, and other prominent Riot staff walking around, interacting with fans, and wearing custom Riot uniforms with their handles readily visible. Putting community managers and producers on the front line definitely helps to establish a personality for the company and its products, and the ease of which a regular player can interact and chat with key development personalities is one of the things that makes League of Legends such an interactive and inclusive experience.
Likewise, the level of customer service Riot offers is something a lot of other freemium developers could learn from. Recently, a promotion involving Riot’s Facebook page allowed players to unlock a free champion, Tristana, plus a special Riot recoloring of her regular skin. However, the process to unlock this free content was broken for many users, so on the advice of a friend, I submitted a support ticket. Within a day, I had an apology over the inconvenience I was caused, and Riot Girl Tristana had been credited to my account.
While that might not be incredibly impressive, my experience with Riot at PAX Prime 2011 really cinched the importantance of good customer service. While waiting in the two-and-a-half hour line to play Dominion, the new League of Legends game mode, I finally reached the front only to be asked to wait 20 minutes for the next game, as the other people behind me didn’t want to break up their teams. I agreed, and for being “such a cool guy,” I was given $10 in Riot Points for my trouble and allowed to leave the line temporarily to stretch my legs.
That made me feel valued, and it’s something no other freemium developer attempting to court my wallet has ever come close to. It’s just one more reason why I now believe that freemium as a distribution model can definitely work — so long as developers stop treating it like a clever way to wrestle people’s money out of their pockets and instead treat it as a new way to deliver a great and memorable experience.