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League of Legends and the top of funnel imperative for F2P
by Ethan Levy on 10/30/13 05:11:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


When it comes to free-to-play, few games are held up as paragons of virtue as frequently as League of Legends. When writing about my practice as a monetziation design consultant, LoL and TF2 are the two games that come up whenever anonymous internet commenters let me know how much they hate me and all F2P games with these two exceptions. LoL, and by extension Riot, is a smash success on every conceivable metric: from daily user engagement to workplace happiness of employees to valuation at time of successful exit, Riot has crushed it.

As part of a forthcoming article I’m writing on LoL, I decided to take a good, hard look at its first time user experience (ftue). When working in F2P, the ftue is simultaneously one of the most important places for a developer to focus his effort and one of the most underserved parts of a game.

Based on my experience in game development, the forces that result in an underdeveloped ftue (in both paid and free games) are natural and somewhat inevitable. Implementation comes near the end of development, frequently during a crunch period in the lead up to launch. Tutorials generally involve a lot of one-time use code or script to guide the user throughout the game. Outside of the test team, game team members are unlikely to revisit the ftue regularly or if they do, overlook it as a series of rote steps instead of examining it with intention.

On the business side, F2P can be viewed as a numbers game that is about volume, conversion rates and optimization. F2P can also be viewed as a relationship where it is the developer’s goal to provide as much delight to the player over as long a time period as possible. I believe that both schemas are valid and necessary to successful F2P game design.

Viewed from both frames, having the best ftue possible is imperative to running a successful business. From a numbers perspective, many of the most effective improvements a developer can make to his game are at the top of the funnel. Optimizations to ftue will affect the largest pool of users and can have the largest effect on profitability until the game has crossed certain retention benchmarks. A frequent course correction I make after discussing metrics with a developer is to force him to look at and improve the ftue instead of making his live game more feature rich for a miniscule pool of late game users.

From a relationship perspective, the ftue is the developer’s first impression. Just like in the world of human relationships, the effects of making a positive first impression cannot be overstated. A hallmark of the F2P model is a low barrier to entry. This force which makes it easy and risk free for the player to install a developer’s game makes it just as easy for him to abandon the game for another within the first five minutes of interaction. Losing players is an inevitable part of F2P game operations, but making a strong, positive first impression goes a long way in helping a developer engage his players.

Which brings us back to League of Legends. Let us assume the player has been surfing the web when he see an advertisement for LoL. After months of thinking, “I really ought to give this game a try,” the player clicks the ad and is directed to We can assume that over the years of LoL’s live development, this page has been a/b tested to death by the marketing team at Riot and they feel that they have optimized this flow to the best of their abilities. Sign up is step 1 of the funnel.

Next the player must download and install the game. Downloading the installer is step 2 and running it is step 3. We can assume that some percentage of players download but never run the installer, and that this loss is inevitable. Little can be done to improve this metric beyond sending the player an email after X days that he has registered his Summoner name and failed to sign into the game for the first time.

Step 4 is playing the game. In between, the player must use this launcher to download and install the game files. For the sake of simplification, we will end our funnel with conversion to paying user as step 5, ignoring all events between playing the game the first time and making a purchase.

Anecdotally, when I went to install LoL last night and was hit with this installer, I left it open and surfed the web for a few minutes. Then I pulled out my Vita and tried to beat the hospital level of Hotline Miami for at least 20 minutes before it was clear I still had at least 30 minutes of downloading remaining. I moved on to other activities, eventually went to bed, and in the morning closed the installer and went about my work.

It is reasonable to expect that some portion of players who download LoL and install it never actually hit the play button. My assumption based purely on examining this funnel is that the new user loss at this step is meaningful. Look at that launcher screen through the eyes of a player who has never played League of Legends (or any MOBA) and has zero emotional investment in the game. Unlike the signup page which is custom tailored for the new player, this screen is rife with confusing information he has little to no context to interpret beyond experience with other games. The first impression LoL makes in its relationship with the player is “if you don’t already know what you are looking at, you don’t belong here.”

I have no idea what LoL’s real metrics look like. To illustrate the imperative nature of optimizing the top of the funnel, I am going to make up a bunch of plausible metrics as a thought experiment. The numbers themselves are not meaningful as much as the message: as a F2P developer, it pays to optimize the ftue.

For the sake of the thought experiment, let us imagine that the LoL pays an average of $2.85 in user acquisition costs per new registration. What effect can improving the game launcher for first time players have on the ROI of a user acquisition campaign?

Further assumptions: 2% of new registrations never download the game and 5% of those players never run the launcher. Of the players who run the launcher, 20% never open the game for the first time. Finally, of those players who ever open the game, a healthy 3.5% convert to paying players with an industry leading $125 customer lifetime value.

Given these original values, a team within Riot works to improve the launcher, lowering the percentage of players who open the game from 20% to 16% (a 20% reduction in player loss between steps 3 and 4. What are the effects on a paid user acquisition campaign to install 100,000 Summoners?

If all other metrics hold constant, the optimized funnel will result in an additional 130 paying players from the 100,000 new Summoners. Campaign revenue will increase from ~$41k to ~$57k. The campaign’s return on investment will increase from 14.33% to just over 20% (a nearly 40% increase in effectiveness). $16k in additional revenue may not sound earth shattering, but now let us assume this played out on the scale of a $10 million user acquisition budget instead of about $300k. This single optimization at the top of the funnel would produce over $500k in additional revenue.

 Here are my numbers for review in case I made any errors. Olive green cells are inputs.

As I said, these numbers are purely hypothetical. Only the team within Riot knows what the funnel really looks like and how much revenue could or could not be made by optimizing the launcher. Only someone within Riot could evaluate the potential upside of running experiments on the launcher to try and optimize the number of new accounts that end up playing the game. Once this figure was calculated (let us assume it is roughly $500k annually), the team could determine if it makes financial sense to allocate manpower to creating a version of the launcher that detects if this is your first ever log in and serves you specialized content – such as a series of videos on how to play, or interactive flash content that teaches you the basic interactions of the game – with the purpose of boosting retention metrics at the top of the funnel.

The larger point here is that on a F2P game, it is imperative that the developer make the best possible first impression with his player. Only by examining the performance of each step of the first time user experience can a developer make sure he is laying the groundwork for a successful, long term relationship with the player.

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Dane MacMahon
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The 20% number doesn't surprise me. I can't tell you how many times I have installed a game on impulse, or because I plan to play it when I'm done with something else, before realizing I don't actually want to play it. If Valve shared such information the number of times PC gamers download and install a game, never run it, then uninstall it, would be pretty startling I bet. So I'm not sure a large portion of that 20% can be accurately blamed on any kind of first impression.

There's also the fact that there's such a free-to-play push right now despite every single one of those games being very specialized for a certain kind of gamer. Online, loot-focused, grindy and time consuming. Not everyone is going to be into that kind of gameplay, no matter how much hype there is which causes a player to give it a try. Hence I would guess quick drop-out rates are par for the course.

Rob Graeber
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A custom launcher for first-time players sounds like a good idea, really anything sounds better than the usual boring launcher that most games have.

Tomasz Mazurek
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Your analysis in general case is correct and would be spot on for a more casual title. But I don't think it's valid for League of Legends. You see, after passing the launcher, the new player gets hit with immensely complex game with one of the steepest learning curves in the mainstream gaming right now. It took me (a seasoned gamer) at least a week of everyday playing before I could play against other beginning players without making a fool of myself and actually enjoy the game. I can't imagine anyone who would at the same time be unable to pass through the launcher, but able to play the game, enjoy themselves and become a paying member. That is of course excluding possible technical difficulties with the download, which is what probably happened in your case.

Ethan Levy
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The launcher alone is just one piece of the overall first time user experience puzzle. As you say "the new player gets hit with immensely complex game with one of the steepest learning curves in the mainstream gaming right now." Although this problem cannot be "fixed" it can certainly be optimized by making targeted improvements to reduce the amount of time between playing for the first time and enjoying yourself as a player.

On a game with the scale of LoL, even tiny improvements to the ftue to get more players over that learning curve has the potential to generate millions in additional revenue.

Freek Hoekstra
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I do believe the isntalls blizzard introduced with Starcraft II were great, telling the backstory with some nice music,
I thought that was a very nice introduction and got me very excited to finally start playing the game, much better then your average install I'm x % complete.

I don't really see the reason for the "play" button eather, when doen updating just take me to the login screen and let me know you;re done by starting the music. (which can be muted as well).

alternatively for the first time install one could also let players create their account while installing, present them a little bit of introductory information, instead of makijg the registration and fdownload 2 seperate steps, one on a website and one as a download after the fact, * the launcher seems to be mostly a browser anyways.

anyways lots of these small tweaks could probably help a lot imho, (reduce laoding times plz :?)
still I am honestly surpriced by the populatrity, don't get me wrong I play LOL myself and enjoy it, but it is a hard thing to get into, the barrier to entry is pretty steep and I'm just surprised such a hardcore game (with such a strongwilled community) doesn;t scare off more people even if it is free.

Joe Augustine
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Great article.

It is sad that some of the great games fails to provide a decent user friendly experience when setting up the game even if the game itself is most intuitive. To some extend this could be improved if the game development team is part of this process as well. In many companies there is a big disconnect between the team who strategize the games vs installation/deployment team. Maybe Apple is an example in this aspect, focusing on end to end experience.