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Interview:  League Of Legends ' Merrill On Succeeding With Free-To-Play Core Games

Interview: League Of Legends' Merrill On Succeeding With Free-To-Play Core Games

May 3, 2010 | By Chris Remo

May 3, 2010 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC

The free-to-play business model seems to find the most success with social, casual game players. But plenty of core titles are gaining ground in successful implementations. One of these is Riot Games' League of Legends, a multiplayer PC title that's something of a spiritual successor to WarCraft III mod Defense of the Ancients.

As of February 2010 -- three months after launch -- Riot Games' League of Legends, has seen 1 million downloads, and company president Marc Merrill tells us it's monetizing even more strongly than plenty of social games.

In this interview, Merrill talks Gamasutra through the intricacies of supporting a free-to-play userbase in a game like League of Legends, the ways that the team has grown, and the direction in which Riot Games hopes to build from here.

What have you done since launch, in terms of live support and improving monetization?

Marc Merrill: We launched our in-game store to kick off monetization, which is exciting. A big focus for us throughout 2009 was just getting a product ready to go to market. We looked at the initial feature set for launch as our minimum viable product -- the start, as opposed to the end, of League of Legends.

Our entire team has actually grown since launch, and we continue to be pretty much 100 percent allocated to League of Legends. We've added five or six new champions, which are totally different. We've [recently] rolled out a new three versus three map mode into matchmaking, which had been in practice testing for a long period.

There's a whole bunch of new features that will be bundled and rolled out as a major update called "Season One," which will kick off the hardcore competitive scene and get us into more e-sports competitions -- features like draft mode, ranked games, matchmaking, leaderboards, and ladders, which our players have been asking for.

How do you determine what needs that work? Is it mainly based on player metrics, or direct feedback, or what?

MM: To a certain extent, yes, but also we just have time now to go back and continue to polish. Because the game's live, we're always going to improve things over time. We love our style and we love our color palette and character design, but some of the areas could push the envelope more than we're doing on the tech side. So, we're going to be adding cool bells and whistles to satisfy gamers on the higher end of the spectrum.

There's also the "around game," experience where users log in, visit the store, and get news and buddy lists and things like that, which will be receiving a face lift as well as a lot of feature upgrades.

You said you've grown your overall team. How big is Riot now, and how big were you before?

MM: We're about 65 right now. We'll probably be close to 90 by the end of the year. Our initial expectations have been blown away, which is awesome. [Gaming community service] Xfire now ranks League of Legends as the fifth most-played online PC game, behind two franchises we're okay being behind, World of Warcraft and three SKUs of Call of Duty.

The gap between us and number four is pretty big, but we think we'll continue to close that. It's exciting. We've exceeded our expectations, the team morale is really high, and the community is loving the game.

What's your primary revenue driver at this point?

MM: Virtual goods. We don't do advertising. We don't have subscriptions. It's 100 percent virtual goods. It works. Games as a service works. You can deliver core content to core users for free, and if it delivers a tremendous value to them that's highly replayable, people will spend money.

What kind of average revenue per user do you see?

MM: I haven't announced that stuff yet, but it's north of what you see in the industry averages. When compared to social games, we're many multiples higher in terms of percentage of users who do spend money, and our monetization is deeper. That's because users are more engaged with these games. But the trends are still similar to what you'd see in a Zynga title or things like that.

Do you think that's related to the nature of your audience, which is a particularly hardcore crowd who may be more willing to dive deep into a game?

MM: Absolutely. The reason virtual goods and free-to-play works is because you can have all sorts of options for people to spend the amount of money they want. Really hardcore guys can spend a ton of money. You're not capping the amount of money they can spend. People who don't want to spend any money don't.

We have certain users telling us, "I haven't spent any money yet because I'm in school, but I love you guys, and I can't want to do so." We're fine with those guys, because we're building this relationship. We're building a very loyal community. It's a great dialogue and interaction we have with users. We've cracked that nut from a business model perspective.

I last spoke with you before the game was released, and at the time you said you were really going for hardcore users - people who know what this kind of game is - and then later you'd push out to the peripheral audience. Has that been happening?

MM: That's a great question. We're still right now focused on the core. There are a bunch of alternative game modes that we're working on that will help us reach a wider audience.

Right now the game is very PvP-centric, so we want to make sure we've really nailed that and can satisfy our core audience, which is why we're focusing on rolling out Season One -- it really delivers a lot of these key competitive features -- prior to going a little bit broader.

We're doing initial designs and prototyping for alternative game modes that are really replayable but more forgiving. But those things will be coming later in the year.

While League of Legends isn't really an RTS game, you have a heritage with Defense of the Ancients and RTS, and it is a very competitive game as well. Do you think all the attention on StarCraft II will bring more people to e-sports and competitive gaming, and maybe trickle down to you?

MM: We hope so. With any major blockbuster title of the likes of Starcraft II, we think it will sort of suck the light out of the universe for a while, and all the attention will be on it. So we expect to see a dip in active userbase as it comes out.

But, overall and in the longer term, it's a great thing. Already a bunch of our players are in the beta of Starcraft II. As soon as they get beta access, they go play it a little bit, and then we see them right back playing League of Legends again. It's something that complements the genre. We think Starcraft II will bring a lot of players back to the PC space, which we're thrilled about.

One great selling point that we have is that our game is free and very accessible and really fun. Even though it's competitive and intense, it's actually still less intense than a real hardcore RTS game experience. If you make mistake in Starcraft II, your game is over. Sometimes, you don't even know why you lost, and it's really, really, really hardcore.

But don't people make that same claim about games like DOTA or League of Legends?

MM: Yes, but, you know - while Starcraft II has a really robust single-player, if you want to compete in the multiplayer and win more than 10 percent of your games, you have to be very intense and really focused. I'm not trying to say that League of Legends is super accessible, but the moment-to-moment experience actually does allow for rest and different forms of gameplay.

You can have the intense team battles, but then you can go farm a little bit and do some PvE and go back to base and heal at the fountain and do item shopping -- things like that. It's this natural pacing that happens, like in Counter-Strike, where you have really intense action for three minutes, shooting guys and running around the map, then you get killed and you get to hang out a bit.

World of Warcraft and a lot of other games have a similar pattern of intensity, then a break, then intensity, then a break -- whereas an RTS game is straight intensity the entire time. It's more intense, I would say, from a consistence perspective.

You've made a few mentions of less-intense game modes. What are you working on in that vein?

MM: We're still finalizing which modes we'll actually launch, but they're replayable and they're all multiplayer. Some are co-op, some are PvE, some are PvEvP, if you will -- almost like Dr. Mario or two-player Tetris.

One of our goals has been to innovate beyond DOTA and take this genre, which we're calling "multiplayer online battle arena," and build on it. We'll have lots of different battle arenas for these cool and interesting characters, and the persistence of the meta-game. We think it's a super-extensible genre, and we're excited to show what can be done with it.

Do you handle the "publishing" side of things all in-house? Is that part of why you're still growing the team?

MM: Yes. To service the growth of the game, the features, and the platform we have, in all the territories we're operating, while continuing to have a robust content pipeline, takes a lot of manpower. We're self-publishing, so we have a publishing infrastructure. We have a marketing team, we have a community team, we have customer service, we have internet operations.

We do a lot of things you don't see a traditional developer doing. Generally, they rely on a third-party publisher. We're able to have a really tight feedback loop with our users and respond to their needs very rapidly, which is part of why our growth trajectory has been so consistent and so rapid. As more people who would be into the League of Legends-style gameplay check it out, they tell their friends, because we've been doing a good job of being transparent and delivering great value to core gamers for free.

So you're effectively running the whole framework? These days, so much of the free-to-play scene exists as a layer on top of an existing framework like Facebook.

MM: Yeah.

Has that been a learning experience? How much of it has been tougher than you expected, or different?

MM: It was exceedingly difficult. The most challenging development portion for us was the enterprise software platform, because we needed to scale well into tens of thousands of concurrent users. With services like matchmaking, which is a very process-intensive task, there are a lot of challenges to deliver these to the scale of users we're delivering them on. But we had to figure it out if we wanted to execute the vision we had, because nothing like this exists off the shelf.

That's why also, as we continue to have the platform mature, we're going to talk to third-party developers about offering our platform services. It was a massive investment for us, and if something like this existed when we were looking to build League of Legends, we would not have invested the ten-plus million dollars to get this thing off the ground and build the platform ourselves.

But now that we have it, we want to leverage it and do a lot more with it. So, probably towards the end of this year or early next year, we'll start talking more about how our platform is evolving and could potentially be used by third parties.

What's your sense of where this market is going? Free-to-play games that are this hardcore are still pretty uncommon.

MM: We still are at the infancy of core games as a service in the West. Brandon [Beck], our CEO, is looking forward to sharing some of what we've learned later on. It's been interesting to get real data about how it's going to work and to deploy something, measure its impact, iterate on it, and see how that impacts sales and how it impacts customer perception. It's been a fun process to control that whole feedback loop.

The results speak for themselves, because the users are happier, they tell more friends, and it becomes viral; 90 percent of our customer acquisition is organic, which is awesome. So from the marketing standpoint, there has been a lot of learning. From the community standpoint, there's been a lot of learning at well. We look forward to being able to share additional data about what we've learned, because we're huge believers in this model.

Have any of your preconceptions or assumptions changed over the course of development?

MM: No. They've been validated, which is great. If you deliver great value to gamers, they will appreciate it. They will give you a chance. They will stick around, and they will tell you what they want. If you implement that, they will reward you for it. That's why games as a service is a great model and just makes a lot more sense.

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