At GDC Europe this week, Ubisoft online games supervisor Teut Weidmann cautioned developers against following the monetization model set forth by Riot Games' League of Legends. "My conclusion was that League of Legends gives too much away for free and it doesn't sell power," Weidmann said. "Riot doesn't care. Optimizing monetization is not the top priority. They monetize purely through their reach. So it only works because of the large user base, and if you don't have that user base or don't expect to, you should not adopt their monetization. It should not be a role model for your monetization system."
League is a financially successful game despite a supposedly low conversion of free-to-paying customers and each customer's supposedly low amount of money spent – I say "supposedly" because Weidmann said he had confirmed with Riot employees that the conversion rate was below five percent, and his estimate for amount of revenue per paying user ($35) is based partially on that claim. Weidmann called League "an exception."
Here's the thing: Weidmann is right. Unless you're a company like Valve, which has the resources and built-in audience, chasing after League will probably not end the way you'd like. But saying that League monetizes "purely through their reach" ignores a crucial part of the equation, namely how they got that reach in the first place. Riot attracted 27 million daily players and $624 million revenue in 2013 for a simple reason:
Because they caught lightning in a bottle.
The reason no one has toppled Blizzard from their throne is the same reason Call of Duty dominates the first-person shooter market, and the same reason no one has yet caught up to League; that reason being that there is no reason.
World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and League of Legends are anomalies, and this is where Weidemann gets his analysis wrong, or at least incomplete. These games are unique abnormalities. They can be tracked and perhaps even caught up with eventually, but their presence cannot be replicated. You can't copy Riot's designs and expect to reach their level of success, because Riot's designs are not the only factors at work.
Weidemann's analysis fails to recognize the uncontrollable factors that led to League's dominance, and looks at it only within the vacuum of number-crunching and money. It's tantamount to gluing a carrot onto a horse's head, then blaming the quality of the carrot for not producing a unicorn.
But regardless of whether you're a player, developer, analyst or something other, recognize money-chasing for what it is, and take criticism that aims to tell one of the most-played games in the world what it does wrong with a grain of salt.