Riot Games' Marc Merrill on the Tencent acquisition and the future of League of Legends

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Riot Games' Marc Merrill on the Tencent acquisition and the future of League of Legends
Last year's "focus," if you can assign such a thing to the Game Developers' Conference, was probably Zynga and its Facebook games, but for 2011, there was one company that kept getting brought up in the hallways and various panels in San Francisco: Riot Games. Not only did the makers of free-to-play MOBA League of Legends clean up at last year's GDC Online awards, but last week, the Riot booth was constantly surrounded with developers, all wanting to get in on one of the quickest-growing companies around.

Riot President Marc Merrill kindly sat down to chat with Joystiq about the game and the company, and we talked about the recent acqusition by Chinese giant Tencent, why Riot is growing so fast, and what's next for the game affectionately dubbed LoL. And yes, LoL players, we asked about Magma Chamber and the Mac client.

Tencent has no desire to run the company, they have no desire to influence our direction at all.- Marc Merrill

The relationship between Tencent and Riot actually goes back a few years -- the Chinese Internet company picked up the license to publish League of Legends overseas two and a half years ago. Merrill says that Tencent and Riot share a "value alignment," in that both companies are very concerned about the customer experience and getting it right. Tencent's biggest enterprise is an entirely free messaging client (like AIM here in the states) called QQ. "That was something that was not monetized for a very, very long time," says Merrill. "It was all about getting users, providing great value, building relationships, et cetera. And it grew extremely rapidly and virally because they're delivering a fantastic service."

Merrill says that Tencent is interested in the same quality at Riot Games, and that's why the buyout is more of a stock purchase than an actual acquisition. "Tencent has no desire to run the company, they have no desire to influence our direction at all," he says. "It's not the traditional acquisition, where you get assimilated and you report to some VP and they say, 'Let's find synergy!' No, they're saying, 'We believe in what you guys are doing, here's capital, here's resources, let us know how we can help, but we're going to stay out of your way. Go to town, because we believe in what you're doing.'"

Riot was already interested in gaining a larger audience in Asia, and Merrill says Tencent will help them do just that. "They literally have 500 million plus active users," he says of Tencent's reach. "They're like Facebook meets Google meets eBay, all for China. And so it's like League of Legends is on the front page of Facebook every day, saying come check out this game." In that sense, Merrill believes Tencent is more like a traditional game publisher, though instead of providing an audience through retail shelf space, in the digital world, Tencent is providing relationships. "We're able to have a direct relationship with tens of millions of users around the world. It's going to be great."

We have a lot of respect for Valve. We think that they're obviously fantastic developers, and make really high quality stuff, and we personally know Icefrog well. So we're interested to see what they do.- Marc Merrill

Back in the states, Riot has said that it's "hiring aggressively," and I ask Merrill exactly why that is. "We're doing a lot of things in parallel that aren't necessarily visible to our users," he says. "They will be over the next six months, to a year." Currently, Riot is working on releasing new content to the game every two weeks, scaling up servers, building up international markets, and building features of the game itself, all serious undertakings on their own. "And we're doing all of that in parallel," says Merrill. "And that requires a lot of fantastic talent across different dimensions all working together extremely effectively."

Even that isn't all being done just for League of Legends, either, though Merrill declines to share anything further. "I wouldn't say all, because we are in the early stages of planning some additional things. We've got some secret stuff behind the scenes that's really cool that we'll talk about later."

The MOBA genre itself is already hot lately, and Riot is about to have more company. One of the developers of the original Defense of the Ancients mod, Icefrog, has thrown in with Valve to make Dota 2. Merrill says he's not exactly worried, though: "We have a lot of respect for Valve. We think that they're obviously fantastic developers, and make really high quality stuff, and we personally know Icefrog well. So we're interested to see what they do. But you mentioned the word 'worried' -- I wouldn't use that word to describe how we're thinking about Dota 2. It's on our radar, but we've had competitors before. There's HoN, there's Starcraft 2, there's World of Warcraft: Cataclysm..."

Wait a minute. Did Merrill just suggest that Riot is competing with Blizzard's unbeatable MMO behemoth, World of Warcraft? "Absolutely," he answers, though he hesitates on saying LoL is a WoW-killer. "There's no specific goal around, hey we want to do something like that. Again, we're all huge Blizzard fans, et cetera. But we do want to be a very well-played title globally. And our focus again is not on let's try to hit any particular numbers or anything like that, it's, 'Let's deliver value for users.' And we think if we can do that, everything else takes care of itself."

Merrill mentions WoW again when he talks about how LoL was meant to improve the original Dota experience. "We looked at League of Legends as trying to do the Everquest to WoW jump, with Dota being Everquest, kind of pioneering a lot of stuff. But there's tons of ways to improve the experience across lots of dimensions."

One of those improvements is Magma Chamber, a third map for the game that was announced a while ago, and which players haven't seen official word on in quite a long time. Instantly, Merill is a apologetic for not getting the map out or being able to say more about it. "We feel terrible about the whole experience there, where we learned a valuable lesson," he says. "We do a lot of iteration, we have a lot of cool design, where we're innovating on lots of features and maps, modes, and all sorts of these things. And until we nail it and get it right, because our core experience is really fun, because there's built-in expectations that users have on quality, we don't want to screw anything up. And so we're willing to take the time -- and sometimes it's a painful amount of time obviously -- and it's our fault for setting expectations the way we did."

You'll notice there's no promises in there on when the map is coming, but Merrill does say that players will be rewarded when it does appear. "I get to see all this stuff every day," he says. "I'm very confident that when we do release stuff that we've been working on, it's going to be well worth the wait."

Another long-awaited feature for the game is a client for Mac, which was shown off in the middle of last year, and has been stuck in beta since then. "That's a complicated thing that also relates to a third-party relationship, so I can't give too much detail," Merrill says. "We need to be in a situation where, as part of our development process, that any changes made, since we make such rapid changes, won't cause problems for an entire population of our users, like Mac users. And so we're working through the sustainability kinks over the long-term to make sure we can release the Mac version. It's not hey, release the Mac version, and then it breaks two weeks later, and then Mac users are like second class citizens."

What Merrill does promise is that Riot is continuing to try and keep users engaged. "Our belief is that we need to have an insanely awesome, engaging experience, because it's our job to keep our users engaged. Which is why we don't just try to do that across the game perspective, but also in terms of what we do in community, in our videos with YouTube, across every dimension."

"We're a service-oriented company, so we take that very, very seriously," says Merrill. And even outside of the rumored hundreds of millions of dollars from Tencent, it sounds like the approach is paying off. "We continue to hit new beats every weekend, and we're growing substantially."
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