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Op-ed: The real reason behind League of Legends' success

S. Prell, @SamPrell

Catching lightning in a bottle is a ridiculous notion when taken literally; even if it were physically possible, the feat would be so difficult to replicate as to be virtually impossible. And yet, game industry insiders and analysts keep trying to sell us on more conductive lightning rods and better bottles.

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.

Gallery: League of Legends (Gamescom 2012) | 6 Photos

When Riot launched League of Legends, it was a company in the right place at the right time. This isn't to minimize the other aspects of gameplay League does well, however. It does little good to be in the right place and right time with the wrong product, and even with the right product, bad business sense could sink any company. Still, enough stars aligned to let Riot Games and League set the pace of the MOBA genre, and with a few exceptions, they still lead the way.

League's story is not altogether unfamiliar. World of Warcraft was considered the game to beat during the MMO boom of the mid-'00s, a feat that never happened. Ten years later, WoW is still the MMO king in terms of user numbers, despite popular, successful franchises like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Final Fantasy diving headfirst into the MMORPG genre. WoW was not even the first MMORPG; it was predated by games like EverQuest, just as League was predated by the Defense of the Ancients mod.

If you're not an MMO or MOBA player, maybe the tale of Call of Duty is more your speed. CoD's 2012 incarnation, Black Ops 2, sold $500 million worth of copies in just 24 hours. Medal of Honor: Warfighter, the modern-setting FPS from EA aimed at competing with Call of Duty that year, performed so poorly it caused the series to be pulled from EA's yearly rotation development. Even Battlefield 3, an established series with a strong fanbase, took a week to reach 5 million sales, which even with every copy sold at $60, wouldn't beat Black Ops 2's day-one numbers. Despite imitators and competing franchises that offer things like more players per match and better graphics, Call of Duty won't be caught.

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.

This isn't to say Weidemann doesn't have some good points about managing expectations or that League will forever dominate. Likewise, if you're a developer, this isn't to say you shouldn't even try to follow Riot's business model - so long as you keep things in perspective and don't expect to make $624 million annually within three years of release.

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.
[Image: Riot Games/Blizzard/EA]

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