I figured I'd take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to discuss a game that completely changed the way I look at free to play games: League of Legends. Originally released in late 2009 by Riot Games, League of Legends is a free to play game available for the PC. (There's also a very beta OSX client that takes a considerable amount of witchcraft and wizardry to get running.) Gameplay is very similar to Defense of the Ancients in that you play in teams, either 3v3 or 5v5, and have control of a single champion unit that behaves a lot like the hero units in Warcraft III. You can level up various abilities, buy items in a shop to enhance your character, and engage in some pretty wicked player vs player combat as each team attempts to destroy the opposing team's base. It's a ton of fun, and with 76 available champions (as of this posting, more are added constantly), each game is always vastly different.

But what does a PC game have to do with the App Store? Well, in October of 2009, Apple changed the way in-app purchases worked on the App Store. Previously, only apps that customers paid for were able to have in-app purchase. With this shift, Apple effectively opened the flood gates for freemium games on the App Store. The first major title to employ this purchase model was Eliminate, followed by a tidal wave of others.

The vast majority of these freemium iOS games all focus around the same style of gameplay, although some hide it substantially better than others. Developers craft a game world, and put you in charge of a farm, an office, or other settings where you're able to slowly build up a customized representation of yourself within the game. These types of games have had an (understandbly) terrible reputation among our community because often they don't feel like games as much as they feel like potentially costly time sinks.

Why League of Legends is important is because of how differently it presents the free to play model. Each week you're given a selection of 10 of the 76 champions which you can play for free. From there, you have full access to the game and are at no advantage or disadvantage regardless of whether you've spent nothing or you've paid to unlock absolutely everything. The only restriction is the limitation of playing as one of those ten champions.

It's absolutely incredible how much this shifts the player's spending compulsion. For instance, in Smurfs' Village [Free], or other similar games, I begrudgingly buy Smurfberries to bypass irritating time sinks, essentially exchanging my money for a feeling of progression in a game that I have very little personal investment in because the endless limitations never make me feel like I have any kind of ownership.

Alternatively, League of Legends has no time sinks, or limitations. Instead, you're essentially given a weekly free and unlimited test drive of a selection of champions. If you find yourself really enjoying one, you can permanently unlock it, as well as buy customized skins for it. It's just incredible how much more fun I have playing a game like this, and how much more willing I am to spend my money on microtransactions. Instead of plunking money down on something I feel obligated to buy to progress, I'm buying something I want to because I like it.

It gets better though, as these items you're buying can either be unlocked with Riot Points which are purchased with money or Influence Points, which are earned by simply playing the game-- Although at a substantially slower rate. This freemium model has been ridiculously successful for Riot as well, who is scrambling to find additional employees to ramp up all aspects of their company as League of Legends becomes more and more successful by the day.

I would absolutely love it if iOS developers looked to Riot's League of Legends for inspiration on how to build their future free to play titles. I think the caustic attitude that many members of our community have towards freemium games would vanish if they employed a similar free to play model where players feel like they're buying something they want, instead of just a in-game currency that is slowly drained by skipping time sinks which only exist to give players a reason to buy said in-game currency.

I doubt League of Legends will ever make it to iOS, as the interface is simply far too complex. However, nothing is stopping iOS developers from taking a good hard look at League of Legends and applying what they learn to future iOS titles. In fact, if you're an iOS developer who is even remotely debating dabbling in freemium, you owe it to yourself to at least give League of Legends a shot. Similarly, if you're the kind of person who incessantly posts about how much you dislike freemium games, you really need to try a game that nails the business model perfectly just to see what's possible if developers break free of farming games.

  • http://morereasonsyoushouldntfuckkids.tumblr.com Chungyen Chang

    As complicated and rewarding LoL and DotA are, they are (unfortunately) full of preteens and kids who 1) leave and ruin the game, 2) troll and mess up the fun for everyone else, or 3) just don't even have the common sense to look at help files or ask other people how to play/what to do, or 4) Play the game just for personal glory and tons of kills instead of focusing on working with the team to push and win.

    So what you have is an awesome game, but it's ruined by stupid people. I would expect any game that is freemium and DotA-style to end up the same way.

    This is coming from a person who played DotA for 3+ years, by the way.

    • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

      Eh, I haven't really had much of an issue. I don't play the ranked games though, I mostly just do random 5v5's with a few friends on my team.

    • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

      Eh, I haven't really had much of an issue. I don't play the ranked games though, I mostly just do random 5v5's with a few friends on my team.

    • Soopakoopatroopa

      If you're good at the game, you get matched against other people who are good at the game. If you're not good, then yes, you will get matched against the unsavory characters who aren't trying (or doing a good job) to win.

      So yeah, if you're a decent player, this happens *much* less often.

      • http://morereasonsyoushouldntfuckkids.tumblr.com Chungyen Chang

        I have to disagree with you-- because the the game is balanced in such a way that even 2-3 hero deaths can tilt the game in favor of one side, it doesn't matter much if you are a decent player. That's why I quit-- it was frustrating to have one person ruin it for nine other people.

      • http://www.centercode.com Luke Freiler

        If you're giving up because you're 2-3 deaths behind, you're very new to the game. I've won many games where we were 15-20 deaths behind, with a serious feeder on our team. Push more towers.

      • http://morereasonsyoushouldntfuckkids.tumblr.com Chungyen Chang

        Of course I don't give up after 2-3 deaths. But those deaths from bad players end up giving the other team enough leverage to the point where the majority of pub games are clearly over after 10-15 minutes. And then, of course, you have leavers on top of that...

      • http://www.centercode.com Luke Freiler

        Leavers are a lot less of a problem than they used to be. The combination of the penalty timer and the auto-banning reduced it greatly. The only place it's a problem is at the very bottom, which chances are you have to climb out of if you're new. And I still believe you can work around bad players - the other solution of course being play with proven folks/friends (which you can make pretty quickly if you're not an ass/leaver).

    • J Campbell

      Leavers are almost never a problem for me. While they may have been bad on DotA, the LoL community rarely sees leavers in my experience. I am a lvl25 summoner and love the LoL community. This is a team game, and as such is best with an arranged team. Go forth, meet some competent players, make friends, and enjoy!

    • Psionic


      Is the teaser thread for our upcoming game FOTA.

      It's still in pre-production (maps are being set up, different creeps are being prototyped, and characters are being built).

      I'm a big fan of the DOTA style games but have the same complaints.

      So our game is structured a bit differently, with the various roles more directly specified.

      Also, end-game is going to be awesome, with a direct shift from individual players to a single multi-role vehicle for that end push stage (think voltron or the connecting  transformers style robots)

  • Jonas

    For the best possible examples of successful freemium games that break the farming game mold (and in the first two cases, have been ridiculously successful), look to Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, and Pirates of the Burning Sea. All feature generous loads of free content, enough to continue playing the game effectively forever, but also equally generous loads of purchasable content, VIP memberships, subscriptions, etc, and also ways to earn the points normally bought for real-world money in-game instead. And they all manage to avoid breaking the actual combat balance between paying and non-paying players.

    Most amazingly, their communities are (comparably) mature and very jovial and helpful, in spite of the freemium model. This is where they might turn out to be far better examples of freemium games than LoL.

  • http://twitter.com/zallman Zallman T Shedlock

    Just had to lol @hodapp buying smurfberries.

  • http://twitter.com/zallman Zallman T Shedlock

    Just had to lol @hodapp buying smurfberries.

  • Evan

    This is very nearly the same as the model Shadow Era (a "freemium" iOS CCG) uses, isn't it? Which is a pretty solid little game.

    • MisterDrgn

      I don't think so. There's a difference between paying money for a different experience (e.g., unlocking a particular character in LoL) and paying money to make yourself more powerful (e.g., buying extra cards in Shadow Era). The latter approach favors players who spend more money.

      • tofusoup

        You can pay RP or IP to buy runes that could affect outcome of battles in LOL.

      • http://profiles.google.com/vintarum Varyl Vintarum

        Actually you can only spend IP on runes, though spending RP on characters leaves more IP to spend on runes.

      • http://www.centercode.com Luke Freiler

        Actually you can only pay IP for Runes, and IP is earned by playing. You can pay to double your IP income for a few games, but in all my games I've never bothered. Most money is spent on Skins, which literally only change the look of your champion. The game has 300+ skins today, costing anywhere from ~$2-$20 each.

      • tofusoup

        Yea they get you somehow :). I've been tempted a few times to buy RP. I only did so during the japan donation with the Akali Nurse skin 🙂

  • http://www.centercode.com Luke Freiler

    I've personally complained about the evils of "freemium" many times in these comments/forums. I hate time sinks, and would rather not play a game than pay to remove them. That said, I've played roughly 1,500 matches of League of Legends since it was alpha. It's consumed so much time that I've played few other PC games in that period, and thus fell justified in the $200+ I've spent on this game in nearly 2 years. This is freemium done absolutely right, so I agree - please developers, please take notice.

  • tofusoup

    Alternatively, League of Legends has no time sinks, or limitations. Instead, you're essentially given a weekly free and unlimited test drive of a selection of champions. If you find yourself really enjoying one, you can permanently unlock it, as well as buy customized skins for it."

    They get you hooked on a champ. Once it's out of rotation you then "time sink" into earning the IP or buy RP to get that champion. You also spend a lot of time earning IPs to buy Runes to compete. Also once you hit level 30 if you want to play ranked matches you will end up sinking more time to unlock more champs. In ranked matches champs get banned and you can't play duplicate champs.

    If you ask me the entire driving force is competition. That's what makes them the money. I'm probably wrong here but new champs released often come out stronger to get initial sales and then balanced out later through a patch.

    As for comparing this with games like farmville or any other social/freemium game I don't see much of a difference.

    You can buy vanity items in most social games. The competition is not as apparent, but you compete with your friends on who can make the coolest farm. LOL is just packaged nicely for core gamers. You like it cause it doesn't look like a regular social game, but what drives the game is essentially the same. Am I wrong here?

    • http://www.centercode.com Luke Freiler

      I don't think it's a time sink because you're having fun and playing the game (personally I find about 90% of the champions to be pretty fun on some level).

      My biggest complaint about the average freemium game (basically anything by ng moco, most of Zynga), is that there's only about 5 minutes of play before you have to wait an hour, or a day, unless you pay. Those games actually encourage you to not play the game, because you run out of content so quickly.

      LoL on the other hand offers endless play for free. And the more you play, the more IP you earn to customize the game to be even more fun. But even without the IP, there's a lot of game to play.

      I personally think its a highly different model, executed very well. Because honestly, when I see $99.99 AIP to buy some virtual asset that does nothing but save me a month of time, I want to punch someone.

      • tofusoup

        True. Yea I see your point. I think we will start to see mini games within social games soon or already? But you also have to look at the market and players. For social gamers it's enough to have a 5min play. While core gamers like me, I want to continuously play. It's just catered to different type of gamers. To give Zynga credit, cityville do give bonus % when you buy items. There's actually a strategy in how to maximize profit in the way you layout your city.

        But yea point noted.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ashton.green Ashton Green

    Perhaps you should look up Kingdom of Loathing, and their Items of the Month.

    They started accepting donations to cover server costs sometime prior to April of 2004, and in October of 2004 they created the first IotM, a familiar that had a different look. Since then, they've added new paid item every month, in addition to huge amounts of free content.

    I think it's the best example of a "free to play, here's a way to give us money if you like our content" game that I've played or read about.

    • Xecutor

      I'll add that theoretically you can get IOTM without paying money. Just farm enough meat to purchase mr. accessory in the mall 🙂
      But in practice the game balanced so that you can't farm enough meat in a month to afford mr.a.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ashton.green Ashton Green

        I disagree with the use of the term "balance" there. The players decide what the in-game value of the items are, not the admins, so there isn't any conscious balance. If anything, they tend to try to lower the amount of in-game meat via various meatsinks, which would in turn lower the price of Mr. As.

        And I know for a fact that it is possible to earn enough meat to buy a Mr. A in a month. It's not easy, but it is possible for a dedicated player to do. Or at least it was. the recent rise in Mr. A prices may make it less possible now. I don't find meat farming much fun, so I donate.

        There are faster ways to earn the money, if you're willing to study the in-game economy.

        Or, if you can build the right character, you can work as a mercenary in the Sewer or the Slime Tube. Decent meat earning there.

        Sorry if I come across critical of your conclusions and my inference of your cynicism, I think it's the result of listening to many hours of the Jick and Skullhead show, in which they've had several discussions about their payment model. Which mostly consist of them wondering how they made it work and how long they can keep it working.

  • Eliza

    LMAO Evan stop promoting your own game Shadow Era

  • Anonymous

    Blizzard copycat right down to the font (Friz Quadrata, the default font in WoW).

    • http://www.centercode.com Luke Freiler

      Except that Blizzard has never (yet) made a game anything like it... They share a nice font - congrats.

      • http://morereasonsyoushouldntfuckkids.tumblr.com Chungyen Chang


        Blizzard made Extreme Candy War, an AoS, around the same time (2004) that DotA was starting up (2003)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremie.loveskorea Jérémie Loveskorea

    I don't know who Evan is working for but I agree Shadow Era's billing system is quite fair. It's always a little bit easier if you spend a lot of bucks to buy additional packs of cards, but you also have the option to fine-tune the free deck you get when registering by simply playing the game and purchasing single cards of your choice with the in-game money earned. Also, it's pretty easy to make a competitive deck with little investment of time and money, if you focus on one single strategy/type of cards.

    • http://twitter.com/iShadowEra Shadow Era

      Right, Eli Hodapp already reviewed Shadow Era and called it "A fantastic representation of what freemium games should be."

  • Josh
  • Mike

    Hats and all the other stupid collectibles are what ruined TF2 in the first place.

  • http://profiles.google.com/croix.telle Christian Erw

    I want DotA on iOS