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.