In 2009, the free-to-play (F2P) industry was still very much a niche market. Games like Combat Arms and Runescape were well known, but no one thought that any of them were capable of going toe-to-toe with a juggernaut like World of Warcraft. At the same time, a small company named RIOT introduced League of Legends (LoL) - their new F2P title. Three short years later and the impossible has happened: World of Warcraft has been dethroned by a F2P game. In June, League of Legends officially became the most played PC game in the world by logging over 1.2 billion hours of gameplay (between July 2011 and June 2012) in the US and Europe, overshadowing World of Warcraft's 600 million hours logged.
For those of you who still unfamiliar with League of Legends, it's a MOBA, or 'multiplayer online battle arena'. The genre is a sort of subset of other genres; it's kind of an RTS/RPG hybrid. Pro player Hotshott GG equates the game to basketball; he states:
"This game is extremely similar to sports like basketball. Traditional sports teams have 5 players on the court with individualized roles such as point guard, center, and power forward which directly correlate to LoL roles such as jungle, support, and top. Because both sports and League of Legends are team games, we rely on team work, practice, and strategies."
As Hotshott GG explained, LoL is comprised of two teams of five players, with each player taking control of a character. Each character is made up of their own skills and abilities, with each of the 5 characters assuming a certain role on the team similar to your standard RPG party loadout (support, tank, AD carry, etc.). From there, the two teams will attempt to destroy the enemy's base by taking out a series of their defenses (turrets) while simultaneously defending their own. Just like in basketball, team cohesion is everything. While individual skill is appreciated, it's teamwork that ultimately wins games.
League of Legends, with its recent success, is in many ways the 'poster child' of the new free-to-play philosophy. Many of the predecessors that came before League operated under the 'pay to win' model of F2P games. They would offer additional features and items that players needed to compete. Players who bought these features would hold a substantial advantage over players who did not. This method was successful in incentivizing players to purchase additional content, but at the detriment of the integrity of the game. The new model, deemed 'pay for convenience' instead offers shortcuts for players allowing them to level faster or unlock items early by paying extra money. The important difference between the two models lies in the fact that no matter what purchase the player makes in a 'pay for convenience' game, it will not affect the balance of the gameplay.
Of course the new F2P model alone cannot be attributed to the kind of worldwide popularity that League of Legends has acquired. The same philosophy that backs their 'pay for convenience' model extends into RIOT's entire philosophy of game design. From it's origin, LoL has been a game that has focused on fostering a strong community with player accountability, constant updates, and developer transparency. LoL originally started with 40 champions; three years later, they have more than doubled their content and introduced 62 new champions (with the 63rd already planned and on its way). The company has also released new maps, game modes, and regular patches to keep the game balanced and fair, and all for free. RIOT has also implemented the first player-run jury system called "The Tribunal", where players who break RIOT's code of conduct are reprimanded for their misdeeds. Perhaps the best attribute of RIOT's development is there transparency. With every change RIOT is vocal with their player base explaining what is being changed and why they are changing it. The system allows for users to not only understand how the game is being changed, but proactively take part in the changes that are occurring.
A video highlighting RIOT's upcoming LoL changes.
All of this culminates in a community in which players want to participate. That's the beauty of the new F2P model: it's dependent on fostering a strong community and creating quality long-term content. Players don't feel that they need to purchase content to be completive; instead, players are investing real money because of their love for the game. They want to buy RIOT's newest champion because they like design, not because it will be more powerful than others. This creates a dynamic where players are happy to invest in the game and those who opt to remain F2P will not feel excluded or at a disadvantage.
League of Legends has irrevocably changed the face of gaming with its recent success. Its staggering growth from new title to world phenomenon proves that the F2P model is viable for new IPs. Even more pertinent, its success proves that the F2P market can develop quality titles capable of competing with AAA titles. In fact, in some ways the new F2P model actually holds the advantage over the standard one-time purchase model. For instance, F2P games can undergo constant development and changes, whereas one-time purchase developers (excluding DLC and sparse patching) usually have to move on to their next project or title.
With low entry costs and an expending market, the F2P model is becoming an appealing option for developers. We're seeing established titles such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Lord of the Rings Online look to free-to-play models, just as new titles, like Super Monday Night Combat, look to embrace the new model to maximize their potential player base.
With so many noteworthy titles already embracing F2P, it's evident that the evolution of free-to-play games has started. Where this evolution will take us, however, only time will tell.
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