For those of you who aren’t in the know, Ubisoft Blue Byte recently posted an article where business analyst Teut Weidemann criticized the globally recognized MOBA League of Legends and their parent company, Riot Games, for not focusing on their profits. Okay, so that’s not the way it was worded, but it’s easy to read between the lines and see that this analyst is essentially taking a jab at Riot, pointing out that they have a questionable business model which should, in theory, be making substantially more money than it currently does. I was so offended by this article, that I felt we should further examine this story and the details that went into it on multiple levels. The original story in question is right here.
The first thought that came to my mind when I read this article was “Why is someone from Ubisoft talking about what gamers want?” Let’s consider for a moment the personnel involved with Ubisoft, and some of the business decisions and statements that they have made on the record.
One thing is immediately clear to me about Ubisoft; they have no idea what gamers want. If you need any further proof, simply Google “Uplay is” and tell me how many positive results you come up with. The Vice President, Chris Early, has gone on the record multiple times to defend the idea that gamers should pay for every little thing they want via DLC and in-game cash shops. For example, in regards to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, there were resource packs that went on sale day 1 which were designed to expedite the rate of acquiring resources in game. Essentially, you’re releasing a game for $59.99, and then tacking on what might seem like a paltry sum, maybe $5 total, for some time-saving features and options that can reduce the grind. Not so terrible, right? But to back up his logic, Early cites the mobile app Clash of Clans, and pointed out how people were spending “…in the tens of thousands of dollars” of their own money to play the game. While not necessarily condoning “pay-to-win”, he certainly doesn’t seem to oppose the idea of gamers dropping every available dollar they have on a game, so long as they want to! Furthermore, Ubisoft is not shy in the slightest when it comes to the notion of Day-1-DLC; a practice often viewed by gamers as nickel-and-diming, and often practiced by far more tyrannical studios (Here’s looking at you, EA Games).
Yet with that said, apparently a large portion of the gaming community doesn’t want to, which was most visible in their title “The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot”. A free-to-play game in title, the game drew the ire of its players in such a way that Ubisoft was ultimately forced to revamp their premium currency structure, under the repeated and continuous allegations that the game was actually pay-to-win. The pleas of the people were apparently quite thunderous in volume, too, as the company even released an official statement apologizing for the state of affairs of the game, ultimately restructuring the way the in-game premium currency system worked.
Riot Games and League of Legends, on the other hand, provide a game that is entirely free. All the game modes are free, though ranked requires a certain number of champions and a time commitment to get to level 30. All champions are entirely free, provided you simply play the game enough. You can pay for “Riot Points”, League of Legends’ premium currency, if you’re looking to accelerate your acquisition of champions. The only other thing you can purchase for money in the game are cosmetic skin upgrades; essentially a re-coloring of a previous champion with additional particle effects and animations. Nothing you can buy will affect your player’s skill level, your champions’ power, or in-game performance.
A final few metrics worth mentioning… League of Legends averages some 60,000,000+ players globally, with over 25,000,000 of those people logging on every single day. For a game with such a poor business model, you have to ask yourself “Why do players keep coming back…?”. It’s not like there aren’t a slew of titles out there which offer a similar gameplay experience; Smite, DotA2, and soon to be Heroes of the Storm are all designed with a similar format; why are they not as profitable or popular as League? Oh, and if numbers are everything, and to Mr. Weidemann they certainly seem to be, let’s compare a final number. League of Legends, in 2013, netted over $600 million dollars in revenue alone. Not too shabby for 1 free to play game, right? Ubisoft, with all of their titles combined, netted $1.6 billion. Both are impressive numbers, but it almost makes you wonder what would happen if Riot Games had multiple franchises up and running…
Point #2: Community Involvement vs. Community Exclusion
With a quick study on Ubisoft’s history, it isn’t hard to see a slew of business decisions that were both incredibly unpopular and incredibly unfriendly to gamers. It was only in 2012 when they scrapped their DRM protection and always-online requirements for many of their games, an example which EA and Blizzard-Activision would soon follow with some of their titles as well. As mentioned earlier, Uplay remains vastly unpopular, and it remains as unpopular as Origin in terms of utility and preference in comparison to Steam. There are even speculative examples of anti-PC gamer sentiments to be found amongst the internet. I can’t think of a better way to foster positive media relations with your playerbase other than to outright accuse 95% of them of stealing your games!
Riot, on the other hand, enjoys much of their success because of their community. Whether it was the “Summoner’s Showcase” videos, the art competitions, the literal birth and creation of “gaming celebrities” via their vigorous promotion of their teams and the top players of their game (be it in a commentator role or as a player in the professional tournament), or even the popularizing of streaming, a vast majority of Riot’s appeal is their endless “free” exposure. While there is certainly no shortage of naysayers towards League of Legends and Riot Games (feel free to browse the forums for some good laughs), there are few threats of boycotts and the like towards League of Legends. Many Rioters were players before they were employees, and the lifestyle and culture of the company is lauded and recognized globally across the internet.
Furthermore, Riot created an entirely different business model that no one else even though of yet; encouraging their players to stream. A League of Legends professional player is already paid a salary by Riot, but to supplement their income, many of the professional players stream via mediums like Twitch.tv and the like to generate thousands of hits and viewers. A top-tier competitive level player might see their stream hit 20,000+ viewers at a time. The mere marketing and exposure of this alone helped to popularize League of Legends without costing Riot a dime. With all the business savvy that Ubisoft seems to possess, it seems curious to me that they never introduced their own equivalent of a free-yet-ultimately-successful marketing campaign.
Stay tuned for part 2 of "Calling Out Ubisoft" later this week!