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Runegate – When Sales Beats Common Sense

Riot Games finally released a feature for League of Legends that has been begged for since the game’s inception: additional rune pages. For those of you who aren’t familiar, runes are one of the metagame features in League of Legends that allows you to customize your gameplay. You get a series of different slots, and can purchase runes that buff various attributes of your character: movespeed, damage, mana, health, etc. This enables additional strategy for the game, and runes can only be purchased via “Influence Points,” a currency that is only earned by playing the game (win or loss), as opposed to “Riot Points” which are only gained through real money transactions.

Up until yesterday, players only got two pre-set rune pages to choose from in a match. This is quite limiting, as many runes are only useful on certain archetypes: for example, mage oriented ability power runes vs. melee oriented armor penetration runes–and some runes are completely invalid on some characters: mana runes on a mana-less character, for example. Since you might not be sure what character you want to play in a game, particularly if you’re not with a pre-set team, you might not always have the optimal rune setup accessible with only two pages. Also worth noting is you cannot choose runes in the champion selection process before a game: you can only pick which of your rune pages you’ll use. As a result of all of these issues, the addition of new rune pages had evolved from a “nice to have” to a “need to have.”

Yesterday rolls around, and the community is given a surprise: additional rune pages are here, but they will cost you. Approximately $4 worth of Riot Points a page, or $20 for a bundle of 7, OR a prohibitive amount of Influence Points–equivalent to what you’d spend unlocking a top tier champion. Predictably, the community is in an uproar, since Riot is essentially charging for UI improvements. Historically, Riot has always made things that are “need to have” (champions, runes) purchasable with their free currency, Influence Points. “Nice to have” has been skins, which are purchasable only through real money, but ultimately are fluff. This is an acceptable model, but it has been blown apart in the Runegate debacle.

I get that Riot needs to make money. I’ve probably spent $200 on skins and heroes and the like. It is a “free” game, but at the same time, they are backed by A-list venture capital (First Mark Capital and Benchmark Capital) that demand an aggressive business plan. And often the refrain of fanboys and Riot is “it’s a free game, so stop whining.” But the fact is for many people, it’s not a free game. They’ve spent money on it. So to get nickel and dimed (the micro transaction model, by design) over fundamental UI improvements is insulting to all players, paying or free.

But what this mostly smacks of is poor marketing and poor executive decision making. The outcry would have been easily remediated by giving everyone one or two free pages, and then charging for the rest. Although it would have resulted in reduced sales, it would have built a great deal of good will while offering a feature that probably should have been in the game at launch: more rune pages.

What I’m curious about is if this was planned–did they always mean to sell rune pages? Was the delay the sales UI? Or was this new? Are there other fundamental UI-for-pay features coming? I postulated in my review of Season One that Riot is aiming for a Blizzard/Activision level of screwing their clients hard and relying on the brand, game quality and fanboy-ism to see them through. Looks like they’re acting on that business plan sooner than I thought.

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