I'm 28 minutes into my fourth ever match of League of Legends when it happens. Another player lets me know that I "is noob" and "suck ballz." Post game, the player antagonizes the chat room saying we are "so fricken bad" and the "worst team ever". That's when TwoBigButts comes to our defense, letting the abusive player know they were not so great either and that they should go back to Heroes of Newerth because "we don't need more toxic players."
And I was terrible that round. I had 1 kill, 11 deaths and 8 assists in a 40-minute match ending in a miserable defeat. I was roughly five hours into learning League of Legends as a complete neophyte to MOBAs and I experienced the oft mentioned toxicity firsthand.
I played six more matches and experienced one more act of toxicity. Despite 0 kills, 9 deaths and 13 assists in my ninth game I was not the target of the abusive behavior. One player on my team told another "go kill yourself." Other than playing against a player named TittyQueef, the toxicity experienced in my first time user experience (FTUE) was much lighter than I was expecting when I started this project.
Immaturity and multiplayer gaming go hand in hand
"Someone will call you a c**t," remarks my friend after I tell him my plan to jump feet first into League's PvP with the Summoner name BeckyLovesRaichu. I was talking to a fellow San Francisco developer who happened to be working on a MOBA game. To familiarize himself with the world of League he had just finished playing 20 hours of co-op PvE before jumping into a single PvP match. Based on his experience, his hypothesis was that with an obviously female handle and predictably poor play, I would not only be the target of toxicity but that it would take a misogynistic spin. That was my hypothesis too when I choose the name. I wanted to see if being obviously female would make a notoriously toxic game even worse.
"Although I did experience abuse from immature players and a general air of misogyny, it was nothing compared to the beating I took from the user experience itself"
I joined LoL with the intention of writing about toxicity and its probable impact on the bottom line. Riot knows it has a toxicity problem and is working hard to reform members of its player base. I wanted to see firsthand what it is like to join the community. Although I did experience abuse from immature players and a general air of misogyny, it was nothing compared to the beating I took from the user experience itself.
Joining a mature game and community
LoL is undoubtedly one of the most popular games in the world. Just this week it boasted daily active user numbers of 27 million and a recent analyst report estimated the game brought in $624 million in revenue in 2013. It has been live for over 4 years and I have no doubt the game will still be popular 10 years from now. However, when running a juggernaut of a game on the level of LoL or WoW, one must anticipate and fix problems not just months but years before they fully manifest. After my experience joining LoL, I believe the maturity of the game and its overwhelming FTUE pose as big if not a bigger threat to long term health than toxic player behavior.
As a new player and a hardcore gamer, my general feeling in my first 10 hours of LoL was confusion. With a backlog of unplayed games as large as mine, it is rare for me to give a game more than an hour of time if I am overwhelmed or not having fun, no matter its reputation. Had I not been playing for the purposes of research, I would have moved on to another game either at or before the match where I was informed of my predilection for placing male anatomy in my mouth.
This confusion came from three main vectors. The first is the jargon inherent in joining a mature community. Where I was expecting other players to type furiously away at how horrible I was I mostly experienced silence. When players did talk it was simply to declare top, mid, bot or jung or to gg before exiting to find another match. I figured out soon enough what these terms meant but have no idea the strategy implied by each of these choices. Additionally, players on my team frequently began votes of surrender early into matches that felt wide open to me. I did not know why they wanted to give up so quickly.
The second vector was being shown but not taught the game's deeper systems. 10 hours in and I have little to no idea how to make decisions about what items to buy. Runes and mastery are a mystery to me. For the first half of my play sessions I chose Heimerdinger; as a turret-based support character I was able to play adequately and rack up my fair share of kills and assists. When the champions rolled over and I had 90 seconds to make a decision with very little information, I picked Trundle and was trounced for the remainder of my matches. I was overwhelmed by game systems I did not understand and time pressure to make choices.
The third vector is inside the game itself. When I was playing poorly, it was not clear to me why I was playing poorly. I had no idea what other players were doing to level so fast, or why I was slaughtered so quickly while my opponents seemed to take no damage. I knew that I was bad at LoL, but I had no idea what I was supposed to do to play more effectively. When I debriefed with friends who are years into playing, they let me know that item choices are incredibly important and that Trundle is a particularly hard character to play. If I wanted to get better I needed to read strategy guides and watch gameplay videos. I needed to learn to read my opponents' item choices and know how to counter them with my own choices. I needed to research the right runes and masteries for my champion and play style. All of this sounded like a lot of work in the name of having fun.
For players who love LoL, this complexity is what makes it magical. For players new to the game and genre, this learning curve is so steep as to be nearly insurmountable.
The cost of maturity and immaturity
LoL is a monster of a game, and has many years of organic and paid growth ahead of it. The issues highlighted are likely eclipsed by the positive benefits of a game where many new players join alongside experienced friends who show them the ropes. When a game is pulling in an estimated $624 million a year, it is easy to overlook the jagged edges confronting those players who churn out of the game within the first few days. However, this challenging FTUE is the sort of problem that rears its head years down the line in quarterly earnings statements. It is inevitable that some day, parent company Tencent will start reporting a declining player base. The market does not care about the billions of dollars made in the past. It is a shortsighted beast that only asks "what have you done for me lately?"
I spoke with a 15 years experienced marketing executive with a history in the F2P MMO space. This executive estimated that Riot is spending between $5 and $8 for each new player acquired through marketing. Compared to estimated average revenue per player of $10 - $15, this is a healthy arbitrage.
"A more accessible game that better retains new players combined with a massive marketing spend could allow a competitor to gain an appreciable market share in the crowded MOBA space"
But the deposits of players willing to install LoL is a finite resource. Over time this acquisition cost will only grow as the pool of players receptive to LoL advertising shrinks. Improving the FTUE for retention will boost revenue both by creating a larger veteran play base and by making advertising dollars more efficient.
Both the British and US governments run "nudge units" inspired by the ideas of behavioral economist Richard Thaler and co-author Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge. The purpose of these behavioral insight teams are to run tests and experiments with the purpose of increasing tax revenues and social welfare. These projects are hugely successful; in a recent episode of the Freakanomics Radio podcast, Thaler revealed that "running one of these experiments paid all the expenses of the [UK] team of the first three years."
A game that operates on the massive scale of League of Legends would benefit from a department tasked with improving the FTUE using the same methodology as the US and British governments to increase new player retention (if it does not already exist within the company). Clearly from the announcement that recent and impending patches seek to make the game easier for new players, Riot is hard at work to improve the game for noobs like me. Similar to the nudge units, one or two successful experiments can handily justify a substantial investment by raising retention rates.
The steep learning curve of LoL creates an opportunity for competitors (albeit handsomely bankrolled ones) not to focus on converting Riot's existing and rabid fan base, but instead to buy up the market for new players. A more accessible game that better retains new players combined with a massive marketing spend could allow a competitor to gain an appreciable market share in the crowded MOBA space. So long as noobs like me face the dual pressures of game maturity and player immaturity, there is still room for competitors to make headway. So long as acquired players face a daunting FTUE, there is the opportunity for Riot to make improvements to League that are equally positive for players and balance sheets.
Ethan Levy works as a monetization design consultant as FamousAspect specializing in free-to-play games. He is an 11 year veteran game designer and producer and has contributed to over 40 shipped games across every platform, for every audience. For more information, you can access articles, tools and templates on the FamousAspect website or follow @FamousAspect on Twitter.