Here’s a sad truth: Unless you have thousands of hours or hundreds of dollars, it’s impossible to enjoy more than a sliver of League of Legends.
Yes, obviously League of Legends is a free-to-play game. That’s always been one of its defining characteristics. The unique problem League faces now, which it didn’t face when it first left its beta testing phase, is that its grown an incredible amount over the past five years and hasn’t done enough price-wise to adapt to its new ungainly size.
League of Legends pulled back the curtain on its newest champion over the weekend. Character reveals inspire two things in League’s massive fanbase. First, people pick apart relevant trailers for hints and clues. Second, they sigh upon reflecting on just how expensive League has become.
“Expensive” is a tricky descriptor to stick onto any ostensibly free-to-play game like League of Legends, so let me be clear about what I mean here. The prices a game like League exacts from players aren’t just monetary. Indeed, since the game makes a handful of playable characters freely available every week and regularly rewards players with virtual currency, you really can play League of Legends without spending a dime on it.
Does that mean you can play it effectively—i.e., in a way that gives you a fighting chance to succeed in its competitive environment and is also, ya know, fun? Trying to answer that question is where things become more complicated. You need to have regular access to champions to play well with them. And as you level up and enter into the more seriously echelons of League’s community, you also start to need special enhancements known as “runes” that beef up your base stats (damage, magic resistance, stuff like that) if you want to hold your own competitively. And so with every new character reveal, every addition of yet another thing to spend money on or grind for, the label “free to play” feels less and less appropriate as a descriptor for League of Legends.
League of Legends makes money by using two different currencies: Riot Points (RP) and Influence Points (IP). RP is far more valuable than IP—meaning that if I buy a new champion, I can either spend a few hundred RP or a few thousand IP to do so. It’s also the only currency you can use to buy premium goodies like alternative character skins, which look super snazzy but are inconsequential for actual League gameplay purposes. The catch is that you only acquire RP by exchanging it for real money. IP, meanwhile, is the currency you gradually accumulate over time.
The chief factor that lets League of Legends get away with calling itself free is the fact that everything but purely aesthetic enhancements (think: alternative character skins) can be acquired with IP. But how much does purchasing in-game characters and items either solely or primarily with IP actually end up costing people?
One thing vocal League of Legends players love to do whenever a new champion is rolled out is measure out just how demanding the game’s economy has become. In a popular post on the League subreddit yesterday, for instance, someone suggested that “it takes roughly 46 hours to gain 6300 IP,” that being the price of new champions like the just-revealed Ekko after their first week on the in-game market (they cost even more then):
If you consider the average game takes 35 minutes, and you gain about 80 IP per game (Discluding first win of the day).
During this time you could:
Watch about 23 movies.
Travel from England to South Africa back and forth 4 Times.
Watch 30 european football games nonstop.
Any other suggestions?
Shortly after Bard, the second-newest League champion, made his way into the game, another player remarked on Reddit: “When the next champion [i.e., Ekko] is released, you need over 1 million IP to unlock everything without spending money.”
The player continued:
As of right now you need 996,855 IP to unlock everything on your account without spending money. At the next champion release, this number will exceed 1 million.
All champions: 478,950 IP All T3 runes: 404,505 IP All runepages: 113,400 IP
According to Riot, the average game length of Summoners Rift is 30-45 minutes, and the average IP you earn per game is 60-90 IP. In other words, you have to play approximately 8,418 hours of League of Legends to unlock everything with Influence Points. I did not count any other game modes other than Normal Summoners Rift in, and I did not include First Win of the Day. I’m also aware that a lot of the runes in the game are useless, but it doesn’t really change much, the price would still be close to a million.
TL;DR: The IP prices are insanely high, isn’t it about time they get toned down? It’s hard to focus on the LP grind when the grind for IP is endless.
The numbers in both these players’ examples might be slightly off. Riot’s support page on IP and experience gains says that “on average, a 37 minute win will earn approximately 100 IP, and a 37 minute loss will earn approximately 68 IP.” It’s impossible to give a perfectly clear image of how much time time League’s IP grind costs sure since specific IP rewards vary in everybody’s individual experience. One thing’s for sure though; whatever the exact cost may be, it’s extremely high.
(Of course, there’s always the alternative to just unlock things with money. But doing that can easily run you several hundred dollars as well.)
Ok. You might be wondering: Why is League’s always-expanding economy a problem? Here are the two most important deleterious effects that astronomical IP prices have on the game and its community.
League of Legends is already ridiculously popular. But that doesn’t mean the game’s developers and publishers want it to stop growing. How many potential players does League lose simply because people are frightened away by the idea of playing something for months, if not years, before they can start to feel like they’ve truly acquired enough stuff to really get the most out of their experience with it?
On one level, that Redditor’s claim that it’d take “approximately 8,418 hours of League of Legends to unlock everything with Influence Points” is nothing more than a rhetorical exercise. That’s because many people who play League of Legends—even highly skilled and experienced players—don’t go into the game expecting to acquire everything it has to offer. You only need to own 16 champions to play ranked games, after all. And at a certain point in the process of leveling up to 30 and preparing oneself for ranked games, many players come to think that it’d be better to start spending any additional IP they acquire on runes rather than additional champions.
The very fact that habits like this exist is evidence of how League’s high prices can often end up damaging the game. Many players have come to accept the fact that they’re not going to unlock all of the characters in the game. They may not even unlock most of them.
League of Legends has more than 120 playable characters. The size of the game—the enormity of its scale and the diversity of its humongous cast—is a big part of what I find fascinating about it. The thought that many people have to limit themselves in terms of who they can actually play simply because they can’t afford to spend the time or money this otherwise fantastic game demands of them isn’t just sad. It’s also an uncomfortable contradiction to the statements Riot keeps making about how it’s trying to expand on the “strategic diversity” at play in League of Legends whenever the game’s developers set about redesigning or rebalancing something (like the jungle).
There are certain problems League of Legends is always going to have simply because it’s so gigantic at this point. Tons of playable characters will scare off newcomers simply because it makes the scale of the game seem intimidating in and of itself. So I can’t say for certain that, say, suddenly making every character in League freely available like its competitor Dota 2 does would solve every problem the game currently has.
At the same time, it’s always worth remembering that there are more business models available for a game developer than the one Riot is currently leaning on for League of Legends. And that means that are other ways to monetize an ostensibly free-to-play game than the methods League currently employs—ones that would make the game cheaper simply by placing less pressure on individual players. One super easy alternative? In-client advertising. But I have a hard time imagining League of Legends going for that, at least any time soon. Currently, the game is far too pre-occupied with using every virtual inch of its client’s precious real estate to advertise more League of Legends stuff: upcoming events, new skins you can purchase, and so forth.
That’s the saddest realization on can come to when playing a free-to-play game, even a great one like League of Legends: the game can only afford to be free when it’s relentlessly badgering you to spend money on it.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.