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Interview: Riot Games' co-founder talks about Tencent deal and League of Legends

League of Legends didn't get a ton of hype when the fantasy-themed online action-RTS game was first announced by a then unknown game developer named Riot Games. But the game, inspired by the Warcraft III mod Defense of the Ancients (and made with some former team members of the mod) has grown into a hugely successful free-to-play game title. Riot Games says League of Legends now has over one million registered players, is constantly updating the game with new Champions and other content and is currently hiring a ton of new people to join the developer.

The importance of both Riot Games and League of Legends came to a head earlier this month when it was announced that China-based Tencent had agreed to buy a majority stake of Riot Games. While the company has not announced how much the acquisition was worth, other online reports have estimated the deal to be close to $400 million.

Big Download got a chance to ask some questions to Riot Games' co-founder and president Marc Merrill to find out more about the Tencent deal and its plans for the future of League of Legends.

First, the founders started Riot Games in 2005. Back then no one knew that you were working on what became League of Legends. Looking back did you ever predict that Riot Games would not only have a successful game but be valued so much by another company?

Every entrepreneurial venture is a risk, but Brandon and I believed from very early on that we had something special. It's thrilling to see so many players appreciating the work we've done along with everyone else at Riot Games. We're more excited than ever about what's in store for Riot's future.

(In a previous interview with FiringSquad back in 2006) – I said, "our independent status really affords us tremendous flexibility to pursue strategies that are outside of the traditional box." That's still true. With Tecent's expanded investment, we still retain independent operations, including managerial and creative autonomy.

Tencent was one of Riot Games' investors and had the rights to release League of Legends in China before last week's deal. How did they approach Riot Games with the deal to acquire a majority stake?

Tencent was an investor and we've been working with them on our upcoming launch in China for a while. Over the past couple years we have established a mutual admiration. Tencent was also excited about our plans for League of Legends and Riot Games. We also both believe that the most important resource a company has is its people and we both believe in putting consumers first.

Ultimately what does this deal mean for Riot Games as a whole and League of Legends in particular?

This is, across the board, great news for Riot – and most importantly, our community. Tencent's investment provides Riot with additional resources to expand our talented team, bring constant and rapid innovation to League of Legends, and launch new projects in the future. Because we are both aligned on the vision for League of Legends, we remain committed to expanding player's experiences and improving League of Legends.

Do you anticipate that Tencent will be a major influence over upcoming updates to the game and future titles?

Both Tencent and Riot are committed to allowing Riot the autonomy to leverage the creativity and innovative talent that led to the success of League of Legends. Tencent is investing in Riot because they see value in the team and want our talent to have the freedom to innovate and create.

For gamers already enjoying League of Legends and our frequent content updates, nothing changes. We have some really exciting stuff in the works for the very near future, and in the longer term our additional resources will only allow us to bring more great content and features to LoL and future projects.

League of Legends is a game that, even with over a million people playing it online, is perhaps not as well known as other multiplayer PC games. With this new backing from Tencent can we expect to see more visiblity for the game in certain circles?

We are actually very satisfied with the recognition we've received. We were humbled to receive a slew of awards in 2010 – from the likes of PC Gamer and the Golden Joysticks – so we're optimistic about receiving more attention from traditional gaming circles.

As we continue to expand our audience – both in the US and internationally – our marketing approach, like every aspect of our business, will continue to evolve. That said, we will continue to be extremely community-focused.

Do you have any projections or predictions on how many players you want to see online in League of Legends by the end of 2011?

If more people continue to discover and enjoy League of Legends, we'll be happy, period.

The game, like most free-to-play games, has a microtransaction business model. We know you can't reveal specific numbers but can you give us some idea of the kind of revenue that players spend on the game?

We're happy with League of Legends' performance, but we plan to continue to make it possible to play League of Legends without spending any money. In fact, many of the top players in our game still have not spent any money on League of Legends, and we're happy with that. Part of what fuels that is that we don't sell power in League of Legends - which is one thing that our players have really appreciated about League of Legends.

We recently saw that THQ is ditching their plans for free-to-play online games, yet smaller companies like Riot are having lots of success. Why don't we see big Western game publishers enter into this industry more?

I don't know what the motivations of other companies are. For us, the free-to-play model is part of Riot's DNA. It's a different way of doing business in the games industry that requires a different approach to virtually every aspect of your business. Riot Games was built from day one to support a free game that is constantly updated with new content and features - and that has influenced every aspect of the company.

League of Legends constantly adds new Champions for players to use. How hard is it to develop new Champions and have them balanced so they work with all of the other previously released Champions?

It's an intricate and nuanced task, but one that our team has over a year's experience with. Balance is an extremely important aspect of our ongoing development. It's something we devote a lot of attention to, and have oriented how we design and test new Champions around. It's definitely hard, but it's critical to making a great PvP game, so we wouldn't have it any other way.

What sort of other new content can we expect to see added to League of Legends in the next year?

The Tribunal system is right around the corner, as is the Co-op vs. AI mode. The Tribunal is going to give players a way to enforce standards of behavior on their peers. Co-op vs. AI mode is something our players have been asking for and are very excited about, we've built some tougher bots for players to practice on and get ready for competitive games. But those upcoming features barely scratch the surface - we have a lot of great stuff in the works that we aren't talking about yet.

What hints can you give us about Riot Games' next game projects and will they be similar to League of Legends or will they have different settings and/or genres?

We're focused on League of Legends at the moment - improving and expanding the experience for all our players and fans.

Does Riot Games plan to continue making PC exclusive games or do you see the company making games for other platforms (mobile, tablet, console, etc)?

We want to make great games.

Finally is there anything else you wish to say about this new deal with Riot Games and Tencent?

This only opens up more doors for Riot. Our vision remains absolutely the same and Tencent is giving us the independence to continue to pursue it. Our means to achieving that vision are expanded, and we are more enthusiastic than ever about 2011 and beyond for fans of League of Legends.


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