While it might not top Farmville in the number of active players, League of Legends was hailed earlier this month as the current most popular game in the world. With over 32 million gamers a month hacking and slashing their way through the available arenas and a billion hours of gameplay racked up in the same period, this MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) game has taken the world by storm.
League of Legends is one of several big games in its genre which was emerged following the success of the Warcraft III map “Defence of the Ancients”. Since its inception League of Legends had to compete with Heroes of Newerth and DotA and now faces further competition from Valve and Icefrog's DotA 2. Despite this however, it's smashing everyone and everything. Not only are huge numbers of people playing, but they're doing so a lot and for a long time.
First up, Riot have nailed free to play. Many companies have confusing setups where it's free for a certain time or to a certain level. The micro-transactions are confusing or too advantageous to players with lots of money. Not so with League of Legends.
In LoL, you can play for free, for as long as you want. You get a weekly rotating group of heroes to play with and as you play games you earn IP that can be used to buy heroes permanently so you can use them whenever you like. However, if you want you can use real money to buy the heroes to get them a bit quicker. Also, the only way to get alternative skins and outfits for your character is to dump a few $$ into your account.
Other than that, there is no monetary interaction in LoL at all. It's simple, provides some nice incentives for spending a few bucks if you've been playing for a while and lets you play without ever feeling that those with more money have an advantage. The worst it ever gets is when you see someone with a cool skin and wish you had it.
That's as far as it goes.
There's also the fact that there's over 100 heroes to play with. Riot releases a new one every few weeks, keeping a constant flow of updates to the game that keeps experienced players on their toes and makes your team mates and opponents feel fresh and new. Of course there are old favourites, but you'll quite often have a new character to face off against that can make you rethink your winning strategy.
Stats for different heroes are often quite regularly patched as well, keeping players with OP strategies from dominating for too long – though I still miss Heimerdinger's 3 rockets.
Riot also goes to great lengths to make the gameplay experience a pleasant one. Due to the competitive nature of MOBA games and the time investment of each of them being at least 25 minutes, it can be annoying when someone ruins it for your team in the first 5. To cut back on the abuse, Riot introduced a player tribunal system on top of its complains platform. More recently, honourable players have begun getting awarded, with reportedly positive results.
Ultimately Riot is creating a MOBA game that isn't filled with dickheads; which is an impressive achievement.
While E-sport isn't a massive draw for games yet, its growing along with the audience and the prize money. League of Legends' competitiveness has given birth to big money that can be won. This brings in the pros, which has in turn led to very high standards of gameplay. This allows people to watch the best in the world and learn from them, bringing the entire community's gameplay up a notch – perfect for a game with such a competitive edge.
There's also the fact that LoL is wrapped in a pretty cutesy art set. Aesthetically it's quite cartoony and pretty similar to Warcraft's design which was probably no accident. This meant moving from the original DotA to League of Legends didn't feel too different. At least in terms of looks and it makes it easier for those that aren't hardcore gamers to get involved.
Combined with these other reasons, perhaps the biggest one that LoL does so well in comparison to any other game, is that Riot knows exactly what game it's making and focuses right in on that. It doesn't bundle some blockbuster single player experience, or try and add quirky game modes, it focuses on making the core gameplay as competitive, fun and fair as it can and what comes out is the most popular game around.