In April 2020, Riot Games released a collectible card game called Legends of Runeterra. And despite mixing many concepts from both Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone, LoR is a unique beast, with several innovative and exciting gameplay dynamics.
And what is equally interesting is that LoR follows a unique business model, different from any other digital CCG. An extremely user-friendly model rooted in the core values of Riot Games: Play for free. Play forever. And pay if you want.
This is the first of a trilogy of articles that aims to breakdown Legends of Runeterra:
- This article will review the current CCG market status and Runeterra’s position on it.
- The 2nd article explores its gameplay mechanics, how the game has solved the problems of its closest competitors and which are its key innovations. Read it here
- And the last one will look at the particularities of its content management strategy and how it might affect its long-term engagement. That will also include our predictions on if their approach will ultimately work or not.
I have wanted to write about LoR for quite a while. After finishing my work for the GDC 2021 and other conferences, I finally have the time. Hopefully, this will also help me justify the insane amount of time I’ve dedicated to LoR.
For these articles, I’m teaming up with my partner in crime and editor, Victor Freso.
And of course, remember that we’re not affiliated with Riot Games in any way, although this is our second article about them. These are just our thoughts as fans.
The Collectible Card Game Market
There’s no better way to map a sector of the market than to put together multiple titles that target the same genre and audience.
If we do that for CCG, we see that the market is divided into 4 categories based on their business size. (Number one may surprise you!)
(Note that this analysis is exclusively based on mobile, which is an incomplete picture since most of those games are cross-platform. Nevertheless, even if PC represented 75% of their revenue, the rankings would remain the same.
Also, it doesn’t include Collection RPGs which have card themes, like Rage of Bahamut or WWE Supercard of Honor. Only CCG).
- The Jade Emperor: Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links
When it comes to revenue, this is the undisputed ruler of the genre, by virtue of the only one of the group that is extremely popular in both the West and Asia.
Because of this geographical advantage, it’s unlikely that any of its west-focused competitors will be able to become an actual challenge to its throne.
Unless those competitors increase their reach on those territories, that also seems unlikely: Historically, few western games have become successful in Asia, compared to the number of Asian games that are powerful in the West.
- The Two Kings of the West: Hearthstone and MTG Arena
Next, we have the big two names that will pop up on any conversation among fans, locked in an eternal discussion of which one is better.
Indeed, both games compete for the same audience and same market spot.
Their ultimate duel was scheduled to the release of MTGA in mobile, which happened just a few months ago (March 2021).
And so far, things don’t look good for Blizzard‘s card game: Since the release of MTGA, there has been a significant drop in downloads in Hearthstone, especially n the US.
In global terms, so far both games are pretty much matched in terms of revenue at the moment. But it doesn’t take an oracle to predict what will happen if one of the games keeps on having more downloads at the cost of the other.
On top of this, MTG has already announced incoming collabs with D&D’s Forgotten Realms (the setting of Baldur’s Gate) and with Warhammer 40k (!!!), which will maintain their momentum when the novelty of the game release in mobile goes away.
What’s clear is that the next months will be critical for Hearthstone: They need to deliver amazing content and features to perform damage control while they attempt a comeback by reawakening player interest.
My humble opinion is that perhaps they should consider partnering with a powerful IP, if possible one that’s big in Asia (where MTGA is not well positioned), as a way to reawaken player interest.
Or perhaps Blizzard could leverage their other franchises, such as Starcraft. Which is a bit crazy, but – on the other hand – it’s not bolder than MTGA partnering with freaking Warhammer 40k.
Addendum: reddit user u/volugwolf pointed out that the analysis is missing Shadowverse, a popular japanese CCG from the creators of Rage of Bahamut. I would consider it a smaller king, as it has a biz size a bit smaller than MTGA and Hearthstone, but has a strong legacy and it’s bigger than LoR.
- The Lowborn Warlords: Legends of Runeterra and Gwent
On a third level, we find another layer of excellent games. Engagement is not the reason why they’re below. In some cases, they have even better gameplay than the games that generate way more revenue.
But they’re far from the top positions in the category because they don’t have enough reach.
The key characteristic that both Gwent and Legends of Runeterra share, and which IMO explains their lower positions in the market, is the lack of a strong legacy:
Hearthstone has been around since 2014 and entered the digital CCG space when it was a blue ocean. It is also based in Warcraft, one of the most popular gaming franchises ever, which attracts a strategic player profile that matches the average CCG fan. This allowed them to build a strong fanbase.
And MTG (1993) and Yu-Gi-Oh! (1999) have been around for decades, are the most famous CCG tabletop games, and already sum a long list of games, comics, novels, and in the case of the latter one, even highly successful anime series, and films.
This means that the fantastic results that we see are not only due to new audiences created by their digital products, but rather the result of decades of accumulated generations of players, many of which are now able to reengage with those games due to their digital format.
In comparison, both GWENT (2016) and Legends of Runeterra (2020) are pretty new additions. Their core IPs are based on products (sandbox action RPG, MOBA) whose core audience is a bit far away from the average card game fan.
And they’re both aiming to grow now when the CCG market is crowded (red ocean), making access to new audiences even harder.
Of course, the games themselves may be less effective at monetizing their populations (they definitively are way less aggressive than Yu-Gi-Oh or Hearthstone in that regard).
But even if they were, without the ability to reach a bigger audience, they won’t get to the higher leagues in terms of revenue.
- The Fallen: Eternal, The Elder Scrolls: Legends, Artifact, etc.
Finally, the fourth layer is composed of CCGs thatare too small to consider they’re really competing with the previous ones (Eternal) and by products that are being discontinued (TES: Legends or Artifact).
These games each suffer from different problems (Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy said), ranging from extreme lack of legacy and reach or gameplay not up to the market standard.
As a side note, perhaps new companies trying to enter into the CCG genre may want to consider reviving classic tabletop card games like Vampire The Eternal Struggle or Legend of the Five Rings. They were quite popular back on the day (so it could reengage audiences) and would have all the design solved. Just saying.
So why would Riot want a CCG?
To summarize the previous segment, the digital CCG genre is extremely monolithic, and it’s dominated by few well-established products that regularly renovate their gameplay through systems of content rotation, limiting the chances for competitors to disrupt.
So why in the Shadow Isles would Riot Games want to enter there?
Compared to other genres, they can’t get to the top!
In my opinion, there are two main objectives that Riot pursues with LoR:
- It contributes to the Riot gaming ecosystem.
While League of Legends may be the core business of Riot, and is a game with a massive audience, it’s not a game for everyone in the gamer spectrum.
Specifically, MOBA it’s a genre that is not very attractive to old and strategic players because of its focus on high-speed reflexes and high APM.
And those are vital audiences, as they are incredibly passionate about games and are big spenders.
By having a game like LoR on their portfolio, Riot will redirect its MOBA audience as they get older and can’t keep up with the pace.
And perhaps more importantly, with it they can attract new audiences, which are still close to their primary target but would be difficult to captivate with high-speed, dexterity-based games.
If you look at it that way, releasing a CCG seems like a natural expansion area for Riot.
- It’s a long-term investment.
Although investors and fans may look disappointed at seeing LoR not being a category leader, it doesn’t mean it can’t be there one day. This is a kind of game that can take many years to flourish.
The leaders in this category are there because they’ve accumulated many generations of players, which they’re able to reengage regularly through new sets, new game mechanics, and game modes.
This could be a path that LoR could follow as well.
In fact, that has always been Riot’s strategy: Games that are extremely engaging and player focused, so they accumulate generations of players and build up massive LTVs based on retention, not ARPPU.
And, in the context of CCG, Riot has a secret weapon which so far it hasn’t exploited: The fact that even if the gameplay is very westernized, the LoL IP is popular in Asia.
The key question is if LoR will achieve huge long-term retentions and if it will be able to reengage users with new exciting content and attract new crowds, progressively building a significant player base.
My humble opinion on this is that LoR has good gameplay mechanics to become a lasting game. But currently, it has a content structure and content management strategy that is unlikely to foster long retentions.
In the two following articles of this trilogy, I will proceed to defend this insanely bold statement I just made. First, by breaking down LoR gameplay: Is it good enough to last?
Stay tuned because that one should be coming soon!
(Perhaps even next week, depending on how much do I want to sleep over the weekend. It’s about 70% done as I write these lines).
SPECIAL THANKS TO
I would also like to thank Ken Landen, Drew Levin, Joseph Kim and Conrad McGee because our casual conversations about CCG where a big source of inspiration for my own thoughts.