Few non-mobile game developers have successfully made the transition to mobile with significant sales to show. One of the rare exceptions is Activision Blizzard, which bought the developer behind Candy Crush, King, and now operates the successful “Call of Duty Mobile.” In an unlikely year and a half, Riot has tried to join these ranks, significantly expanding its portfolio beyond the one classic game it’s known for, netting tens of millions in sales so far.
Today, Riot has a tactical shooter, “Valorant,” the card game “Legends of Runeterra” and an autochess battler, “Teamfight Tactics.” All of these except for “Valorant” have mobile versions and build on the story and characters first popularized by “League.” Co-founder and co-chairman Marc Merrill and other executives at Riot spoke with The Post in exclusive interviews about the challenges of bringing new games to mobile, growing the studio’s reputation and tackling new genres where other titles have reigned supreme for decades.
Riot had always kept mobile in mind, Merrill said, though initially, the technology didn’t feel developed enough to justify massive investment. And so, Riot waited for latency and feel to improve, and for gameplay on mobile to parallel PC quality. Eventually, it became too big of an opportunity to ignore.
That it’s been a long time coming doesn’t seem to faze Merrill, though.
“One of the advantages that Riot has had historically is that we have the luxury of being able to be long term,” he said.
Following the money
To reimagine “League” on mobile, Riot built a new version of it from the ground up, calling it “Wild Rift.” It launched in October of 2020 in a regional testing phase. Eventually, Riot plans to adapt the game to console too.
At a glance, “Wild Rift,” resembles another billion-dollar hit in Asia: Chinese tech giant Tencent’s “Honor of Kings.” Both mobile games want players to smash minions and towers using similar controls in similarly structured matches. That’s not too surprising, given that Tencent owns Riot.
Following the success of “League of Legends,” Chinese tech giant Tencent acquired a majority stake in Los Angeles-based Riot in 2011, and fully bought the company in 2015. Merrill said Riot has sent some of its teams to check on trends in the China market, such as social streaming and the mobile gaming boom.
What they found was developers in South Korea and China making titles that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make — but which more than reaped the returns.
As of June, “Honor of Kings” has made $9.3 billion in lifetime revenue since its 2015 launch in the Apple App Store and Google Play, according to Sensor Tower, and that’s excluding additional third-party Android stores popular in China. Of that $9.3 billion, only $461.5 million comes from international versions of “Honor of Kings.”
By comparison, Riot’s mobile games made between $15 million and $60 million each in lifetime revenue as of June, according to Sensor Tower and App Annie. “Runeterra” has made over $15 million, while “Teamfight Tactics” has made over $25 million. “Wild Rift” outearned both combined. While none of Riot’s new mobile games have come close to “Honor of Kings'” dominance, the Chinese game may foreshadow how popular those titles could one day become.
Riot’s mobile ambitions can also be traced back to another acquisition. In 2016, Riot bought up Jolly Company, a games company started by the creators of “Words with Friends,” in a bid to learn and invest more into mobile gaming. It declined to share the terms of the transaction. Michael Chow, Jolly Company’s owner, went on to become executive producer of “League of Legends: Wild Rift.”
“At that time, there was common wisdom that a mobile game would cost two to three million dollars to make,” said Chow. “Both me and my team at Jolly as well as Riot believed that … it was probably more than an order of magnitude off in terms of what we expected we needed to invest for players, to be able to deliver them something that they deserved.”
Jolly employees who stayed with Riot Games following the acquisition mostly ended up working on “Wild Rift.” They helped develop Riot’s vision for mobile gaming, which followed the development model gaining popularity in Asia. As of June, “Wild Rift” players have spent around $60 million on game purchases, according to App Annie and Sensor Tower, which provide estimates based on App Store and Google Play data. Riot said that over 70 million players in the world have tried Wild Rift so far, and logged a total of over a billion hours players since the first testing phase began.
“We expect ‘Wild Rift’ to be something players can measure their investments in not months or even years, but in decades. You’ll see us continue to pour a tremendous amount of unprecedented levels of investment into this game,” said Chow. “Players are just waiting for us and their other favorite triple A game developers to invest at that scale.”
For now, it doesn’t matter to Merrill that the mobile games only bring in a fraction of what “League” on PC does. The climb can be gradual. “The reason ‘League of Legends’ is big isn’t because we’re great at acquiring players. It’s big because we’re great at not losing people,” said Merrill.
When developing for mobile, Riot has run into more than its fair share of challenges. Its first mobile game, “Teamfight Tactics,” which lives inside the “League” client on PC but got its own separate app on phones, faced “lots of hurdles,” said TJ Bourus, product lead on the game.
“Teamfight Tactics,” commonly referred to as “TFT” by fans, is a strategy game that involves placing characters from the “League” universe on a board, to compose an army that will battle seven other opponents’ armies. The winning army is the one that survives longest.
Both the PC and mobile versions of “TFT” were developed on Riot’s game engine, cobbled together from programming languages C++, C# and Lua. But building “TFT” on mobile in addition to PC takes twice as much time, said Bourus.
“We have to now build for two platforms. That means you make two [app layouts], one for PC, one for mobile. Sometimes the code bases are different … It costs more now to do the same things we used to do on one platform,” said Bourus. “That’s a pretty big hurdle that we continue to face, and it’s actually something we want to solve.”
Mobile gaming also means a smaller screen, lower battery life and, depending on the player’s device, it could mean lower storage and computing power. That forced the “Teamfight Tactics” team to think about what elements of the game were important to show and which could be sacrificed, Bourus said. One big feature they omitted: in-game chat. While PC and mobile gamers can play together while on separate platforms, those on cellphones can’t read or type in the chat.
Bourus said that surprisingly, players haven’t missed chat very much. “When we first launched mobile, we thought maybe players would be like, ‘Please give us chat.’ It hasn’t been the most requested thing, compared to many other things we’re addressing for mobile. But it is something that we want to figure out at some point how to add. At the minimum, you should be able to chat with your friends.”
Apple and Google’s App Store rules are another hurdle that Riot faces each time it pushes an update or publishes a new mobile game. To account for how long the app review process might take, developers try to submit their updates one to two weeks in advance of when they would like players to receive the update.
“Up until now, Riot largely owned all of its own distribution channels,” said Chow. “It’s been pretty smooth but it’s still not as smooth as we’re used to, because we’re used to not having that partner to deal with.”
Taking on ‘Hearthstone’ and ‘Magic the Gathering’
Riot has not been shy about chasing some of the biggest names in gaming. When “Valorant” was being teased, gamers and critics drew parallels to popular shooters “Counter-Strike” and “Overwatch,” comparisons Riot did not dispute.
So when Riot said it was making a card game, “Legends of Runeterra,” it knew it was challenging incumbents “Hearthstone” and “Magic the Gathering.”
“From our perspective, we’re going up against two incredibly entrenched phenomenal games that have been around for a long time, in terms of ‘Hearthstone’ and ‘Magic the Gathering.’ In the case of ‘Magic,’ it’s probably bigger than it’s ever been,” said Merrill. “Our goal is to be able to deliver the types of experiences that would be able to be on par with these incredible titles and grow them and evolve them over the long term.”
“Runeterra” is the only Riot title to launch simultaneously on mobile and PC. As a strategy card game, it builds on the existing genre’s reliance on beautiful card art, the lore established by League of Legends and card types and strategies first popularized by “Magic” and “Hearthstone.”
Jeff Jew, executive producer of “Legends of Runeterra,” started working at Riot over 14 years ago when the studio had “no game at all.” His college friend found out about Riot through a Craigslist ad looking for quality assurance testers for a “Dota-style” game. Being an avid “Dota” fan, Jew applied and soon became an intern at Riot. After working as a producer on “League of Legends” for nearly a decade, he and his boss were tasked with a mission: to find the next game Riot should make.
“We did a bunch of research and card games are actually the most played second game for ‘League’ players at the time, in North America and Europe,” said Jew.
For around half of the game’s development, the studio planned on bringing it to PC only. But as the game neared completion in 2018, top Riot leadership reevaluated that decision.
“Most people these days actually do play a blend of phone and or tablet games and their computer,” said Jew. “We want this to be a game that fits inside of people’s lives, no matter where they are … so it almost made even less sense that we weren’t going to be on mobile.”
Instead of gearing up to publish “Runeterra” in six months to a year, Riot decided to publish in two years, so that it could build the mobile versions of “Runeterra” in house and not rush the team to learn new skills.
“That was a really tough thing for the team to swallow,” said Jew. “That was a really hard turning point. We didn’t expect people to take that news easily and a lot of them didn’t.”
A few people who had been with the project for most of its development disagreed with bringing “Runeterra” to mobile and left Jew’s team to work elsewhere at Riot. The remainder had to learn how to build on different platforms and smaller screens with different user interfaces. Riot also hired new staff, and scaled back the visual effects and graphics in consideration of what mobile devices could handle. “Runeterra” launched on April 2020, weeks after Riot went remote-only.
“I play the game mostly on mobile and I can say with confidence it’s just as good on the phone as it is on PC, and that’s a crazy accomplishment. And it just really changed the mentality of a lot of people in the company. As time went on, we did ‘TFT’ and ‘Wild Rift’ on mobile, so yeah it was a huge turning point for the company, to be quite honest,” said Jew.
From there, the company readied up to launch “Wild Rift” on mobile, what would be its biggest game on the platform yet. “Wild Rift” debuted in Southeast Asia and made its way to North America in March of this year.
While Riot missed being early to mobile, its first few games on the platform are steadily trucking along. Merrill pointed out that sometimes it’s not about being first.
“'League of Legends’ on PC, by coming out in 2009, arguably [was] a pretty late adopter to the personal computer. There’s so many other gaming franchises that beat us to the punch and did a great job,” said Merrill. “But to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter, if you can show up to the platform with an incredible experience that has sufficient gravitational pull or differentiation in some way, to get people to want to come join that experience. And so that’s how we have historically looked at platforms.”