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Project L Will Pave The Way For A Viable Free-To-Play Fighting Game Experience

Riot Games will be entering the 2D fighting game arena with Project L eventually, and so far its recent reveal during the company’s November League of Legends media fiesta shows a ton of promise.

To recap:

  • The game is a 2v2 assist-based fighting game similar to the Marvel vs Capcom series, Skullgirls, and Dragon Ball FighterZ.
  • The game is employing a colourful 3D art style and is set in the League of Legends universe.
  • The current roster count is 4: Darius, Ahri, Jinx, and Ekko. Ekko gets a character breakdown: he’s a mid-ranged zoner with some juggling tools and “rewind” double-back moves to get him out of danger.
  • The game’s input will be very simple; no quarter-circle motions or DPs. Just button presses and one d-pad directional input similar to Super Smash Bros. and Fantasy Strike.
  • Online fighting will implement rollback netcode.

Sounds good? Well, it may be too soon but Project L has yet to talk about how the game will be sold and marketed. We have a few concrete theories on that; well, just one.

Based on its publisher’s track record with esports games –League of Legends and ValorantProject L will most likely be a free-to-play game.

When people hear free-to-play, people have reservations. They would associate it with a brainless gacha game or a pay-to-win scheme disguised as a game, which isn’t completely false. But in practice, there are a good number of fun games that run on the F2P model just great like Path of Exile, Warframe, Genshin Impact, and World of Tanks (to a point). Most of them offer gameplay and basic mechanics for free, with the cosmetics stuff requiring payment. And this isn’t a decade ago where F2P games on mobile were pretty exploitative – we’re looking at you Dungeon Keeper and Final Fantasy: All The Braves.

When done and handled right, and just keeping it cosmetics-based without any way to tweak the game system and balancing, the model does work. LoL and Valorant are doing just great with their current payment model. Loads of players are on-board the game, no one’s feeling completely shortchanged with the game’s quality, people are still tuning in to esports and competitive tournaments for both titles offline and online, and both titles are still being updated on a consistent basis with no signs of either slowing down. Riot Games has experimented a ton with this business model, from straight-up exclusive skins and cosmetics with tiered pricing to loot boxes.

Granted, some of them may not work as intended (like the purchasable achievement system), but for the most parts these exclusives are of the highest quality and come with their own brand of promotions and marketing. You don’t need me to tell you how successful the spin-off virtual band K/DA are, just because of how catchy the song is and how exotic and shiny the purchasable K/DA skins are.

Riot Games has seen their fair share of failures and successes that ended up working out big time. It’ll be pretty silly for Project L not to follow this line of thought and business model, given how mad successful Riot Games is for the past few years or so.

However, if it needs ideas on what to do and what NOT to do from a messaging and outside perception angle, all it needs to do is look at Xbox One’s Killer Instinct.

Wait, What?

For those who didn’t know, the 2013 reboot of Killer Instinct came out as a free-to-play game, but with a few stipulations:

  • Free characters are in a rotation; one week it can be Sabrewulf, the other it can be Jago.
  • Each individual character in the then-eight-person roster cost a set low price. So if you just want to pay US$4 for Jago, you can do that.
  • You can pay for the game’s full package for a one-time retail fee, just like you would a regular retail game.

In theory, it’s a great option for a reboot of a game to go through different payment models. On the flip side, having a prominent outlet like IGN calling it a great free-to-play game during E3 2013 may not be the best messaging to bring out, especially in that timeframe where the F2P moniker has heavy negative connotations. It’s not as bad now, but it was a death knell for many games from the “gaming audience” that are quick to judge these things.

Thankfully, cooler heads and sensible audiences prevailed; the “F2P” model worked, though most folks I know ended up just buying the full PC version of the game when it was made available a few years after the Xbox One launch version. The point here is that Riot Games will need to control their messaging and get a ton of legacy fighting game community folks on board the Project L train during the game’s drip-feed promotional phase. And also hammering the point home that the F2P model will work wonders if it had the same rotational roster system and a “buy one character for X price for life” option, while at the same time keeping the microtransactions cosmetics only.

Again, all those K/DA and Star Guardians skins? They all will probably translate well onto Project L as long as it doesn’t come out looking like Street Fighter 5 Blanka-Chan costume game-breaking nonsense.

PR-wise, having the EVO founders Tom and Tony Cannon leading Project L and putting out a convincing promo for the upcoming 2v2 fighting game is already the battle half-won. Now it just needs other fighting game luminaries and lifetime achievement awarded folks like Maximillian and Justin Wong just making content without coming off as schills. We don’t want another repeat of the Marvel vs Capcom Infinite PR nightmare, right?

And yes, we do know that there are F2P fighting games like Fantasy Strike, Metal Revolution, and Flappy Fighter. But do they have a chance to headline the next big EVO fighting game tournament compared to Project L’s chances?

Exactly. Besides, Fantasy Strike became F2P AFTER its past retail model didn’t work out.

Forging Ahead

Like we said before, it won’t be a huge surprise for Project L to debut with an F2P model. But for all you know, Riot Games will probably buck the trend and go for the standard retail price model like with their recent Riot Forge offerings: US$40 for all the characters and gameplay options, with free updates coming in on a consistent basis ala Overwatch.

However, if Riot Games are sticking through to their formula, they can definitely get more money out of Project L with cosmetics and speech packs/announcers alone. Imagine having your 2v2 fights being commentated by the Arcane VOs or the OG voice actors of the game.

Yes, you will have your detractors and naysayers saying the Project L title will be casual filth that will die out after a few months of play. I’ll say this: the LoL player count is currently at 180 million players on a monthly basis just for the PC platform alone (Steam, Riot Games client). On average, that’s about 2,160,000,000 players yearly. If Project L only gets a fraction of that for its initial year, that’s still a total of about 540 million players on board the game total, in theory.

How many sales has Street Fighter 5 made throughout its run since early 2016? About 6 million units for all its platforms (PC, PS4). Tekken 7? Over 6 million copies worldwide, with the whole series reaching over 50 million copies sales. Quality and “hardcoreness” of a franchise is one thing, but having more people on-board your “niche” genre game, even if it’s half of 180 million players, is probably going to do the genre and community growth aspects more good than bad.

Now if only Riot Games can sort out its own toxic MOBA community, then maybe the future can look more certain and brighter for Project L.

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