Tobold remains in my blog reader feed so I end up reading his posts. Often this is a pretty reasonable thing to do because he does talk about games and I find games interesting to read about. Sometimes there's a suggestion for a game I might want to play. Or avoid. Note that it isn't always that I want to play games he recommends, sometimes I want to play games he rants against. But it is useful to have any data points when making a decision, right?
One topic he sometimes comes back to is cash shops in games that are ostensibly free to play. I do as well, because it's actually a pretty important topic I think. Cash shops work for the game companies in some cases so they're pretty much going to be a staple for years to come. I've played plenty of games that have cash shops and sometimes I even buy things from them. I bought energy rechargers in Galaxy Legion, and stash tabs in Path of Exile. I've picked up some extra songs in Final Fantasy Theatrhythm. One could even argue that all the stupid DLC stuff I have for Civ V is a cash shop purchase even though the way you buy it is totally outside the game. Heck, I have board game expansions and I used to spend a silly amount of money on Magic cards and those are a lot like a cash shop in a game. I even did some Magic Online drafts recently!
One of Tobold's key ranting points is that people won't buy random junk at a rate that will keep a game afloat. He says games need to sell power in their stores to convince people to pay cash. And then because he thinks game companies should stay in business and he likes the free to play model he pretty easily arrives at the conclusion that 'pay2win' is a good thing for games. I disagree that people will only pay reasonable cash for power and therefore feel I can take the stance that 'pay2win' is a terrible thing and try my best to avoid playing games which have that trait. Which is why I get so frustrated when he tries to paint League of Legends as a 'pay2win' game despite not actually playing the game to know anything about it.
At any rate, Riot doesn't post a breakdown of incoming money so there's no real way to know what people are spending money on. Because of the IP system and the way the game gates your access to champions the argument could be made that spending money to get more champions is increasing your power and therefore you can easily pay to win in LoL. I think this is false because you earn enough IP to buy a good enough selection of runes and champions just by playing the game. (I also think restricting access to champions forces you to get practice on a few champions at a time which actually makes you better off, not worse off.) I see the ability to buy champions with cash as a way to trade money for time, not money for power, and I do think that's a fine way to run a cash shop. But I don't think Riot is making a lot of bank off of it either. I bought one champion for money (because his name was Ziggs and I wanted to reward Riot for naming a champion after me) but most of the money I put into the game was on skins. My assertion has always been that this is how most people operate, especially people who play the game enough to feel like they can justify spending a bunch of money. But I haven't had any way to prove that. I could talk anecdotally about the people I know, and how almost all of them have bought skins if they spend money at all, but that's not evidence.
What I decided to do was start tracking the other people in my games. The people I randomly get matched up with and against in games. These are people I know nothing about. These are people who are a random sampling of people who actively play the game. These are probably the people paying the money to keep Riot's servers running. These are also all people who are already level 30, and for many of the games are people in the high gold/low platinum match maker bracket. So you aren't going to be finding people who could be buying xp boosts at this point (not that I would know if they had). I can't work out a breakdown of what people are paying money for. What I can do is show that people are, in fact, willing to spend money on skins. That is, if my opponents are actually running with skins. If most of the games have no one with a skin other than myself it would point more to the fact that people don't spend money on skins!
There are a few issues based around the fact the game has so many champions and you buy skins on a per champion basis. So even if someone spent a lot of money on skins if they just happened to be playing a game where they weren't using a skin it doesn't mean they don't have any skins. It just means they don't have a skin for that specific champion. With skins ranging from $3 to $13 each and 119 champions in the game that would actually be a lot of money to have a skin for every champion. I've spent a reasonable amount (triple digits for sure, but I don't know how much exactly) and I've only got skins for 21 champions. If I chose randomly from all 119 in the game I'd only have a 17% chance of using a skin. In reality there are a bunch of champions I'd never pick because I don't own them or don't like them but even then I suspect my skin usage is actually lower than 17%. My most played champion now doesn't have a skin I like, so even if I'd spent thousands of dollars I wouldn't use a skin! I also haven't spend any money on skins since I lost my job so any new champions that come out are base model only for me. But I'm a little odd, and probably the random people I get paired against are a little more normal with their skin usage? I don't know.
At any rate, I've kept track of 63 games since I decided to start paying attention. I don't count my own champion, or any of my friends. I'm looking at just the random people. I excluded most of the 'One for All' mode games once I realized they were probably screwing my numbers after getting into a game where someone was able to buy a temporary skin for all their teammates! But the first couple did sneak in because I had no way to exclude them retroactively. My only notes are number of people with a skin, and number of people without a skin. Most of the games are either 5v5 solo queue ranked games or 3v3 team games. Of note, I only played 2 games where none of the other players had a skin at all. 61 of 63 games featured at least one player who had paid money for just a skin. 7 of the 63 games actually had every single other player with a skin. 11% of the time every other person in the game had paid money for a skin. Overall there were 418 random people in my games and 222 of them had a skin. 53% of the other players were using a skin.
That's a really big number. I went into this wanting to exclude myself and my friends because I was worried we wouldn't be representative and had spent too much money on skins. But it turns out we're not representative the other way! We don't spend nearly as much money on skins as a random person!
I can't say if all these random people also spent money on xp/ip boosts or not. I can't say if they bought lots of extra champions or not. (And if they are buying and using tons of champions they're spending extra money on skins in order to keep the odds of using one up!) But I can say that random people are ALL OVER spending money on things to look pretty without providing any tangible benefit of any kind. Especially since people can spend money on some skins and still play skinless champions running into 53% of people actively using a skin has to mean more than 53% of people have bought skins. (Unless everyone who buys any skins buys all the skins I guess, but that really ramps up Riot's bottom line if 53% of people are buying all the skins!)
I think it's pretty clear that people are willing to buy vanity items like skins, and are willing to buy a lot of them, and are willing to pay a lot for them. I don't think a cash shop needs to turn to selling power in order to make money. And I definitely think League of Legends is a pretty darn good example of how a game can sell pretty pictures at a profit.