Do you remember the tail end of 2010? We all wore rags and lived in dirt-floored shacks, dinosaurs ruled the Earth, and 'free to play' was still a dirty set of words. 2011 saw those words climb into the word shower and wash themselves clean, courtesy of League of Legends.
Developers Riot Games released player figures for their five-on-five Defence of the Ancients interpretation in November 2011. The numbers were, frankly, dazzling. League of Legends now has more active players than World of Warcraft – yes, World of Warcraft – sporting a population of 11 million. More impressively, over four million people play LoL every day, and 1.5 million of those are on at the same time. To put that in context, all of Steam has 2.5 million concurrent users.
But capturing the short term attention spans of children, idiots, and child idiots was easy enough for the terrible free to play titles of the past. Craftily, League of Legends snared their monstrous userbase by bucking that trend, and by being crisp, clear, and blessed with thousands of ways to play. No wonder it's done so well – it stands out like a golden pin in a shed full of pigswill.
I play as Caitlyn. I stand in the bushes, peppering creeps with shots from my comically oversized sniper rifle. My basic attack is a single shot. My ultimate attack, gained after fifteen minutes of play and souped up over the next half an hour, is a bullet wider than Caitlyn's waistline that travels a quarter of the length of the map and slams a third out of its target's health bar. I kill people from a distance, and never let myself near other players.
Tim plays as Leona. She's a holy paladin, kitted out in gleaming golden armour and armed with a repertoire of incredibly earnest sayings. Leona's pure tank – she steams into combat, drawing attention and aggression from everyone, leaving other players free to escape or level their weapons on their stunned foes.
Owen plays as Teemo. He runs around behind the AI creep scuffles, watching and waiting for his moment to drop traps. Teemo's stealthy: he hides in plain sight, supporting his team and sneaking shots against any weakened foes. Well, he's as stealthy as he can be, at any rate, considering he's dressed as a fluffy white rabbit, and the traps he lays are easter eggs.
I always play DPS characters. Tim's tanked for years. Owen… Owen really likes dressing up as fluffy animals. That League of Legends lets us all play different games inside one title is impressive. That it let us play them even when it had one game mode and one map is amazing. That it's a free to play game with a level of polish, community, and developer support unseen outside of studios like Valve is utterly unheard of.
Highly recommended: Team Fortress 2 , World of Tanks.