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The “whales” of the social-gaming world are a mystery to most of us. As the biggest spenders, they make up a tiny group (think about 2 percent of audiences) that drives most of the revenue for publishers of these games. But the word “whale” isn’t a flattering term, and neither are the numbers associated with it. These are people, not just customers.
It’s easy to think of whales anonymously because we’re not quite sure who they are or how they think — they’re often elusive due to the stigma that surrounds them. We know they play social games, but are they social? Are their habits casual or obsessive? What kind of people are they?
‘Whale’ has many meanings
Whales existed in online and mobile video games long before they started appearing in the West. Longtime game analyst Michael Pachter told GamesBeat that Asia has used free-to-play with microtransactions for 15 years, but it still feels like a relatively new phenomenon here as we wonder whether the business model holds a place in our future.
Today, the idea of a “whale” carries a different weight for each company. 5th Planet Games, a developer of social games for both casual and hardcore audiences, starts classifying its players as whales when they spend $100 or more a month. That’s a big jump from whales on Facebook, for instance, where social gamers could drop $25 per month to meet the same qualification.
5th Planet chief executive Robert Winkler revealed at the Game Developers Conference Online in 2012 that with its game Clash of the Dragons, 40 percent of revenue came from 2 percent of players who spent $1,000 or more. Ninety percent came from those who spent $100 or more, and the top whale had spent $6,700.
Other companies, like social casino developer Blitzoo, defines various categories of whales based on a combination of factors: total money spent, playtime, experience points earned in-game, and so on. Play sessions tend to be three or four times longer than what an average player’s would be.
But these are all still numbers, not faces or personalities. Winkler told us that a strong sense of community is important for encouraging whales to not only engage but also monetize, and that’s a clue to who they are as people.
“We’ve found that most players are more willing to spend money to help out their fellow gamers than to try to defeat them,” he said. “As an example, players who take part in our ‘guilds,’ or groups of players who come together to accomplish communal missions, are 8.5 times more likely to monetize than players who do not belong to a guild, and the ARPU [average revenue per user] of players in our guilds is 53 times higher than other players.”
For that reason, building community is a huge priority for 5th Planet. It’s a way to attract more whales and monetize more successfully.
“This could be by participating in your forums, by running contests and giveaways, by forming special guilds or councils, or simply by talking directly with your players and showing that you’re listening,” said Winkler. “When players feel like they’re part of community, they become more invested in the outcome of game. And when they’re more emotionally invested in the game, they’ll invest with their wallets as well.”
5th Planet declined to inform us whether their whales receive any special benefits, and as for whether these players subsidize the game for others, it only said, “As with any free-to-play game, there are a group of paying players, including whales, whose in-game [spending] allows game houses to bring new, fresh, and updated content to all players.” We were unable to acquire responses from the other companies we spoke with for this article.
Are whales different from ‘normal’ gamers?
Talking to whales isn’t easy; their habits and relationships with social-game publishers are touchy subjects. But as I found with one player, who goes by the handle “Bludex,” all you have to do is disarm their defenses a little. Aside from the amount he spends every month ($100 on average and sometimes as much as $400), he shares many of the same interests and concerns of regular gamers.
Like many whales, Bludex prefers to stick with one or two games — in his case, 5th Planet’s Clash of the Dragons (a free social massively multiplayer online role-playing card game) and Legacy of Heroes (a free collectible card game). He doesn’t stray much into other platforms.
“To me, a game is only as good as its following and associated community,” he said. “Without quick queue times for competitive events and a bustling forum, games tend to lose interest with me.”
He’s not exactly glued to his computer screen, though. Bludex says he plays for roughly 20 minutes in the morning and one to three hours in the evening. Just because he spends a lot of money doesn’t mean this routine conflicts with everyday living.
“When I’m at work, I barely have any time to think about games,” he said. “However, most of my social time with friends involves lots of gaming. Board games, card games, going to a casino, playing Magic [the Gathering], etc. So gaming is very important to my social life.”
That’s social life outside of games, not necessarily in them. Bludex supervises a network operations center for a large company and enjoys active pursuits like hiking and eating out at restaurants. That’s part of why he doesn’t prefer single-player experiences.
“I’m a social being at heart,” he said. “When there’s nobody to share my experience with — whether it be some friendly trash-talking or a virtual high-five of an accomplishment — the games just become less interesting.”
He doesn’t leave those friendships solely online, either. “I have friendships going on 10 years or more with people I game with online that I’ve almost all met in real life at some point or another,” he said. “I would definitely say gaming has been the main driver in my social life both online and offline.”
Like most dedicated gamers, Bludex actively follows news announcements related to the titles he plays, but frequent content additions are what keeps him coming back. With each break he took from Clash of the Dragons, for instance, he returned to check out a new update. And when he played World of Warcraft, he would quit for as long as a year — until Blizzard released a new expansion.
The more we talked, the more Bludex opened up about his passions and thoughts on current issues in the industry, but one question remained: How does it feel to be called a “whale”?