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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”?
Bludex sees the term both positively and negatively.
“There are many sore losers out there who can’t afford to put a lot of money into a game they enjoy, and they tend to get angry when they face somebody who does have that money,” he said. “I do feel a little embarrassed about how much I spend on these games, so I tend to downplay it to avoid negative attention. I feel the public generally has a negative opinion on social games since the main one people know about is FarmVille, and generally people get very annoyed with all the game requests on Facebook.”
All whales are not the same
We also interviewed three other whales who frequent the social network Tagged. The first two are highly successful: “Guiseppe,” a 41-year-old from the Bronx, and “Andy N.,” who chose to remain anonymous. Both own companies and are fairly active, just like Bludex.
Guiseppe is a father to two daughters, owns an income-tax business, and works as a chef at a local college. He also plays pool a few times a week — on a team, which again shows how important community and social engagement, both offline and online, are to whales. Meanwhile, Andy puts in about 60 hours a week at his job and travels regularly. His hobbies include investing and learning new languages.
In addition, Ngarangi Chapman, a 49-year-old from Auckland, New Zealand, is majoring in creative writing and works part-time as an agent exporting natural and organic native products. She also imports clothing, blogs, and fosters some online marketing and business ambitions.
All three of them play one game, Pets — a virtual economy where you can buy and sell actual users as “pets,” which helps you to meet new people — so they don’t do more than dabble occasionally on other platforms.
While Chapman admitted to spending $100-$500 a month, she does have to budget her money.
“I don’t smoke, rarely drink, don’t go out, don’t like shopping,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t have the money, sometimes I do, but I don’t stress about it because I know how the game works so much without the use of purchasing gold. However, when I’m feeling vain, I purchase gold so all my pet players can stare at me green with envy as I continually maintain top 10 status in New Zealand.”
Each of the whales confessed to either following announcements related to Pets or knowing when Tagged is updating, maintaining, or making changes without needing to read about them, as in Chapman’s case. And all either have taken breaks and returned or never stopped playing.
Guiseppe and Chapman both emphasized the social aspects of Pets as part of the reason why they enjoy it; however, they don’t necessarily take advantage of the in-game social features. Guiseppe mainly just plays the game but loves “meeting people from around the world and understanding the way of living in different cultures.” Andy doesn’t use the social tools, either, except for e-mail and instant messenger. And Chapman gave a similar response.
“I simply like to play the game,” she said. “In the beginning, I used to take advantage of the features — [such as the capability to] join a group. But now I just like to play and chat to other players I have acquainted with from around the world over the last four years.”
She added, “What I love about social games is how people act. The thing is how they play and act is usually how they are in other areas of their life. Sometimes how they behave is a [reflection] of their true selves. However, what keeps me coming back are the genuine people I have made close friendships over the years. … I love to have that human interaction and shared interest.”
It’s not always about what’s ‘social’
It’s interesting that these whales can appreciate the sense of community that social games offer but not overly invest in their “social” constructs, such as groups or instant messenger.
Bludex, the Clash of the Dragons and Legacy of Heroes player, said he actually disliked the types of games that require you to have a large number of friends to help even though he’s developed relationships with many players and leads a busy social life away from his computer. Rather, “the challenge, the competition, and the recognition” are what he loves most.
“I believe social games need to rely less on the amount of friends you bring to the game and more on finding friends within the game,” he said.
That’s a quality that applies to his life as well, and it shows that if you look past the excessive spending, “whales” is just a fancy word for “gamers” who are as passionate as we are. They’re not hermits, and they defy one neat attempt at categorization. Not every whale is the same. Some of them relish the glory of competition — being the top player or owning the most — just as much as they value the fellowship that comes out of it.