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“Whale” is rarely a complimentary term.

Makers of microtransaction systems in games brought the term over from the casino industry, and they use it to describe the users that spend the most money. And like in the world of slots and jackpots, with that classification comes a tendency to exploit, rather than build relationships, with that particular customer population. That kind of transaction came to dominate a recent conversation we had with Dmitri Williams, CEO and Ninja Metrics and noted leader in online metrics.

In advance of his appearance at the upcoming GamesBeat 2015, happening on October 12 and October 13 at the San Francisco Grand Hyatt Union Square, Williams shared some potential discussion topics for the event’s panel on mobile monetary policy and customer relations. (Ticket prices go up at 5 p.m. today).

He’s speaking a panel at 11:40 a.m. on October 12. The session will be moderated by Maarten Noyons, head of the International Mobile Gaming Awards. And other panelists will include Jeferson Valadares, director of digital games at Bandai Namco; and Patrick Walker, vice president of insights and analysis at EEDAR.


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The “whale” metaphor isn’t just a reference to the size of heavy users’ spending. Williams framed a significant amount of our dialogue on the relationship between mobile publishers, developers, and users in a fishing metaphor. When the system in place focuses on the revenue streams brought in by only around 1 percent of the player base, market forces tend to crowd potential “whales” in order to compete.

“A system that encourages over-fishing doesn’t leave much left,” Williams said. “You are setting up a very [dubious] relationship with the consumer.”

A relationship built more on manipulation than anything else. This psychological approach to design — again inherited from the profitable machines in the casino industry — is, according to Williams, often counterintuitive to the nature of games and gameplay. Not only that, but it is ultimately destructive in the long-term. For his upcoming GamesBeat panel, Williams hopes to shed some light on possible solutions to this dynamic.

Dmitri Williams of Ninja Metrics.

Above: Dmitri Williams of Ninja Metrics.

Image Credit: Ninja Metrics

“The angle I will be taking will be less about how to squeeze every last dollar out of whale users, but [more from] the systems in which they swim in,” said Williams. “Whales are often isolated people…there is an ethical dilemma on the corporate side.”

This is the kind of ethical dilemma that arises from taking advantage of a subset of users often willing to spend beyond their budgets for the temporary satisfaction that comes from possessing the shiniest and most exclusive commodities in their game of choice. But as much we as an industry should examine such a dilemma, there is a more immediate financial reason to change our direction.

“You can’t make enough money from gauging 1 percent of people,” Williams said. “… you need to spread it out over around 20 to 30 percent. … The game industry is so focused on how to bleed people dry.”

We’re sure to get a lot of debate on this topic. In an email, Walker asked whether it’s more positive to focus on “social whales,” which Williams studies, or those that do the real spending in games.

“Couldn’t the argument be made that providing an entertainment outlet for people who don’t have one is an excellent service to provide – even if people spend a lot for it,” Walker asked. “Even if the data shows they aren’t super happy isn’t there a good chance they are happier than if the service didn’t exist. You would almost need a longitudinal control where one antisocial group played an F2P game and one antisocial group found other solitary activities to state F2P games have a negative impact.”

Maarten Noyons of IMGA

Above: Maarten Noyons of IMGA

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Walker added, “To give my perspective on this – we have done a lot of consumer research on whale satisfaction and find it to be quite high.”

Some game companies have already started paving the road to better microtransactions. Riot Games and Supercell were a few of the developers lauded by Williams for their focus on pay-for-self-exploration systems, rather than the current pay-to-win models. The shift occurs, in the CEO’s opinion, when payment models reinforce communal pay, or the spending of in-game or real-world currency to help a player’s team-mates or in other team contexts.

“[It’s] no different from paying for a bowling shirt for an amateur,” said Williams. “Which I’m happy to do.”

Other methods for side-stepping our focus on “whale-fishing” is to design a system for players to pay toward greater self-exploration. Mechanically irrelevant, but aesthetically fulfilling, items or goodies like those in DOTA 2 or League of Legends. “Pay-to-win” doesn’t need to completely disappear, but offering up additional, less manipulative forms of monetization is what Williams referred to as “an awesome side-stepping of the issue.”

“Paying more for better guns,” Williams said. “I can’t get behind that.”

Whales won’t be the only thing on Williams’ mind while he’s onstage at GamesBeat in just a few weeks, another potential topic could be the relevance of disposable income in different countries could also play a part in his panel. In order to see the entirety of the discussion, be sure to register for GamesBeat 2015.

We’ve left one spot open on the panel for a real whale.

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