I met a whale recently. This isn't a euphemistic way of telling you all that I've been getting adventurous with my orders in Tokyo restaurants. Rather, it means that I finally encountered a rare and interesting breed of gamer about whom much is written, but few of us ever seem to actually know one - the free-to-play high roller, the thoroughly engrossed fan who spends hundreds of dollars on their game of choice. In this case, a casual conversation about iOS games led to a friend showing me his Puzzle & Dragons menagerie (that's not a euphemism either, incidentally) and then admitting that he's spent about ¥50,000 - roughly $500 - on the game in total. At the time, there was a new event running in the game with rare characters from one of Japan's most popular manga series on offer. As a fan of both the game and the manga in question, my friend was cheerfully resigned to spending around another ¥5000 ($50) on acquiring the characters he wants from that time-limited line-up.
The reaction many of you are having right now probably involves a degree of head-shaking, some eye-rolling and a dash of good old-fashioned tutting, rather like a retired colonel reading some sensationalist story about the depraved youth of today in his morning papers. I understand completely - even as an advocate of free-to-play (or at least, of free-to-play done right, which is a rarer beast entirely), that was my initial reaction too. I readied myself for a deeply condescending eyeroll, and drew in breath sharply so that I could couple it with a sarcastic sigh. And then I stopped.
"I realised something very important - I hadn't got a bloody leg to stand on. And neither do you"
I stopped and I thought about the fact that I'd just been showing him the collection of games I've got on my PS Vita, which sits next to a 3DS (itself pretty well-equipped for games) in my shoulder bag. I thought about the fact that I'm still struggling with half-hearted excuses for buying a PS4 when it launches here next month, despite the fact that there's nothing I actually want to play on it yet. I thought about the game soundtracks I've bought, and the art books, the posters, the t-shirts, the models. I thought about the gigantic models of Anubis and Jehuty from Zone of the Enders 2 that I've been pointlessly lusting after for the past few months. I thought about paying vastly over the odds for sub-standard food and drinks in Square Enix' cafe, just because they're named after items from Final Fantasy games, and the fact that this experience hasn't dissuaded me in the slightest from planning to drop in to the Dark Souls cafe next week.
I thought about all these things, all the investment of time and money they represent. I thought about the fact that I'm actually the thin end of the wedge in this regard, with many gamers I know spending far, far more of their income than I do on their hobby. I thought about all those things, gently exhaled, kept my eyes unrolled and instead managed a steady-voiced "oh, that's interesting - have you got most of the things you want by now?" We chatted about my friend's obsession and his investment in the game like proper sensible adults, because having thought about all those things, I realised something very important - I hadn't got a bloody leg to stand on. And neither do you.
See, here's the thing. There's a terrible habit of talking about F2P "whales" - a term which the industry itself doesn't use so much any more, incidentally, having realised that borrowing its parlance from the morally bankrupt world of Las Vegas casinos probably wasn't doing it any favours - in terms of condescension and pity. We act like these people have been hoodwinked somehow. They've downloaded a game for free and ended up spending loads of money on it, and for some reason we assume that they didn't know it was happening - that they'll reach some day, down the line, where they realise how much they've spent and have a terrible Road to Damascus moment that lays bare how empty and pointless the whole thing has been. Not like us and our expensive merchandise or huge collections of games half of which we've never actually played; nothing like that at all.
I'm sure those people exist. I'm sure some people stumble blindly into being a whale, only to come crashing down with an awful realisation when they tot up their credit card bill down the line. I'm absolutely sure that plenty of kids run up big charges in games without their parents realising, and couldn't agree more whole-heartedly with the new rules being imposed by the Office of Fair Trading on the sector in regard to reasonable treatment of both adult and child players. However, my friend is neither of those things. He knows exactly how much he's spent - he buys iTunes cards in his local convenience store, so he's handing over cash for the transactions and keenly aware of how much it costs him. He knows he's paid about $500 so far, and knows he'll spend more in future, and he's perfectly happy with that. He plays the game an enormous amount - at least an hour or two each day. Many of his friends and colleagues also play, but he reckons he's got the best team out of any of them. That's important to him. It's a point of pride, of sorts, a kind of bragging right, perhaps. I don't know exactly how you define the emotional benefit he receives from having an expensively constructed Puzzle & Dragons team, but it's meaningful to him - meaningful enough to justify the expenditure.
"But that's stupid!", you may snort - just as the majority of people would probably think that your collection of games, or game soundtracks, or artbooks, or back issues of EDGE, or limited edition copies of hit games, are stupid. We've hit the wall marked "preferences" here. At this point, you don't get to say what's stupid and what isn't - nobody does. As long as your preferences are informed, which is to say that you're not being hoodwinked or misled, then what you spend your disposable income on is a criticism-free zone. That's not to say other people may not hold opinions on it, but those opinions are based solely in taste and preference. There is nothing innately "better" about collecting hardback books or old maps or MAME boards, or spending money on expensive food and drink, than there is about spending money on building up a virtual collection of colourful battling sprites. Beyond basic needs, in the realm of entertainment and mental well-being, you and you alone determine what's of value to you.
"We need to get comfortable with whales, or superfans - accepting that they're not simply part of the F2P landscape but a core part of the gamer experience as a whole"
I can't roll my eyes at a whale (or a "superfan", which is the rather nicer term that specifies a high spender who's fully cognisant of their expenditure) because my own "whale" behaviour would look equally dumb to someone outside my narrow range of interests. I can't even justify my innate discomfort with this kind of expenditure by saying that it's about physical and digital products, since I own hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of Kindle books, iTunes albums and Steam or PSN games. Instead, I think that I - and by extension, you - need to get over that discomfort and start thinking about superfans in a more constructive way.
You see, on one level my revelation upon discovering a superfan among my friends was that I, as a core game consumer, had no legitimate grounds on which to criticise or look down upon his actions. On another level, it was a little more profound. Looked at from a different angle, the same logic shows us that superfans aren't a new phenomenon. In-App Purchases may make superfan strategies on the part of developers look very new and troubling, but for many years, clever game creators and publishers have been making sure that there were plenty of opportunities for their biggest fans to spend loads of money on the game. Japanese publishers lead the way in this regard - companies like Square Enix, Nintendo and Konami are masters at pumping out a ready supply of merchandise to accompany their franchises. Square Enix still creates new Final Fantasy VII merchandise on an ongoing basis - "superfans" of that game just keep spending more. Nintendo has countless Pokemon tie-in items; there are entire stores devoted purely to Pokemon merchandise in many large cities. Hideo Kojima's Twitter feed has been basically non-stop pictures of upcoming Metal Gear Solid merchandise ranges for the past few weeks.
If you're comfortable with those things, you ought, logically, to be comfortable with their digital equivalents. Perhaps they're not for you - I can't ever see myself being a high roller with IAP, preferring to express my "superfan" side through physical merchandise of some sort - but they're clearly for some people. Why, then, do we perfectly happily accept the existence of $100 models of game characters or vehicles, but cry foul so readily when a $40 digital item is released to satisfy that other breed of superfan? I recognise the instinct - it feels like gouging - but I can't find the logic to justify it, because as long as the purchaser knows exactly what they're getting and is happy to pay for it, the price of an optional item can't possibly be gouging.
We need to get comfortable with whales, or superfans - accepting that they're not simply part of the F2P landscape but a core part of the gamer experience as a whole. In a world of rising development costs, most of us accept that new revenue streams are going to be an important way of making game creation pay while keeping down the financial barrier to entry for consumers. Superfans must be a part of the thought process for that, and it's perhaps comforting to realise that most of us are actually superfans already. Spending more on the games we love comes naturally to us. It doesn't have to mean IAP - that's just one arrow in the quiver - but it would be very healthy if we could all dispense with the notion that IAP is intrinsically abusive or solely consumed by idiots. If I can spend money on a Dark Souls themed coffee and cake, my friend can spend money on getting the manga characters he wants for Puzzle & Dragons. Both of us are superfans - and the wise developer will be dispensing with prejudiced notions and instead coming up with ways to allow both of us to open our wallets and express our love for the game.