Core gamers can be whales too

True fans of any game are willing to spend extra on it; core gamers aren't so different from their F2P brethren in that regard

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.

Latest comments (25)

Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany4 years ago
You can't "press" a core gamer to expend money in your game, he just doesn't work that way. Core F2P games are those in which payment item almost don't affect game-play or don't affect at all.

Just leave the monetization to cosmetic stuff and anything that will make his character feel different and unique and people will pay for it if they feel comfortable in that game. Team Fortress 2, Dota2 or Path of Exile are good examples of this.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alfonso Sexto on 31st January 2014 8:24am

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
OMG. There is actually someone offering an informed and positive opinion about allowing players to spend what they like how they like? This is still a gaming site right?


Thanks for an excellent piece, Rob. It won't stop the pearl-clutchers who think their own opinion is the one true path, but the more people that stand up for consumer choice, the better. Nice one.

We just made our first F2P game and we have a lot of "whales" despite it not being a consumeables driven game. I talk with them a lot and they're all weirdly adult and normal too. There's a pattern building here...
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 4 years ago
It might come down to humans being creatures of ideology.

I am at peace with knowing that my upbringing and early experience with gaming culture educated me towards having a perception of "how can I purchase the most games for the least amount money?" An ideology which permeates the society I live in. It is a capitalist society, a society of people optimizing, I would not have it any other way. Within that context, there is an entire gaming culture of flash sales catering to my perception of what drives a good purchase. Particularly Steam turned games into what essentially are packs of cigarettes for those who play games rather than smoke. it fits the ideology I have, so I am likely to speak in favor of it.

In the same way the entire f2p type of transactions eludes me. It does not make sense for me, from an ideological standpoint. I can see how it works, once you accepted f2p as the business ideology for yourself. But the thing with ideologies is that you kid of stick with the one you got, even if you are aware that the one driving your snap decisions is just as arbitrary in the end. But your ideology nags you. Is f2p but a demo? Are microtransactions digital bribes and is the handing out of bribes a Chinese empowerment fantasy, like being gangster in GTA5 is an empowerment fantasy in Europe? You never quite know.

I find this article great in a "stranger in a strange land" sort of fashion. It is also to be expected that the discussion in this thread will heavily feature a clash of ideologies. It all fits together nicely. Why? Is there such a thing as ideologically correctness for games which is driving the more heated discussions on this site? We can see how both ideologies can produce enough revenue to support a developer, if customers with the right ideology are reached. Because of this, the only itch I can see is how the term superfan is defined as the person spending the most money. Then again, this might be due to semantic differences of a term within the context of different ideologies.
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Show all comments (25)
Andrew Skeen4 years ago
I find it ironic that you refer to Las Vegas casinos as "morally bankrupt" while many (most?) F2P titles rely on the same habitual stimulus-reward response loops that compel certain people to become addicted to gambling.
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Sean Kauppinen Founder & CEO, IDEA4 years ago
Actually, you can press a core gamer to spend more. Once they are invested time and money wise in the game and are having fun, they can be pushed into additional purchases. If this wasn't true, there would be no merchandising in F2P games where larger item and currency packages are offered at a discount to those who have paid before.

Cosmetic items work well with certain gamers and are most popular in Asia. In the U.S., most players want items that make them more powerful, or power-ups that remove time gates, speed leveling, etc. In Europe, players are more cooperative making it a market where you can sell items that help a party or group. I've run online game companies with F2P models for years and have seen the data.
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Barrie Tingle Live Producer, Maxis4 years ago
I'd call myself a core gamer, buy consoles on pre-order, buy multiple $1,000's of games a year and I buy Season Passes and DLC's for the games I get the most enjoyment from.

Why can a core gamer not also enjoy F2P games? I play Simpsons Tapped Out, The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, Battlefield Heroes etc. and I don't tend to buy things there unless I really enjoy the game and then I'll spend some money and show my support for the devs even if I don't want a new hat.

If a game grabs my attention for any length of time, core or F2P or Freemium, then I'll spend money on it.
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Maarten Brands Director, Cook & Becker4 years ago
As someone who is in the high-end game art business and sells to enthusiasts, I've always found it pretty insulting and off putting to hear companies and people talk about their best customers as "Whales". It reflects how those studios using the term see their customers. Not unlike Goldman Sachs bankers calling their clients "Muppets"...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Maarten Brands on 31st January 2014 6:59pm

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Steve Bauman Senior Designer, Wargaming.Net4 years ago
This is a huge generalization, but one difference between core gamers and casual gamers is that one group is comfortable admitted that they spend money on F2P games. The other will deny it publicly while spending in private.
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises4 years ago
Free to Play is like Communism, they both sound pretty good in theory. But in practice they they don't turn out that well, and any "success" is just temporary.
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Brian Smith Artist 4 years ago
As a so called core gamer my issue is more with the value of inapp purchases. I'm happy to spend more on a game if I'm enjoying it and the value of the addition is plainly reasonable. Many are not. The example you gave on spending $500 on characters for game is a pretty good example of that. This is clearly taking the piss as goes value. If you are trying to tell me we need to allow customers to be fleeced then I don't think that's right.
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David Serrano Freelancer 4 years ago
But what constitutes a whale in the core market? Is a whale the type of player who only purchases one to three games per year from one genre, but purchases all of the premium content for those games? Or is a whale the type of player who purchases twenty, thirty or forty games per year from multiple genres but only purchases premium content for the handful of games they enjoyed most? Or is the reality that given the historically low completion rates for core games and (in comparison to the size of the installed base) the narrow mass market appeal of multiplayer gaming, there's really no such thing as a whale in the core market in any conventional sense?
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
A whale in mobile circles is someone that spends $60 on a game.

I see the pearl clutching didn't take long.
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Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design 4 years ago
I believe I have spent close to $300 - $400 on Mabinogi once upon a time. Do I regret it? Heck no, I played that game for like 4 years. I still have my character and can jump back on it whenever. They continue to update the game and there is always something new and exciting. I am done spending money on it though.

Point is, if a game is good, it really isn't odd that players would spend money in cash shops or other services the game offers.

Do I consider myself a whale? No .. not really. I don't do that for games all the time. I have to really like the game a whole lot for that to happen. It goes to show you though, anyone can be a whale. It just all depends on the game and how much they like it.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
Wizards of the Coast have had about 10 grand out of me over the last 15 years or so.
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Roger Weber Founder & CEO, Ranked Gaming4 years ago
Thank you. I have been waiting for somebody to say this. I really dislike how whales have this negative connotation, whilst many of them are really just your core fans that you should appreciate, because they appreciate and love your game, thus spend more than they usually would on a game.
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There are some groups who are experts at extracting Whales for scientific research purposes, but to develop a beloved universal enhanced user experience for all, requires a bit of luck, zeitgeist fandom and secret sauce
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 4 years ago
Core gamers are whales.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 4 years ago
Core gamers are the original whales.

Fixed that for you, Bruce. :)

On a more serious note:

If you get the right sort of fan, then you can sell them most things. The right sort of fan just differs, depending upon age, interest in genre, and interest in IP. Publishers need to remember that. Trying to sell IAP in the Dungeon Keeper mobile game, for instance, is probably going to fail, since the fans who appreciate the Dungeon Keeper IP aren't really going to fall for such tactics. But that doesn't mean the Dungeon Keeper fan can't be sold anything nowadays, as the existence of War For The Overworld can attest.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 1st February 2014 6:35pm

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 4 years ago
As someone who clearly owns too many Magic the Gathering cards from back in the day, my perception upon purchase of those cards was more in the vein of storing, or rather transforming the value of my money, whereas some f2p strike me as purchases which burn money.

A perceived difference is of mine is owning games and adding them to my collection, in contrast to using a timed XP booster. To the point where I definitely have too many games I never played. I suppose that is the same way collecting stamps differs from smoking. In the end, your money is irrecoverably lost, the stamp collector merely thinks the value remained there.
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Teut Weidemann Consultant Online Games, Ubisoft Germany4 years ago
It is amazing that after over 10 years of f2p there are people still writing that some players spend a lot of money on their hobby. I am still shaking my head in disbelief how long some of you have slept.

$500? WHALE? Wtf. From that point of view everyone buying an Xbone would be a whale, and there isn't even a game on it! Add an extra controller and battery pack and game and Life subscription and you are WAY beyond your $500.

If this site would allow pepole to write about everytime someone buys a $500 tennis racket we would be spammed with stories. But a whale in games, jeez. Thats special.

10 + years. Thats how old f2p is. Get real. It might not be too late to jump on the train.
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 4 years ago
@ Teut Weidemann

Exactly. There is too much of the $60 dollar mindset constipating the industry.
Once a game becomes an ongoing service the customer can and will pay a lot of money for their hobby.
Just look how much money people paid to buy WoW gold from Chinese gold miners.
There is nothing wrong with a $1,000 in game purchase if that is what the customer wants.

I have spent many tens of thousands of pounds on my hobby of SCUBA diving.
If I wanted to dive Blue Corner on Palau or the San Francisco Maru in Truk lagoon then it didn't come cheap.
Top end hillclimb cars are faster than Formula One cars. Their owners get through thousands of pounds in just a few seconds. There are other hobbies that get through money at a similar speed.

As always it is imperative to think of the customer first. Of providing them with the experiences that they want.
Once someone is emotionally engaged they will want to invest more in these experiences.
We should not be shy in giving them what they want. It is what our business is about.
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Samuel Verner Game Designer 4 years ago
It doesn't have to mean IAP
but most ppl in this industry cannot come up with innovative ideas, so they pick the IAP card and wonder why it turns out so bad in their coregame.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 4 years ago
We should not be shy in giving them what they want. It is what our business is about.
And business is normally just that. Except if its the hardcore games industry, when they just ignore the customers.
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Gareth Eckley Commercial Analyst 4 years ago
Core Gamer =/= Whale.

The two groups do overlap, but not as much as people would think. It's not an issue dropping a grand on a game if you're a member of the Saudi royal family or an investment banker playing a FOTM title. Conversely, a large proportion of my friends (who are definitively hardcore gamers by virtue of being on my friends list) are people who consider it a badge of honour that they've progressed so far, but have never spent any money on a free to play game.

EVE Online had free to play in 2008 and the only people who could access it were the core gamers. Everyone else had to pay. As time goes on and the in game value of PLEX inflates, you have to be even MORE hardcore to be free to play. Although I appreciate EVE Online is the very definition of an outlier.

My partner spent around 10 a month before I got made redundant on iOS games (in a recession, in app purchases are the first budgeting casualty) and she is the very definition of a casual gamer. For a lot of people, spending money in a game is either a convenience thing (casual gamers) or a fulfillment of an implicit social contract (hardcore gamers who are guilty they're getting all of this fun for free). In the latter case, gamers will justify spending what they think is reasonable, usually a similar amount to a fixed price game.

I'm basing my view on being the analytics guy for an actual game, in case people are wondering - not just some preconceptions I just made up.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Gareth Eckley on 4th February 2014 12:04am

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 4 years ago
or a fulfillment of an implicit social contract (hardcore gamers who are guilty they're getting all of this fun for free)
Unrelated to whales, but I wonder how far that argument could be stretched with piracy? Core gamers who pirate and, like the .nfo says, "Buy the game if they like it".
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