Skip to main content
If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

Free-to-play whales more rational than assumed

Ubisoft researchers find heavy spenders more driven by long-term planning than impulse, suggest the term hurts devs as well as players

Analytics are great at telling developers what players are doing in their games, but the numbers aren't quite as adept at telling them why. For insight on that, Ubisoft turns to a pair of research scientists it brought on board a year and a half ago: Nicolas Ducheneaut and Nick Yee. At last month's Game Developers Conference, the pair sat down to speak with GamesIndustry International about their latest research into the heaviest spenders in Ubisoft's free-to-play game Ghost Recon Online.

"It's an interesting point in time in the industry because everyone is talking about big data," Yee said. "I think a lot of companies inside and outside the game industry are getting access to these big pools of data and they're starting to get analysts to look through that data. But oftentimes what happens is there's a behavioral finding from the data point of view that they can't understand because they don't know what the player was thinking when those behaviors occurred."

Or as Ducheneaut put it, "It's one thing to have the data. It's another thing to make sense of it."

Sometimes developers may be baffled by the data they see. Other times, they might pull the wrong lessons from it. The pair's research suggests that's what happened with the free-to-play sector's assessment of its heaviest spenders, the so-called "whales." To better understand the motivations of those players, Ducheneaut and Yee surveyed a targeted mix of monetized and active Ghost Recon Online players.

"It's one thing to have the data. It's another thing to make sense of it."

Nicolas Ducheneaut

"One thing that came across was this concept of 'whales' was really framing how developers and our marketing folks were thinking about what drives high-value spenders. [The assumption was] it's impulsive, more irrational, kind of hedonistic behavior," Yee said. "What we found was almost the exact opposite. Instead of being impulsive, they were long-term thinkers, cool-headed, methodical, and they really supported the game."

It turns out the heavy spenders weren't spending money on impulse purchases. They valued long-term learning and mastery of the game, so they focused their purchases on new gear and items to help them master different aspects of gameplay, try new tactics, or unlock new classes to become proficient at. As for how developers could turn that knowledge into concrete changes to make in a game, Ducheneaut said they could start by giving rational customers the basics they need to make rational decisions with their money.

"If you want to make an informed purchase decision, you have to be able to compare items in the store very easily and understand what it's going to bring you in terms of added gameplay value," Ducheneaut said. "So you see how you could reframe the design of your shop such that those things are easier to do for those people."

That would seem to fly in the face of some frequently used tactics in successful free-to-play games like mystery boxes and limited-time offers. However, Yee said the revenue spikes those provide may not be as attributable to impulse purchases as some would think. He said there was one game he looked at where the developers ran discounts on in-game currency every few weeks. It turned out many of the heaviest spenders weren't actually making impulse buys at all; they had spotted the pattern and waited to make their big purchases in anticipation of the reliable sale period. Yee said developers' assumptions about their players' behaviors were turning into self-fulfilling prophecies.

"You're confirming your own bias but you're not testing the alternative," Yee said. "And at first we kind of had these biases too, but it helped us rethink, and helped our designers think, 'Ah, we're seeing this pattern, but maybe it's happening for a different reason.'"

One of the things perpetuating those biases is the terminology of the industry itself. The term "whale" is loaded with negative connotations, and Yee said its continued use hurts gamers and developers alike.

"For the gamers, [the word 'whales'] frames them as being pathological. And for the developers, it frames us as being psychologically exploitative."

Nick Yee

"For the gamers, it frames them as being pathological," Yee said. "And for the developers, it frames us as being psychologically exploitative. And it's bad in a third way in that it constrains how we design games because we assume gamers to have a certain mindset."

Ducheneaut prefers to think of them not as whales but as hobbyists. He referenced a talk from Kongregate CEO Emily Greer in which she described an expensive single-player game with competitive multiplayer aspects in which she spent thousands on gear and months engaged and levelling up, only to reveal that it was not a free-to-play game she was hooked on; it was figure skating.

"It's really understanding those people as hobbyists," Ducheneaut said. "They're committed to a hobby. They invest resources in their hobby, just like someone would in model trains, figure skating, or whatever. It's no different than that."

Ducheneaut and Yee can relate, as they have their own sometimes costly hobbies. For Ducheneaut, it's sailing. As for how Yee gets rid of pesky disposable income, he said painting miniatures helps. Of course, they're no strangers to gaming either, and hope that their work will help make the industry a better place for anyone who counts gaming among their hobbies.

"Speaking more as a gamer, I often wonder about the games that should exist but don't really exist because we've kind of clung to really strict genres. And it's getting worse, seemingly, over time. I think when we understand gamers more, and understand their personalities and their motivations, we can design truly engaging experiences that may break a little free of the mold these genres cling to.

While Ducheneaut said this research-oriented way of interpreting analytics will be increasingly important to the industry as time goes by, there are limitations to how quickly it could happen. Even if the demand for social scientists in the game industry takes off, Yee said there's a bit of a bottleneck on the other side of the equation.

"Right now we're really limited by the supply of people who have the right skill set, who are gamers and understand game mechanisms, can deal with big data, and have some kind of social science framework for understanding human behavior," Yee said. "And it's really difficult to find people who have that overlap."

Related topics
Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.