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Lessons on Mobile Gaming from a Whale
by Mike Lu on 01/10/14 01:46:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


My name is Mike Lu and I am the VP of Product at GREE. I’ve worked on many of our successful top-charting titles - Modern War, Kingdom Age, Crime City - and I am a huge gamer myself. One of the best things about working in the video game industry is the “research” part of the job. This is probably not a shock to people, but research for us usually means playing a lot of video games.

This tradition is not just limited to our industry, but learning from others is a great way to improve one’s craft. Take for example, my favorite Sushi restaurant in San Francisco: Akiko’s.

On their days off, the chefs at Akiko’s make it a point to try various restaurants to observe and learn in order to get a better idea of what their potential patrons like and don’t like. Which is exactly why we like to play all kinds of games!

This is no different for mobile and a lot of my work involves playing other games which include mobile, console, and PC - all to understand the needs and wants of the players or potential players out there - and specifically to understand the type of player known as “whales.”

One of the elements that make free-to-play unique is that we give the games away for free and then are dependent on players enjoying the game and any new content enough to spend within that game. The majority of the revenue comes from an even smaller group (the “whales”). So what is a whale and why do they spend thousands of dollars in the games they love?

As a mobile game maker, I definitely had some ideas about the “why,” but it wasn’t until I became a whale myself that I started to understand the mentality. I had spent thousands of dollars on another company’s mobile game and in doing so I learned a lot about what players are doing in my game. In today’s blog post I hope to share my top three findings of being a whale in mobile games and how someone can incorporate this into their own design.

1) Whales never spend frivolously

Before I became a whale I was under the impression that whales simply just spend to alleviate their inconveniences. “Spend $9.99 to replenish your health instead of waiting ten minutes.” Sure, I spent in these areas but I often felt it wasn’t a good investment. I could put that $9.99 into getting something that will have a long-term impact to my game. Even after spending thousands of dollars I was still very careful about what it is I spent that money on. Don’t assume that if you put a $200 item in the game that whales will just grab it up for no reason; or that if you added a speedup in X, all whales will just gobble it up. Each purchase I made was calculated, and it had to make sense to the game. Give them something that’ll impact the game in the long term, like allowing them to research more than X slots, or changing the output of a resource by n%. Make the value of what they’re buying truly worthwhile and you’ll see them purchase again and again.

That brings us to my second point.

2) The true value ratio.

Part of being a whale allowed me to understand that players often associate a true value to what they’re spending in the game. The concept is fairly simple, if a new item came out that cost $100 but was “worth” $200, I’ll gladly buy it because I think I’m getting a good deal. Spenders have all created this association in game and the reward or ROI from what’s being purchased is very clear. A great example of this occurrence happened by accident in one of our games. One of our limited-edition packages was set to only allow players to purchase one at a time. However, there was an engineering bug that allowed players to buy multiple packages and when players found out purchases went up by 1000%. Some even bought a hundred packs in fear that we would soon discover the bug and turn it off. There was no set back to the game for players purchasing that many packs, but the whales were driven to believe that they were getting such a great true value ratio that they were willing to keep purchasing.

3) Leave it to chance

When I was in the height of my addiction to one particular game, I was really drawn to the chance system. I would find myself continuing to take advantage of that gameplay feature with the mantra ”I know I’ll get the legendary in the next pack” constantly running through my head. The idea that what I was getting wasn’t guaranteed seemed to be counter intuitive to traditional game design, but this aspect of free-to-play design really works for players like me (whales). I was essentially “gambling” on what my reward was each time; and trust me, the one time I did get a legendary item I was so happy that I literally jumped up and high fived the guy next to me.

4) Whales are just like you and me

When we think of these “whales” we often imagine them as rich people with a ton of disposable income. Research has showed that “whales” are way more average than that. Basically - they can be anyone. There is not one defining characteristic or profile that allows us to specifically pre-determine who could be a whale or a specific demographic to target. We have had whales that are male, female, in the military, doctors, lawyers, mothers, students - basically all walks of life. What does that mean? Well it means we need to stay focused on building great games with great content for any and all players.

So - what do all these findings mean for game developers? Well, the first take-away I hope you get here is how important it is to get to know and understand what makes your players tick. That rule applies whether you are free-to-play or not, console, mobile, PC, RPG, racing - basically anything. Know your players. Play the games and understand how and why they do things, so you know that you are giving them and spending the resources on content that people will actually want.

The second key piece is to remember that players spend strategically. There is no success in throwing up expensive items and hoping people buy them - there has to be meaning in the content (which is why it is so important to know your players and know the game). Players aren’t looking to line your pockets, but to make their gaming experience better and they are thinking long-term about each move they make. That’s a good thing. Players are committing to your game. It’s your job to make sure you are equally committed to theirs.

Third and last, remember that there is no playbook on how to reach “whales.” No perfect demographic to target or type of player to look for. And, despite looking for those player patterns, it turns out that it really is all about fun. The quality of the game and gameplay experience is what will draw in players - and specifically “whales” - so my advice is to stay focused on making those great.

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Wes Jurica
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"Research has showed that “whales” are way more average than that. Basically - they can be anyone."
"I was essentially “gambling” on what my reward was each time"

Ugh. I love that being a game developer now means being like the people taking advantage of "players" in Vegas casinos. House always wins and every sense of accomplishment is fleeting.

Shaz Yousaf
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I would guess there *is* a common link with all 'whales'. They are probably prone to addictive behavior. They may have disposable income or not, but either way they will be susceptible to gambling and similar activities.

Nick Lim
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Mike, great article. Totally agreed that it is not fruitful to try spotting and reaching potential "whales". One area we are currently interested in studying is what factors lead a whale to stop spending. Do you have any thoughts in this area from your experience as a whale? Thanks!

Wes Jurica
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Maxed out credit cards?

Jon Chew
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From my experiences with social/web/mmo games, most whales generally stop for uncontrolled reasons outside of the game. Often re-targeting campaigns and new content/incentives are enough to bring a whale back when they're ready (themes, classes, quests, etc).

I always think of it like food. You can't eat at the same place EVERYDAY even though it's your favorite food. Sometimes you just want to try other things or take a break. But you'll come back again when you're hungry or want to try the latest thing on the menu if you're reminded enough.

Mark Morrison
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hi mike, what percentage of 'whales' are video game execs or others in the industry, either having fun with each other (i.e bragging rights) or doing research like you? in just the last 12 months i know of dozens of vid game execs who have admitted to playing these games and expensing the charges (all exceeding $5K min btw) either for research or a business expense. just curious if this demo is transparent and how big it is....

Ian Griffiths
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I must be fairly tiny as there's no way that there are enough executives in gaming to account for the huge amounts of revenue these titles often drive.

Eric Hambright
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"Sure, I spent in these areas but I often FELT it wasn’t a good investment."

"Some even bought a hundred packs in fear that we would soon discover the bug and turn it off."

"the whales were driven to believe that they were getting such a great true value ratio that they were willing to keep purchasing."

So in other words all you need to do is play on the same emotions that drive people who have addictive personalities and engage them in a form of what is essentially gambling.

Call that what you will but it's not good game design. I would also argue that a game that can't be fully enjoyed without plunking down hundreds of dollars isn't a good game

Brian Bakker_Dutchie
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Interesting article and that you confessed to having an addiction to a particular game. Gaming addiction is like any other addiction and can be self destructive. Now you have the freemium model that can take advantage of this whereas the traditional model did not lend itself to these practices. As this is such a new gaming model there is nothing in place to help players understand the risks associated with it, like there is with gambling and drinking. As you have "been there", do you think it is right to address these issues by making it clear to players as I see none of this on your web site or within your games?

Ken Fields
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Frankly, this whole post is really disturbing to read. It reminds me of those transcripts of tobacco executives from decades ago discussing the strategy for getting teenagers addicted to smoking.

The whole psychology of "freemium" video games is shameful in the way it preys on human misery. Congrats on aspiring to perfect your craft, but don't you dare compare yourself to a sushi chef, which actually has some societal value.

Ferry Van schoonhoven
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Interesting post on whales indeed. In Modern War i fit this profile (ingame name Ferr). The day I stopped (we say retired) was a sad day. Guys like me still play but on a much lower spending level seeing their investment going down the drain due to hyperinflation needed to attrack new players and potential new whales.

Two major reasons for whales to stop are family and financial pressure on the one hand and bad customer service on the other. At some point in time one of these reasons, or both, will break the addiction. Many whales will go public on their departure and say good bye to their forum and faction friends. For some weeks or months they will still hang around but when their stats diminish, when their position ingame is average they will quitely leave forever.

McDoc SanDiego
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I am also a self identified "whale" in Modern War and am very familiar with Ferr.

Like the author stated - people "buy" what they feel adds value to the long term play experience. I first spent money on the game Diablo & Diablo II. You couldn't actually spend money inside the game - but you could go on eBay and buy items from other players who farmed the game constantly looking for extremely rare weapons and armor to drop for them. The major flaw in that game model was that players were able to farm these items and then well them to make $500 to $2500 a day and Blizzard (Diablo Developers) were left outside of this income stream. What killed the game and the desire to spend money was when it became too easy to hack the game. Then I not only felt remorse for spending money on a digital Bow inside of a game - I now felt foolish that 3000 other people now had that bow for free.

So to answer the question as to why whales stop spending - sure - circumstances change in a persons disposable income or pressure from family to spend more time in real life than in an escape mechanism - but the fastest way to turn off a whale is to let the game become susceptible to hacking - thus completely devaluing the hard work behind building a long term character. As long as the game company takes every measure to not only stop hacking loopholes - but also in. A game like Modern War where there is a huge social forum where the social aspect of the game is almost equal to the draw of the game play - then the game company also has to publicly take action when hacks are reported - but also protect the integrity of the game and delete accounts that have been shown to cheat the playing experience with unfair advantages that others take via hacks / glitches / or even loopholes that give some players an advantage over the rest of the players.

So what exactly constitutes a "whale" ? Is it the fact that you have spent $100 to gain an advantage over a free player ? $1,000 - or $10,000 - or substantially more? The whale addiction starts with that first purchase and feeling of fulfillment that you have now stepped into an elite circle with your new digital toy.

That first purchase is the hardest to justify - but once you feel good about it - the 2nd, 3rd, 300th purchases just seem to become part of your natural play. In Modern War, I was comfortable spending $100 a month in the beginning - then Gree gave "bonus" buying power if you spent over $500 in a month - so the first time I got the bonus - I felt that my return on my investment was justifiable. Then you find out there are others who spent $1,000 for an even bigger bonus and rumors of those who spend $10,000 in a month - the true whales with unlimited disposable income - so now when you realize one month you are only $200 away from the $1,000 tier bonus - you don't feel so bad knowing (thinking) that some other guy is the one who spends $5,000 or $10,000 in a month - and HE is the one with the addiction - not you.

Over time - it becomes a natural thing for the top spenders to eventually migrate towards the top of the game and get familiar with most of the other "elite" whales. But this also makes it even more apparent when hackers suddenly appear in the ranks of the long time elite with items they shouldn't own unless they were a long time whale. But in-game inflation with bigger and better items always coming out makes it harder to spot the cheaters since the newest item you can obtain today is 100 times inflated over the best item in the game just 6 months ago.

So what makes a whale walk away? In my opinion and experience in last games - when you look back one day and realize you have $15,000 invested over 2 years in a mobile app - justifying it to yourself by thinking you're not that other guy who supposedly invested over $200,000 - and then come to find out there are other players who have surpassed you both with much much less invested in the game by exploiting a hack / glitch / loophole. At that point - the feeling that the game no longer has integrity and that your hard earned dollars have bed completely devalued is enough to make you lose hope in the game and decide to spend your time and money on something new that will have a better appeal to your sense of value.

If you want to keep your whales happy - make sure the game remains a value :)