Whales in the woodwork
This exact musing is why I recently began tracking down free-to-play "whales" to hear their stories. I found myself questioning just how many free-to-play game developers are building their games around the concept of pulling vulnerable players in, and rendering them addicted to some banal yet compelling activity that they feel they must spend large portions of their money on.
In particular, I pondered whether these "whale" players are fully consenting to the hundreds and thousands of dollars that they are spending, or whether they are being manipulated and exploited by underhanded design that purposely aims to make the player feel like they simply have no choice.
That's why I began trawling game forums and social media over the last couple of months, asking players how much they spent on free-to-play games, and why they chose to do so.
It must be noted at this point that a good portion of the "whale" correspondence I received was from players who felt that, despite spending in the thousands, they had got their money's worth. To many players, they had simply spent a lot of money because they were having lots of fun, and felt that they were happy to throw cash at the developer.
Other players also told me that they loved the free-to-play model, and that if they ever did feel like they were spending too much on these games, they could easily stop any time they wanted. There are plenty of happy free-to-play customers out there, and the aforementioned story from Chris only makes up a very tiny portion of the tales I received.
But it could be argued that to focus on the ratio of exploited to non-exploited customers is to completely miss the point -- that a business model where even the smallest portion of players can find themselves losing control and essentially ruining their lives, is a model that must surely face scrutiny, whether on a industry or governmental level.
Although Team Fortress 2 was brought up by many of my "whale" respondents as a real killer, Valve's team-based shooter was far from the only title named.
Kyle describes PlanetSide 2 as his "danger game," thanks to the financial situations his obsession with the game put him in.
"I'm in a position where I'm living paycheck to paycheck for the moment as the result of that spending -- beyond incurring overdraft for my rent (for a few months in a row starting in January this year and a couple other scattered times)," he says.
"There were a few times I found I ran short for food budget and had to eat ramen for a week instead of something decent," he adds.
He says that the feeling of instant gratification, allowing him to purchase weapons and cosmetic items with a couple of clicks, is what lead him to spend in the hundreds.
"You know you're getting your stuff right there on the spot, and you can do whatever you want with it right away," he says, adding, "I don't think I ever found myself in a position where I said 'I really need to have this one thing, even though it will put me over for rent' -- it was more a case of deciding I could ride out the consequences and that a mild amount of hardship might even make me appreciate what I obtained even more."
Kyle doesn't regret his PlanetSide 2 spending, however: "I never thought of the items as investments, more like disposable entertainment, like movie tickets or a night at a nice restaurant, because when it comes to free-to-play, who knows if the game is going to be around in six months or a year?"
He adds, "Now that I think about it a bit, it's almost a way for me personally to feel a bit richer than I really am. I might have an older car and a bit of a run down apartment, but online I've got all this nice swag that lots of people aren't willing to spend on. It's a nice way to make yourself feel special."