Massively Overthinking: How much money spent makes you an MMO whale?

Several conversations I saw after our report on the new RMT mounts in Guild Wars 2 got me thinking about how the MMO community uses the word whale. I had used the word to refer to the kind of person who buys a ton of RNG-based lockboxes to get every last one of the shiny bits and bobs within, but the reality is that anyone who pays a respectable flat fee for a purely cosmetic upgrade has also been hooked on some sort of fishing rod or other, even if it’s not a harpoon.

So let’s consider the numbers behind the terminology in this week’s Massively Overthinking. How much money spent makes you an MMO whale? Does it apply only to cosmetics or lockboxes? When does the “whale” term kick in for people who buy early access, collector editions, or 10 expansion boxes over the course of an MMO’s life? Are most gamers more properly dolphins or something in 2018?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): There’s no hard number for me. In fact, for me, I generally consider what the cost of a monthly subscription would be after the box price, like in the old days. I treat the games in a similar fashion. If I’m enjoying a new game and I didn’t pay for it, I ask myself how much I’d pay to play that game as it is, offline. If I play after that, I try to keep my spending under $15 a month yearly (i.e., I might not spend any money in game in March, but I might spend $30 in April because I need that mount!”).

And that’s it. Period. It doesn’t matter if there are lockboxes, direct purchases of boosts, cosmetics, expansions, DLC, pay to win tools… it’s all the same to me, even in early access because as I’ve been saying for awhile now, once you charge people retail for your product, it’s released. That being said, as I recently mentioned in the Yokozuna Data piece, “whales” in their research only make up about 1% of the population. If everyone is spending $20 a month on the game, I wouldn’t consider them a whale and I don’t think their fellow player would either. $40 isn’t bad either, and probably not $100 if they’re supporting family/friends too. But when someone says how much they’re spending, and other paying players all gasp and look at each other, “Whale hooooo!”

As for terminology, I’m fine with dolphins since (aside from orcas), they’re mostly friendly. Sharks might work too from a developer’s POV, as they consume a lot of content and may outlast the F2P krill. Tuna or salmon might work as well for similar reasons. There’s something to be said about where an octopus would fit into all this, but at this point, I’m stopping because I’ve given myself the urge for sushi at a time where I won’t be able to get any. Darn.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Upon reflection, I think the word is more about excess and indiscriminate spending rather than a specific value. So home in on the harder calls: Paying $50 for an expansion doesn’t make you a whale in a world where that’s generally what top-of-the-line MMO expansions cost – that’s a product. Paying $15 for a pair of cosmetic sunglasses in a world where that has no impact on anything but your own (still indistinguishable) prestige is probably more in the whale territory; the studio did very little work for what winds up being quite a lot of money from you, even if you have plenty of money to splash around and that sum is nothing to you.

Either way, it’s probably more important to recognize when we’re being treated as dumb marks by studios and respond accordingly. This might be why I’m more inclined to use the term in regard to lockboxing. Lockboxes are designed for whales, and to trick non-whales into becoming temporary whales.

One thing I definitely learned this week is that whales really resent being called whales. No doubt people don’t like to admit that they’re being preyed upon – and that’s what’s really going on with the word, after all; it’s primarily an insult to the whalers, but whales don’t want to think of themselves as victims (or suckers) either. Whatever term you use, I still think it’s important for the community to call out this type of player behavior (and more importantly, studio provocation of it) since it has such an outsized influence, good and bad, on what gets made and developed and sold and broken in live games.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The thing is that “whale” is less about hard numbers and more about philosophy. If I buy everything a game has to offer me, I’m a whale; if I pick and choose little things here and there, I’m not. Whales are, in essence, players who throw around a big chunk of money to solve or approach problems rather than using any other way of approaching the game. Buying several expansions at once for some benefit is whale behavior; buying a deluxe edition of the same expansion isn’t necessarily whale behavior.

Or, to look at it another way, the “normal” monthly subscription for an MMO is $15. If I’m regularly paying twice that, I’m buying a bunch of stuff. If my regular expenditures average out to four times that, I may very well be a whale.

The term is still useful, but I think it’s important that the “whale” approach as a whole is dying out as more people wise up to the concept. Most MMO players are willing to drop around $15 on a title they enjoy, I think, but when it feels forced they’re less likely to be accepting of the same. And when whale-like spending is the only way to get access to a desirable cosmetic piece, that exacerbates the issue on a whole. Expecting whales isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but pricing that forces out everyone but whales leaves you with a game on life support.

ArcheAge

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Coming up with hard, defined boundaries for what types of purchases makes one a whale — a term that studios stridently deny using even if they totally do internally — gives me a headache. Like pay-to-win, it’s one of those things that is slightly more subjective than objective and is identifiable when you see it rather than from a prior definition.

So what makes a person a whale? There are three main factors in my view. The first is the price tag, the second is the type of purchase, and the third is the frequency of repeat purchases. Any of those three can result in a whale scenario, such as spending a single enormous sum (say, $5,000 or $10,000) on a nicety or an advantage in a game, buying flashy items clearly designed as a luxury for those who have purchased most everything else, and, you know, lootboxes. Or boosts. Or every single skin that comes out the second they come out.

While the one-time-big-purchase whales certainly exist, I think game studios angle more to the frequent purchaser who might spend just as much over a longer period of time with smaller transactions. Once they can get the “flow” going where a whale thinks nothing of dropping regular money on a game, it creates a habit and feels normal for the player. And that, wittingly or not, can turn them into Moby Dick.

Your turn!

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72 Comments on "Massively Overthinking: How much money spent makes you an MMO whale?"

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Daedalus Machina

All prices in USD
Free = 0 to 9
Minnow = 10 to 99
Dolphin = 100 to 999
Whale = 1000+

That’s my list :)
The best thing is to use all the options in the gaming market to only play games that aren’t pay to win whale-fests.

ernost
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ernost

My monthly salary is ₹7000 ($107.678 at the current exchange rate). I consider anyone who can spend that in a month, to be a whale.

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Alex Malone

Anything over $15 / £8.99 I would class as a whale.

Basically, you are voluntarily paying more money than you would for a subscription whilst likely getting much worse value for money. Statistically, paying more than a subscription would cost also puts you into a very small group (as most people never pay anything) so that also backs up the whale notion.

Regardless of an actual figure, whether you are a whale or a free player, I personally believe that you are contributing to the monetisation problem and the current race to the bottom.

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costanius

I would say 1000$ and upwards. Thats also the amount of pledged money that will get You concierge status in Star Citizen.
In Chronicles of Elyria the people who pledged for a king or duke title are whales in my opinion.
Thats why I am a huge supporter of monthly subscriptions with no additional item shop.
You pay a subscription, all players are equal and have the same opportunity to achieve something. No p2w or item shop BS.

phaedrux
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phaedrux

Easy. A whale is anyone who spends enough more than me to provide relief from any subconscious guilt I might have about spending money on games. This can vary depending on game, mood, and recent paycheck.

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Kevin Smith

Every person is going to have their own threshold for this. For me it is someone who can drop a couple grand a month on gaming without worrying about the money. Hell I can spend a couple hundred a month on gaming as I budget my money for my hobbies or things I enjoy, but I am far from a whale when it comes to gaming. Your whales are the ones that don’t have to work to provide for their families if they didn’t wish to. The ones who can buy whatever they wish whenever they wish and not give a care in the world.

Reader

Whales are in the thousands. These are the 1 percent folks of the gaming world. People with so much disposable income (or lack of sense) that they don’t know what to do with it. Looking back I remember my first whale, long before there was a term for it.

Asheron’s Call – Shard of the Herald. Dropped a one of a kind gem that could be crafted into server unique armor. I recall the armor being sold for $8,000 USD at some point. That is a whale.

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Sally Bowls

I see some imprecision about discussing gaming versus a game:

Which are the whale(s)?

1) someone who spends $15 sub and $10 other per month in BDO? I.e. what I assume is above average but far from a 1%er.

2) someone who spends the standard $15/month on WoW, EVE, SWTOR, TESO, LotRO and Wildstar.

IMO, #2 is clearly not a whale. They are not near the top percentile in any of their games. #1 is on the watch list but is not. But their $25/month is closer than #1’s $90/month. I think of whale is about the game and their abnormal desirability for the publisher. #2 is not a whale; just a MMO slut.

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Toy Clown

I can easily spend 30-50$ a month between any two MMOs I’m playing at the time and don’t go over that.

Thinking back over my gaming career, I’ve only come across one true whale and maybe a half whale, and that was in BDO. The game is famous for outfits that cost more than clothes in the real world! When they released the ability to buy cash shop outfits and sell them on the market place, a friend bought the max each week, which was five, and funded her own gear. When that was done, she took orders from people (before the market place change when it was easy to snag outfits), and put them up on the market for them. Then gifting made its way into the game, and she started gifting random people around the community with pets, outfits, and anything else they wanted. I couldn’t believe how much money she dumped on the game weekly.

Had another friend not as bad as her, but she would go around and place cash shop furniture in people’s houses that did public events. It was her way of thanking people who were community creators.

Both people have moved on from BDO now, but those are the first real whales I’ve come across.

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Sally Bowls

I know a lot of people who think spending any money on any electronic game is foolish. It is hard to say they are wrong; you and the world would be better off if you took the money you were spending on gaming and gave 10% to charity/religion and invested the rest in your retirement account.
OTOH, Libertarians say you should be able to spend your money on whatever you want – be it sex, drugs, rock&roll or lootboxes. I can’t disagree with that either. When I start to get skeptical is when an author says it is OK to spend money on video games, but only in games/ways the author (not the spender) approves of.

Let’s take two people
Pat earns $20K a year, has credit card and student loan debt but no savings or retirement.
Chris earns a few hundred thousand a year, no debt, healthy savings and retirement fund.

Without resorting to the name calling in this article, (E.g. “dumb marks”, “victims”, “suckers”) it seems clear to me that Pat spending $15 on a monthly subscription is a poorer, less wise, financial decision than Chris spending $150 on lockboxes. Especially with so many f2p options available, video gaming is an optional luxury. If for some reason I thought I had the right to judge how Pat & Chris spend their money, I would say Pat spending $15 on a monthly sub was more a “dumb victim sucker” than Chris and the lockboxes. Thus, if one must label some evil, the companies trying to extract the $15 from Pat are more evil than those selling the lockboxes to Chris. (Note this does not affect the original “what is a whale” question, which is IMO is determined by what is your spending in a game compared to your peers in that same game.)

Just because it is foolish for you or I to buy a $150,000 Porsche or $10,000 plane ticket or $10,000 case of wine does not make it so for everyone.