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.
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.