Massively Overthinking: Does whaling ruin MMOs?


Last week, I was chatting with a MOP reader (hi Bryan!) in our comments about Lord of the Rings Online’s business model – both models, really. It has the basic model, whereby you buy expansions and a sub and necessities like bag space and and it’s actually not that expensive to just play the game like a normal person with a normal amount of MMO expense. And then it also has a full-on thar’ she blows whaling model, whereby people with lots of money are being milked for every last penny with extremely expensive optional things like warsteed cosmetics, housing decorations, and pay-to-win-esque level-and-craft-tier boosts. I mean, it would be extremely easy to drop a few hundred bucks in the cash shop and not really have that much to show for it. The recent Homestead and Harvest Coffer was a perfect example of a bundle of outrageously expensive frivolities that seemed designed specifically to coax money from whales (or, failing that, drain lifers’ and VIPs’ points reserves).

LOTRO isn’t alone, obviously, and there are MMOs where the whaling model is the only model, so I don’t want to pick LOTRO here. I want to use this week’s Massively Overthinking to talk about whaling in our genre in a more general sense. Do you think whaling ruins MMOs – or at least is a major problem in our industry? Is it exploitative, or do you think whaling is actually a reasonable approach to funding ongoing games? Which MMOs are particularly susceptible to the whaling model, whereby a small group of players are essentially carrying the game’s funding? Are there any MMOs that are immune to whaling?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’m going to keep my comments short because other staff make some super valid points I don’t think I need to repeat for a few months. Briefly, though, whaling is a band-aid. Games, not just MMOs, are finding that the easiest way to make money is nickel and dime the players with a combination of being foolish and having money to take. Governments are very slowly seeing the problems and reacting, but gamers are beating them to the bunch and often clocking out as soon as they know there’s a problem to avoid. I don’t think it’s a sustainable model for the future of games, but I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to fix the problem. As always, I look to indies for solutions, and the best I see so far is to make a good product and then sell merchandise. It worked for the movie industry!

Andy McAdams: It bothers me. Whaling is stolen wholesale from the worst practices ported over from mobile gaming. Of course, I can’t find the reference now, but if memory serves me correctly, about .5 – 2% of mobile gamers make up something like 80% of the revenue for the game. There are plenty of stories out there about people spending thousands of dollars they don’t have on mobile games (and there’s even some recent egregious examples). Mobile games, and to a lesser extent some MMOs, are designed primarily with the whale in mind. Of course, the game developer might catch some otters, dolphins, or orcas in their attempts, but their focus is always on the whale. So we end up with a situation with games being designed to exploit those people least likely to be able to resist whaling manipulation. That makes me feel dirty.

I don’t think whaling tendencies ruin MMOs necessarily, but that design infects the rest of the game world and makes it less than it could be. “See that really phenomenal house in ESO? Get ready to finance a mortgage!” isn’t exactly an inspired interaction. The impact of whaling items tends to be big, flashy items (like housing, mounts, etc.) that help contribute to a sunk cost fallacy within the game and keep those same players playing and spending more. As a regular player who most likely subs if the option is there, I know it doesn’t really help or hurt me in particular, but I’m not really worried about me in the grand scheme here.

At the end of the day, it’s up to individuals to decide how to spend their money. As long as people are informed, capable, and not coerced through shady business tactics into spending stupid amounts, I don’t care about whaling (outside of being salty about things I want to buy but exceed my “I’m willing to pay for this” threshold). But my challenge is that while there are those folks who make intentional informed decisions, whaling is designed to exploit folks who aren’t informed and can’t resist. It’s designed to continually exploit the same group of people, wherein a non-zero number of them are manipulated into making purchases they wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s the problem I see with Whaling.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Whether whaling or not is a bad thing feels kind of commensurate to the frequency of content development versus the speed of sale items. Yes, MMOs need money to run, but if a game pumps out cash items, bundles, or other whale bait more frequently than it does playable content, then that kind of spells trouble, or at least pushes me away.

Broad strokes, though, I do think whaling is a poor practice because it tends to make me think the studio is trying to make a money printer with a game attachment instead of the other way around. I still strongly believe (with admittedly only anecdotal evidence, emotion, and no hard data to prop up my opinion) that people will spend money if you make a game fun first.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): In principle, I don’t have a problem with it as long as what’s being sold isn’t blatant pay-to-win or gamebreaking in any way. But super-priced bundles, over-the-top cosmetics, fancy schmancy houses… go for it. Sell to those whales. There are always people with more cash than common sense, and you’ve got a game to finance. For me, those expensive sales merely bounce off my interest. I’m not going to be paying anything over $20 in a cash shop, ever, so my mind blocks the part of me that would want or envy that sale. And speaking as someone who’s sampled expensive bundles as part of media previews, I can say it never feels like it’s really worth what they’re charging anyway. Those things are nice to have, but needed? No. My quality of life in those games doesn’t exponentially rise with those packages, so it’s a good reminder to me to not be tempted or greedy in that direction.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I don’t have a big issue with games that lean into the whaling market so long as it doesn’t impact us small fry outside of cosmetics and similar purchase power. I get that purchase power is the game for a lot of players, and for them I’m sorry. But as long as it doesn’t affect the primary game mechanics, which in my games tends to be combat, then I’m OK with it.

Some others here have already mentioned that whales can have a subsidizing effect on gamers who can’t or won’t put too much money into a game. Players who become whales are hopefully happy with their advantage of being able to afford or look shinier than the plebs, while the plebes get to play a game they enjoy for a price they’ll afford.

So I don’t think it’s exploitive, although I can understand arguments for it.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I believe whales are a net positive. They subsidize those players unwilling or unable to pay in.

I will go even further: I don’t think the MMO genre would still exist today in any significant capacity without whales. It’s a niche genre without a lot of mainstream appeal, and subscriptions have failed as a model (even the games that still have them double dip with cash shops). Without whales, I don’t think most games would have the money to survive.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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