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The Success of Degenerate Anti-Consumer Gaming Monetization: What are Whales in Gaming?


Many gamers have one or two big purchases they can afford every season, or even every year. Triple-A titles are non-stop released with generous advertising budgets and intense media hype get consumers to whip out the wallets. That's not even a problem, and important to have such competition if we, the consumer, want quality gaming experiences. This same competition is however leading top names to decide to not work on the quality of their products, and instead warp their games to encourage players to spend more money on digital add-ons, effectively punishing those who abstain or just can’t afford them. Offering in-game boosts or superior items, these microtransactions persuade players who desire the most from their game to spend further to get the whole experience. The methods used to push players to buy has itself become incredibly predatory, going as far as altering personal experiences, such as sudden difficulty spikes or massive time-grinders, such as the ones found in Bethesda Studios’ Fallout 76, or Electronic Arts’ Star Wars Battlefront 2. 


Bethesda’s example is a flawless demonstration of taking a problem and monetizing the solution. Their “games-as-a-service” model acts as a stint to allow them to ship out a title that is incomplete, unbalanced, and all-around sloppy. When it’s players primary objectives are to obtain, manage, and dispense resources at a constant rate for the goal of survival, the means to store more items and progress your character and increase their stats are being blocked behind a paywall. The example created by EA DICE is arguably more sinister. In the early months after launch of Star Wars Battlefront 2, players had the decision to spend real money on randomized unlockable content, which not only included appealing aesthetic upgrades, but also small chances to obtain powerful versions of in-game characters, with numerous advantages which dramatically improved the performance of players even modest in competence. Loot Boxes have since become internationally debated and condemned as gambling and maliciously targeting consumers who have dangerous temptations to buy these boxes in mass. 

These have forced you the player to either be tasked with an excessive number of obstacles before progressing onwards or have that luxury of bypassing it completely. The games themselves are being artificially inflated with stalling grinds and menial tasks, which dilute the overall quality of the game. It unfortunately, has become normal practice with triple-A titles as of recent. While widely unpopular and protested, they are only present because they are lucrative beyond reason. How could that possibly be the case, though? If I and that same majority of players choose not to pull out the credit card, what is going on? To understand why EA, Bethesda or other developers and publishers eventually dove deep down this rabbit-hole, I had to investigate those who were opting in, and why they had chosen to. I learned about what the gaming industry call Whales, and why the answer to this question was so painfully simple.

Regardless of the game being played, either on a console, pc or mobile, there are now more ways than ever before to supplement your experience through some variation of real money, in-game purchases. Often the case, they were harmless, with in-game vendors selling exclusively cosmetic items to give yourself a cool appearance to show yourself off. When the concept of aesthetic downloadable content was first introduced, it met incredible outrage, with the infamous Horse Armor add-on of The Elder Scrolls IV. As Brenden Sinclair, Editor for commented, 


[But]in April of 2006, this was practically heresy. This was a time when the idea of a console game requiring a mandatory update to play online after a patch was cause for grave concern...a time when players were shocked that publishers would charge extra money for content that developers had finished making prior to the game's release.

In the approaching fourteen years since the infamous Horse Armor, developers have dived deeper with post-launch content, and maximizing the pressure to shop to stay apace and invoking the fear of missing out on content. In the ocean of corporate greed, there are fish who don’t take the bait cast out and choose to spend wisely, not biting the hook, while others open wide. The individuals who opt to invest deeply into the online shops, seldom with any restraint or thought of buyer remorse, are called Whales, fulfilling impulsive desires to possess what is new or trending, or to gain an advantage above other players (in the monetization models that sell power-be-bought items). They actively spend vast disposable incomes to satisfy the urge and are granted the best experience possible, for barely its worth in real money. A lot of monetization models take advantage of the impatient behavior of whales, and offer short-cuts, time skips, or opportunities to acquire items much easier than others for hefty price-tags. What is quickly a vicious cycle of spending to hurdle an obstacle, enjoying progression, creating a new obstacle, and more spending, swiftly fills the pockets of the game’s developers and investors, at the detriment of the reckless consumer. Why is it an issue for people to enjoy content they desire and spend their own money on said amenities? The answer is in the enjoyment itself recorded through previous sales and recorded purchase histories of some of these Whales. 

One in particular named David Pietz is an American Twitch streamer who identifies as a Whale primarily due to the obligations of his hobby/job as a streamer, and answered questions to Eurogamer in an interview regarding his 2014 Reddit Ask Me Anything thread, where he fleshes out the following: On microtransactions and loot boxes alone, he has estimated spending approaching $20,000 over the past five years (up to 2019), spent upwards of $5,000 alone on the title Atlantica Online. David himself still claims to show restraint at this point, and because of the negative feedback he receives from others while still being unable to buy everything he wants-despite his deep wallet-has specifically planned out what he’s buying to use said purchases to supplement his Twitch streams. To David, it’s a mitigation of his costs, something many whales don’t pay much mind to, while still feeling the same pressure from above, putting in more and more money into the games that vehemently prey on them. Despite all this, David contributes as others do because he loves gaming and wants to support creators. Source 

The Whales who don’t show restraint make the dominating portion of profits, with a classic example demonstrated by Robert Winkler, Chief Executive of 5th Plant, and their game Clash of Dragons, 

[Robert Winkler] revealed at the Game Developers Conference Online in 2012 that with its game [Clash of the Dragons], 40% of revenue came from 2 percent of players who spend $1,000 or more. Ninety percent came from those who spend $100 or more, and the top whale had spent $6,700.

Whatever platform you are using, you are going to be bombarded by deals, limited-time offers, ads and game-altering mechanics, to demand you to spend more than retail price if you want to keep enjoying your purchase. In no way do I feel these methods are just or treat the full demographic of the industry equally, it has become increasingly apparent that even if the majority of players who disliked these methods were to simply “not buy it if they don’t like it” won’t even make developers flinch, because while it is true that money talks the loudest, the money is NOT in the majority’s hands. It’s in the hands of the Whales, who ultimately are the answer to the success of the practices now plaguing your platforms. 

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