Save the Whales: Whales and Mobile Gaming

In the introduction to a certain instant-hit blockbuster, I may have hinted towards a certain pessimism surrounding mobile gaming. In this case, my tongue was kept strictly inside the proverbial cheek- but my god, it’s hard to keep it there at times.

In the past I’ve been particularly vocal in my dismissal of certain business practices. I have been and still am adamantly against the shoddy implementation of micro-transactions, the saturation of the market with derivative clones; generally, just the plethora of shady, underhanded methods employed in mobile games to screw their customers for as much money as possible. But it’s difficult to maintain that level of indignation when some of the biggest and most successful games on the market are mindless clones. It’s even harder when fantastic games, offering a unique experience and sold for a reasonable sum, fail to make any headway. But fortunately, the mobile industry is never short of short-sighted, cynical business practices to whip that bile back up to new levels. One of the most recent, and certainly one of the vilest, is the whaling business.

The term ‘whale’ is used to describe a certain kind of user of a certain breed of free-to-play game. The kind of game geared up to charge extraneous amounts of money in exchange for perceived progression- games like Candy Crush, Dungeon Keeper Mobile or Card Wars. Earlier this year, studies conducted by Swrve suggested that 0.15% of mobile users accounted for 50% of mobile sales. This practice is attributed to so-called “whales”. If you saw the $100 “micro”-transaction in Dungeon Keeper and bristled, then chances are you don’t fit into this category. Customers who choose not to spend beyond the up-front sale price of an app, or choose to buy maybe one or two of its in-app purchases are small-fry. The larger catch for a developer are the customers who become so hooked to a completion or progression of a game that they are willing to spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to do so.

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I feel it necessary to point out now that this article is in absolutely no way leveled against these people, nor do I seek to judge them. Whatever they wish to spend their own money on is in no way my concern. There have been suggestions, of course, that the spending is involuntary; I’ve seen concerns raised in forums, for example, that the practice of “whaling” takes advantage of those with obsessive compulsive disorders. Whilst this may make some degree of sense, there’s simply no data to back up the theory and I feel that it misses the point somewhat. The reason I don’t want to judge the people who spend so much on effectively very little is, simply, because they’re people. And that’s something the developers who knowingly and actively install these practices seem to forget.

The practice of developers looking to catch whales came to my attention most clearly through a recent video posted by Jim Sterling at the Escapist. He highlights the various panels at this year’s GDC that featured talks on how to squeeze as much juice out of your customers as possible, and condemns not just the act of “whaling”, but the term “whale” itself- and I whole-heartedly agree. To treat people in such a way is demeaning. And it doesn’t matter whether the people spending this money are rich or poor, or whether they have OCD or not. They are people, and have the right to be treated as such.

The whale is a fine creature, no doubt, but it’s ultimately inhuman. And once you start thinking about your customers as animals- your most valued customers, no less, who you certainly owe your livelihood to- you’ve stepped over a line. The history of whaling, real whaling, is filled with blood, slaughter and greed. It’s a story of a group of people taking a practice too far, of their greed out-stripping their source of wealth. If there’s one thing that is accurate about the whole “whaling” metaphor, it’s the whalers. The developers and the publishers. The short-sighted, vicious and greedy, exploiting a resource that will run out. But at the end of the day, it’s still the consumer that has to pay.